I Thought I Was Always Right

Lebowski Customer Service

With virtually every topic I’d like to write about needing to be influenced by political leanings, I’m going to write about something that I’ve been saving. I’ve been saving it because I think it’s always a timely topic, but as I’ve revealed my bias for the light in our economic tunnel being a freight train coming our way that will lead to market declines and economic ‘issues,’ I do think that this topic will become more prevalent in discussions when (if) that time comes. What’s this topic that’s always pertinent but not always top of mind? Customer Service. Yup. We all deal with it. And our allegiances are often tied to it. Ever heard of a little company called Apple? That one was rhetorical.

So let’s delve a little deeper. We all have lots of Customer Service stories to share. In fact, my friends and family affectionately refer to me as the ‘Consumer from Hell.’ Why? Because it’s rare that I don’t get the satisfaction or relief I’m seeking. But I’m also pretty relentless. I’ve had to deal with some of the larger global companies recently, and it’s interesting to see the differences in approaches. Even beyond these minimal experiences, it’s simple to see the differences in how various companies interact with, and I’d say therefore value, their customers.

One company that I’ve only been on the company side is Bloomberg. Many clients stuck with Bloomberg, and its price tag, largely due to the company’s approach to clients. Bloomberg was known for many things; the depth of its analysis on the Terminal, the quality and breadth of data, and the amount of attention you could command as a regular paying client. It became policy to visit clients on a regular basis. Yes, even the ones in the middle of nowhere. Call in with an unsolvable question about a company, industry, or just functionality? Someone would spend hours figuring out which functions to give a detailed explanation of, or build you a custom spreadsheet, or come to your office and walk you through the best path to the information you were seeking. That alone could help a firm make enough extra money to pay for the subscription. And Bloomberg thrives, through good economic times and bad.

As a consumer, I’m amazed at the level of service provided by Apple. To be clear, I’m not an Apple guy. I always feel that I can get the same level of technology for less money. My daughter, however, is the other side of that. She is everything Apple wants her to be. What’s everything? Loyal. And for years I would tell her that everything Apple is overpriced for what’s inside, that there was probably a planned obsolescence factor that could cause her to spend more in just a couple of years, and that really she was more joining a cult than making informed technology decisions. And yet, because of my own recent experience, I’ll probably get my first iPhone when I upgrade next for 5G. All due to the way they interact with me, the consumer.

And here is where we get to start looking at the difference between good and bad customer service. Why? Because like everything else, home refurb’s, vacations, or just going to dinner for a special occasion, technology decisions are based on the level of confidence you have that the choices you make will treat you well in good times and bad times. Heck, you’re betting they’ll even still be there.

I’ve run into the negative side of this situation twice recently, with companies that will survive the next recession I’m sure, but how wounded do you want to be? I don’t own an iPhone. My phone’s manufacturer isn’t any fruit name. They are big though. And when my phone died while still under warranty (as any phone can), I was without a working cell phone for 2 ½ weeks. Now I remember living without a cell phone way back just a couple of decades ago. And to be honest, after the first few days the experience was a bit liberating. Except(!), no Uber. No parking app in Hoboken to be able to park my car legally. The list went on. Things we now take for granted are tied to our cell phones. So along with the liberating feeling, I kept asking myself, “2 ½ weeks? Under warranty?”

In fact, I went to the company’s US headquarters to try and get anyone at the company to actually take an interest and help rectify the situation.  When two employees happened by and listened to my tale of woe in an attempt to help, I explained that when there’s a problem with my daughter’s Apple anything, I can walk into a mall, drop off the iSomething, shop, eat, and 2 hours later go home with an iSomething that works. Fixed, replaced, whatever. My satisfaction as a consumer is the top priority. These employees from that ‘other’ manufacturer gave me understanding looks as one remarked, “Yeah, I hate when I have to deal with our Customer Service.” And they work there!

Airlines are famous for this, and I was recently affected by that as well. The comments I kept repeating as I moved up the ladder of employee titles were “I know I don’t have many choices when flying, it’s a shame you lean on that,” and “How would you feel if you were put in this exact situation.” When I asked these questions, I got answers that were nothing short of arrogant and patronizing. It amazed me that I was treated as if I was lucky to sit on the plane. We all know that air travel is not what it once was. Nothing is. But this level of condescension toward the customer is not what builds great businesses. Loyalty builds brands for the long term. And loyalty is earned, much like trust. Difficult economic times come along, and sometimes that’s too late to change your approach. That’s a problem.

Econ 101 teaches it’s cheaper to keep a customer than to get a new one. This is not old econ or new econ. It’s basic econ. But good economies breed a level of hubris that kills companies when times change. I’m not an Apple fan, but I don’t doubt people will overpay for their technology. Heck, in this day and age of Python programmers being a dime-a-dozen, the analysis tools on Bloomberg are overpriced too. But Apple stock is at all-time highs, and Bloomberg Terminals sit on well over 300,000 desktops. And Apple and Bloomberg will survive the next recession just as they survived the last; through loyalty.

These tough times will come. Cycles, pendulums, they’re always at work. So are the employees at Apple and Bloomberg. We’ll remember that. We’ll also remember the employees and attitudes at that other phone manufacturer and that airline. And as has been proven time and again through history, the consumer will speak with the loudest voice they have; their wallets. Stay tuned…

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