Jon Michaeli’s Blog


Giving thanks for superior customer service

Poor customer service is one of my biggest pet peeves, and lord knows, we encounter it virtually every day. Here’s my most memorable recent example, largely because of the sheer silliness of the situation. I visited Sel de la Terre Boulangerie, an upscale bakery serving gourmet breads, pastries, sandwiches and coffee.

  • My offense: I ordered a medium coffee in a large cup so that it doesn’t spill in my car.
  • The response: With a straight face, the cashier rang up a large because “we need to charge you for the extra milk you will be using.”

Brilliant – annoy a customer over a measly…get this…10 cents. Once I realized she was serious (which took an awkward 10 seconds or so), I dropped the extra dime on the counter and walked away, never to return. (There are at least 5 other places within close proximity serving as good or better coffee.)

Now for a positive spin. Because of this experience and countless others like it, we have come to expect such treatment, which is why it’s even more noteworthy when someone representing a company or brand surprises and delights you. And since the Thanksgiving season is all about showing gratitude and giving thanks, I want to call attention to someone, who on multiple occasions, has gone way above and beyond in providing me with superior service. His name is Kyle Cunningham, manager of the AT&T Mobility store at the Natick Collection in Natick, MA. For all of the legitimate criticism of AT&T’s shoddy 3G network and customer unfriendly policies, this guy makes up for all of it, and then some.

A bit of background. My BlackBerry Bold is near death. Despite OS upgrades, the device is super sluggish, has memory leak issues, and is powered by two almost completely drained batteries. Time for a new phone.

  • The problem: I am not eligible for an iPhone 3Gs for another 5 months, and the “powers that be” will make no exceptions to this policy. Sound familiar?
  • The solution: The best offer AT&T could make is $399 for the 12GB version, and only if I extend my contract for another 2 years. That is $200 more than the price I’d pay if I were eligible.

Sheer stupidity. I can cancel my account for $175 ($24 less), walk over to Verizon – whose network is far more reliable – port over my mobile number, and get a brand spanking new Motorola Droid for $200 with a 2-yr commitment. In other words, AT&T is telling a customer who has always paid on time, has 2 accounts (my wife is also a subscriber), and spends well more than the monthly average, that it will give him $24 to take a hike and go its biggest competitor. I guess AT&T doesn’t use CRM, segment its customer base, or care about retention or loyalty. Or if it does, it doesn’t know how to apply these tools and disciplines to real world situations. Maybe instead of spending time, money and resources on suing Verizon for false advertising, AT&T should focus its efforts on serving its customers.

Now that I got the marketing jargon in, back to the story. Despite it all, I am still with AT&T, because quite simply, Kyle provides the absolute best customer service on the planet. Having worked for mobile app company, WorldMate, I called on Kyle countless times over the past two years. In this particular case, Kyle not only did everything in his power short of risking his job, but he also offered to lend me his virtually brand new Bold until I am upgrade eligible. How often do you experience that caliber of service? I am 36 years old, and so far, just once in my lifetime. With nonsense business practices that create negative switching costs, AT&T puts an unfair burden on Kyle to keep subscriber attrition in check. I’m sure upper management doesn’t realize how lucky they are to have him.

In the spirit of the holiday, please express your appreciation to those who’ve served you well in the past year. If we let these folks know and share our stories with others (it’s as easy as a tweet or brief mention in conversation), just maybe kick-ass service will start to become a trend.

Hertz’s Loyalty Disincentive

Disclaimer: It is likely the commentary below applies to a broader set of rental car agencies, but as I have been tracking the Hertz website over time, my complaint is directed at this one company.

As a Hertz Club Gold member, I book with the company on a regular basis. And each and every time, I am amazed at how they try to take advantage of their best, and presumably most loyal and lucrative, customer segment. If your sole aim is to book as quickly as possible, or price isn’t a primary concern, you can easily pay 50% more than a typical visitor to the website.

For a recent one-day reservation in Las Vegas, I compared three different rates for a daily rental: 1) the standard rate (i.e. no discount code), 2) the “exclusive” Gold rate, which requires log in, and 3) the AAA-promotional rate. For a midsize “Madza 6 or similar” rental, the rates were $45, $65 and $19 respectively. That’s right, the “loyalty” rate was $20 higher per day than the rack rate and $46 higher than the AAA rate (which did not even require validation). Fortunately, you can still book the lower promotional rates while you’re logged into your account; you’ll just need to know (or learn) your way around the site and be willing to spend more of your precious time.

Yes, I am quite familiar with the business rationale behind price discrimination, but these rates were available on the same Hertz.com website at the same exact time, and none of the rates required manual entry of a coupon code. It seems to me like Hertz feels entitled to collect a huge premium in exchange for the convenience of having a car waiting when you arrive at the airport, the one real perk of a Club Gold membership. No wonder why it’s so easy to have the $50 initiation fee waived.

There’s always the chance, however slight, that Hertz has done thorough pricing analysis, and from a pure revenue optimization standpoint, this has proven the optimal result during the testing period. Still, I imagine that many other frequent travelers have had the revelation that Hertz considers gouging its premier customers as sound business practice, which no doubt has led to negative sentiment towards the brand. I’m relatively certain Hertz has no clue what that bad will translates to in terms of lost revenue in the medium to longer term.