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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