Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Don’t cage customers

Don’t cage customers
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I hate Telus. They are big, unresponsive extortionists. Their advertising adds insult to injury by being patronizing and insincere. I’ve spent many tens of thousands of dollars with them by now, and if they crashed, burned, and were torn into small pieces by rabid dogs I, and many others, would celebrate with a “happy dance”.

For readers unfamiliar with the company, I should explain that Telus is a telco with a major presence in Western Canada. They spend enormous amounts to advertise their “friendliness” in ads featuring playful animals on sparse backdrops, accompanied by cute catchphrases and their tagline “the future is friendly.”

A legacy of “crapiness”

My hate/hate relationship with Telus is longstanding.

In our first office they tried to charge us an extra $1,200 for stringing a line into our office. (It took them a long time to figure out how to do this, so they charged us for each of the failed attempts.) We were eventually refunded after I called and asked, “Who can I scream at?” (A nice man later came by to apologize profusely for this bungling.)

A couple of years ago, a friendly person from Telus called to sell us on a bundle. It seemed like a good idea and we signed. Shortly thereafter they dropped their regular rates, leaving us with a higher-cost package than if we would have declined their “special offer”. After a year they auto-renewed us for the same program without notification and then charged us a hefty penalty to leave it.

Needless to say, there’s more… so much more, but I don’t want to turn this into too big a gripe session.

Suddenly we’re “valued customers”

Last summer, upon the arrival of the iPhone in Canada, we decided to cancel our accounts with Telus Mobility. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones, as our call was met with a very responsive group of sales-people. The moment we said that our reason for leaving was “iPhone”, we were routed to a fellow who would have likely swam with piranhas to keep us with the company.

He explained to us that they would drop our rate to $15/mo. for unlimited data and get us any new phones we wanted for free. Top that off, he explained, “You guys are valued customers. What else can I do to keep you with Telus?”

This seemed interesting to us. All of those previous overcharges? The exorbitant data rates? The endless time waiting on-hold to speak to a representative? Those were when we were just average Telus customers. You know… the sort of scum that just pays the bill every month. Now that we were leaving, however, we learned that we were actually “valued customers”. How nice! (We felt so very special.)

We did leave Telus, and subsequently signed horrible new contracts with the equally hateful seeming Rogers. (Somehow this seemed less painful though, as we at least received shiny new iPhones to play with.)

Baby… I know she’s your best friend, but it didn’t mean anything!

A couple of weeks following all of this, Telus called us (or emailed, I can’t quite remember) offering us an opportunity to win $500, if we simply took part in a survey to help them understand why we left the company.

It all seemed so perverse–kind of like leaving your spouse after finding that they were cheating on you, and then having them offer a “free dinner” if you would just explain to them what went wrong. Like, duh? You need a survey to figure this out?

We laughed about this for days afterwards. Big companies seem to be working in such a deluded space that they can’t even remember how humans should treat one another. There’s nothing complicated about this, but once corporations grow beyond a certain size such notions seem to become almost alien to them.

Please don’t hold me hostage!

Now, Telus could have done a lot of things differently. They could have lowered data rates before they had no choice but to. They could have found a way to get us on a bundle that actually did save us money. Heck, they could have even ensured that their call centre didn’t phone us with pointless 15 minute surveys. (Because, really, I just love spending 15 minutes on my busy days answering “5 for very satisfied, 4 for satisfied, 3 for indifferent…”)

But one points stands atop all of these, and that is to not cage one’s customers. I know… It’s scary to not have ironclad multi-year contracts; It’s threatening when people could leave whenever a better deal comes along; and, It’s hard to just keep clients happy. That being said, it’s the way we’re headed, as markets become more competitive and other companies see room for opportunity amongst such rigid and outdated practices.

Think about how the mobile contract works: You’re lured in by a seemingly great offer that slowly becomes “less so” as you fill-in the paperwork. You begrudgingly sign, as it seems that you have little choice but to do so at this stage in the game. Now, regardless of what comes up, what new phones are offered, which cost-saving programs are added, you’re stuck. After three years, however, the courting begins again. They offer you great savings and new phones just to renew. And if you threaten to leave, they’ll cut your rate even more.

The implicit message: Our clients don’t matter until they’re about to become someone else’s.

Let me “unsubscribe”

When we started our company, we had many talks about “who owns the files”, as I believe many other designers have also had. We were always pretty reasonable about this. We weren’t going to hold someone hostage with their files, but we still had some (reasonable) limitations. In recent years however we’ve become even more relaxed about this.

Decide that you don’t like smashLAB? No problem. Pay out the work done to date, and we’ll call it a day. Need to take some files to another designer? That’s cool, as long as the job was paid for. Hate our CMS? That’s okay; just move the site over to one you prefer.

I don’t want any of our clients working with us because they believe they are stuck by a contract signed years ago. To the contrary, I want them to always remember that they are in control. They can come and go as they please. We’ll hold on to our clients through good service, not handcuffs.

I hate Telus. Then of course, I hate Rogers and Shaw too. The fact is, all of these companies promise great things, and then treat their customers like crap; nevertheless, such practices are nearly a thing of the past. Smart companies understand that treating customers well, and giving them the opportunity to really choose is in fact a better advertising strategy than anything that Madison Avenue comes up with.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Nathan says:

    You have just described everything I hate about cable television.

    You should make money based on your product, not based on contrived rules designed to get and maintain business.

    Recently, one of those Who's Who companies contacted me and told me that I would get a free listing with them. They then went on to talk about premium services. I told them that I would not be willing to pay 800 dollars based on a telephone sales pitch, but that I would be happy to decide later after some research. I was then told that I had to decide right then unless. So, I said, 'No'. They then said there was a cheaper 100 dollar premium service that I could upgrade from later.

    So, in short, if your business model involves forcing me to make an uninformed decision, you probably don't have a product that I want. If contrived rules are how you get and keep business, then something must be inherently wrong with your product. Also, it says something about your character that you are willing to play games like that.

  2. jeff white says:

    When we left Bell/Aliant for Eastlink for our landlines and high speed and later Bell/Aliant for Rogers to get iPhones, they had all the time in the world to make us a better offer. The problem with all utility providers is that they're so used to sticking it to you for 3 years that the moment they realize they'll lose you even though you owe them a 6 month buyout, they get scared.

    Why can't they simply offer you these services/prices to keep you happy?

    Many years ago, I quit my job to move back to Nova Scotia from New Brunswick. The reasons were many: my employer treated me like crap, they expected me to work 30+ hours of unpaid overtime every week and well, I simply HATED Saint John, NB. Once I quit though, all of a sudden my employer realized how valuable I was. They offered to increase my salary by $15,000. They offered to let me work from Nova Scotia, and they offered to put money down on a house for me so I didn't need to pay rent any more.

    All this after I spent three years busting my ass to grow a new department and make it the most profitable division in the entire company. Interestingly, that company is now owned by Bell/Aliant too. They'll never get it.

  3. Vince says:

    Great article. I couldn't agree more. Being in the states it's no better with companies like AT&T and Verizon. Contracts contracts contracts, fees fees fees. That's all I hear with these guys and there's so much fine print that you can't help feel it's only in place to get your $ in the end.

    Cheers to skype!

  4. Good article...of these three companies my ranking is:

    #1 Shaw
    #2 Rogers
    #3 Telus

    Funny thing is I loved BC Tel back in the day and was a huge Telus fan for the first few years of their existence...but over the years Telus really got to me.

    The straw for me with Telus was a few years ago during the Telus strike. I had switched from Telus to Prime or Sprint or someone for local calls because they didn't charge a reconnection fee when moving and I was going to be moving. When we did move, Telus owned the lines in to our new highrise and they wouldn't release the lines to my phone provider and it took hours on hold on my Telus cell phone to get through to Telus. They made me pay for hookup of the landline and then stuck me with a $400+ cell phone bill...

    They certainly got me going both ways there.

    I'm happily using Shaw Digital Phone at home now and Rogers iPhone plan for my mobile.

    My big complaint with Rogers is that their website doesn't ever remember my password so logging in to get my bill is a pain.

  5. Josh says:

    When I saw you mentioning telephones the other day, I did think to myself, why don't you just use Skype. Unfortunately, I don't own a huge company, so a cell phone suffices mostly, but the few times I've used Skype its been awesome, plus you can do all that local/long distance for so much cheaper.

    Being as savvy as you are, you must have a good reason. Do you dial 911 often? ;)

    Of my one telephone company, T-Mobile, since they don't offer the iPhone yet obviously, I will never get one until I can at least get it on any carrier I want (without jailbreaking people). I like their service, my antiquated plan and every time I have dealt with them, they have been nothing but professionals. Stories vary, but if I do have hate in my heart for one company it is Comcast(first!). Exorbitant prices for services less than advertised.

  6. I love the idea behind Skype, but have never found it to be particularly reliable. :-(

  7. Craig says:

    Regarding the last statement: it's actually going to get worse, and not better (or at least stay the same). These companies are letting go of nothing. They are also in bed with the powers that be. There are no companies coming along anytime soon that are going to do anything different enough to make it worth it...

  8. stephen says:

    Sounds sooo familiar...

    We moved offices, and discovered that we couldn't get internet in our new place for two weeks. So, reluctantly, we moved with our Telus account intact. As soon as we got Shaw ($35/month compared to Telus' $250/month 2 blocks away because we were a "business") we canceled. Strange thing is, they didn't "actually" cancel the account. It kept accruing charges month after month.

    Eventually they sent us a gigantic bill, to which we of course said "what the F!?". It took us almost a year, even with Jeremy's formidable phone intimidation skills to "settle" with them and pay about a third.

    I also had a similar experience as you when I switched to iPhone. I had been with Telus for like 8 years, which is a long time in cell phone world. It was like, what, now that I'm leaving, you're going to give me a fair deal? Eat shit, really.

    It's the monopolies here - we need more openness and competition to keep these companies honest.

  9. Neil says:

    Ironically, the freedom to leave Gmail at any time (and take all my email with me) is what keeps me from leaving and going to another service (where it might be harder to leave).

    That, and Gmail is just generally pretty damn good.

  10. Jeremy says:

    I have never understood how those companies survive while having so many unhappy customers. Do you know anyone saying "I love my cable company!" like you'd hear someone say "I love my mac/sony flatscreen/etc" ? Don't they understand they're whole business relies on customers, and that, as much as our needs evolve, so should the competition? Instead it feels like they all agree on prices and terms/conditions to make sure no one wins/loses the big battle.
    Take europe for example: 3yr contracts are rarely sold, and it they are, you get an extremely good price. Fees for incoming calls, activation, voicemail, caller ID, etc are never considered extras. They are just part of the contract you sign, because it's part of everyone needs and expectations nowadays. Just like bandwidth limits for internet providers and data transfer limits for cells/3G.

    Companies overthere learned to adapt, grew and were able to offer better deals and better services thanks to competition. Unfortunately for us, it doesn't seem to be the case here.

  11. Tzaddi says:

    I've always found the Telus tagline amusing/ironic. Of course the future is friendly, because you never get there. If they made NOW friendly, that would be something to brag about!

    That said I've had both good and bad experiences with them. ...and I did work there for years FWIW.

  12. navin harish says:

    What you have said is true for all big enterprises and this is why I prefer to deal with smaller or private enterprises whenever I can. I feel it is easier to deal with me local grocer than the supermarket. I feel it is easier to take an AMC for my appliances with a small vendor near my home than the manufacturer.

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  14. DoreenatDMS says:

    as to Craig's comment above, yes, the regulatory environment here gives way to such inane business practices. (I think every post-secondary institution with Business/Marketing/etc. MBA, etc., programs should have elements regarding telcos, case studies, etc. -- what works, why, what doesn't, why, etc. -- in how they market their services and products. That "push comes to shove" day has gotta be here soon ...

    But, alas, it's the proverbial dog joke; they get away with it because they can.

  15. Thank You Eric!! This article was exactly what I needed this morning. I think you should follow this one up, with a piece on how Telus has beaten their ad campaign like a dead horse....maybe that should be the next Telus commercial. It was cute 1o years ago, now it just plain sucks.

  16. Chris says:

    I used to work for Bell Cda a few years back - back when they had a few 'caring' bones left in their corporate body. When you called and said the word "cancel" all flags raised. It was like saying bomb in the airport! They would do anything they could to keep you with them, they would not take cancel for an answer. Now when you call and say the C-word, they let you go. After I was laid off from them, I canceled my phone and all I got was a 'okay, well that's too bad, but thanks for being a customer.' No, sorry, I wasn't a customer - I was an employee a bright and shining star (according to them) and a future face in Bell's future! Where's their future now? Going down the crapper as they signed with large agencies who sucked away every possible penny. I was ready to do in-house design - along with my crappy cell phone, but nope, they wouldn't do it. Now that they're looking for buyers left, right and center, all I can say to Bell now is, I hope you don't last for a 3-year contract!

  17. tmac says:

    As you noted Eric, Telus is probably no worse than the other big names out there. I've been a longtime Telus customer, and they repeatedly drop the ball, charging me outrageous sums for things like data roaming and roaming long distance (things that only show up in the fine print of contracts) and then purr on the phone when I call up to discuss a billing "issue".

    Thing is, my experience with Shaw, if you can believe it, was worse. Rogers I have not tried, but friends vouch for their evilness in myriad ways. Bell, well, they just seem like more of the same old thing.

    But not all big companies throw common sense to the wind. Westjet has become a market leader based on service, as has Southwest Airlines. London Drugs comes close. Sadly, I can't think of many other brand names that really "follow-through" (instead of acting) when it comes to honoring commitments and meeting customer expectations.

  18. Agreed. And I must say that WestJet really showed their commitment to customers this last Christmas by housing, feeding and transporting customers who were stuck in the snowstorm. Meanwhile, Air Canada did nothing for their customers.

    (I know who I'm flying with.)

  19. David Ronnie says:

    Actually, I've found Shaw remarkably decent the last few times I've had to deal with them out here in Vancouver. They instituted a queue-callback system that lets you hang up and go about your day (they call you back when your spot in the queue comes up) and they were really into trying to help me out as much as possible. I may have just got lucky with the reps I talked to, but it was definitely a dramatic difference from my experiences with them a few years ago. Also, they apparently have moved to a "no contracts" format now, at least according to the recent billboards I've been seeing around.

  20. selin Mani says:

    No ethics we can expect if a group of individuals forming an organization and coming up with opportunity based business and fake visions.

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