Companies have a tendency to organize themselves in ways that make operational sense but don't make customer-facing sense. So a newspaper's web site will operate separately from print operations, with different approaches to content; or online and retail operations will be two different silos with little consistency between them.
This can cause problems for customers, and so a few months ago when AT&T opened its remodeled "all in one" retail store in Houston to showcase all of the combined services formerly sold as SBC and Cingular offerings, dubbed the "AT&T Experience" store, I wondered whether they'd get it right.
My partner and I went there the other day. The store is a slick tech outpost that seems inspired by Apple's retail stores. Along the walls are lots and lots of mobile phones and handheld computers for you to play with - all powered up, with each devices phone number posted next to it so you can actually call it and see what happens. There are computers where you can browse for information about AT&T services. Deeper into the store there are big screen TVs demoing AT&T's IP television service, U-Verse. And there are people there you can talk to about home services like DSL.
But the proof is in what happens when you try to actually interact with the company, and I didn't expect much; companies get this wrong way too often. I was there because I wanted to upgrade from a regular phone to a handheld device that would let me get my email, use the web, and so on. I'd done my homework online already, and knew what I wanted (a Samsung Blackjack). But the web site was full of warnings that special online pricing is only available through the web site, so I wondered, would I be able to get it in the store at the same price and walk out the door with it?
A pleasant surprise - yes. The whole transaction took about fifteen minutes. Score one for AT&T.
My partner was not so fortunate. His issue: he did just such an upgrade a month ago, and he loves his new handheld (a bulkier AT&T-branded device designed for total road warriors), but has been unable to send or receive SMS and MMS messages on it.
This is where the wheels came off. After figuring out that part of the issue was the way the account was set up when he upgraded, it became clear there was a hardware issue. After a two-hour journey through troubleshooting hell, it became obvious that the hardware needed to be swapped out.
Here's where things went horribly wrong: because he bought the device 32 days ago, they would not simply grab a new one out of store stock and give it to him. They insisted on sending him a new one and having him ship the old one back. (Had we gotten there three days earlier, they would have swapped it out on the spot.)
Dumb, dumb, dumb. From our point of view, AT&T was going to replace the device. What's the difference between the trade happening instantly inside a retail outlet, versus via FedEx? Nothing, except that in the latter case, it's a pain in the neck for him, and AT&T has to pay for shipping.
But the store staff was quite insistent that they had to do things the more expensive and annoying way. Worse still, they handed him a store land line and told him he had to call and set it up. So an AT&T employee was standing in the store saying, "I can't help you, call one of my coworkers (while standing here in a loud store) and do it yourself."
He asked for the manager who said, "I cannot give you a new phone today." He said, "I paid $400 for this and you can't help me?" and he said, "It doesn't matter what you paid..."
Wrong. A customer who drops $400 on new hardware and adds $40/month for a data plan is more important than one who got a free phone for signing up and spends $29 per month. Those customers buy more from you. You should treat them as more valuable, because if they walk, you will lose more.
Just to make it worse, when he did make the call in the store (what else was he going to do?) he was put on hold. He gave up; we were hungry and tired and hadn't planned on spending two hours there. The phone call could be made from home.
I give AT&T credit for getting their retail and web channels in sync. But the rest of the story was such a sequence of amateur errors.
- To your customer, all channels are still you. Let the customer choose the convenient way to do business.
- When things go wrong and the customer really has no options, it's the wrong time to treat them badly. They'll remember. If you shine then, you'll have a loyal, happy customer.
- Give front line employees (like that store manager) the authority to make customers happy. Had that manager been allowed to do the swap on the spot, he would have saved money for AT&T and made a customer who spends a lot with them happy. Instead, everybody's miserable.
Meanwhile, I'm happy with my new Blackjack except... I can't send or receive SMS or MMS messages. I think something's wrong in the account upgrade process... which means, now I get to call customer support. Whee!