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Too Big to be Held Accountable

The services we buy are increasingly dominated by very large companies that are consolidating their respective markets. Two examples that exemplified this for me this week are wireless phones and road-side assistance.

To increase profits companies increasingly rely upon contract partners to deliver services to hold down costs.  These partners get paid commensurate with the number of services they deliver so, the cost to the bigger company that we, the buyer, sees varies either up or down with the volume.

The term service in too many of these arrangements is very loosely defined.

For example, a colleague at work lost her cell phone this week. She called the service provider to order a new phone and was told it would be 5 business days to get the replacement with everything from the cloud back-up installed. While on the phone with the provider, she went online to the same provider’s website and they offered a next morning delivery of the same phone with a technician for an hour to install everything from the cloud.  The person on the phone knew nothing about the next day service, an obvious disconnect and gap in “service delivery” and assured her this option didn’t exist.

She chose to order the phone online for delivery the next morning. The technician that showed up was a very personable subcontractor and a former Apple Genius. The replacement phone had been ordered using a family member’s upgrade, and she was assured that the other person’s service would not be disconnected or affected. When the replacement phone was activated, the service for the person whose upgrade was used was immediately disconnected. The technician was contacted, and he said it wasn’t possible that this had happened.  My colleague called AT&T, and after another hour they were able to correct the problem and get everything worked out.

Poor coordination across the provider’s service delivery network that included a website, client service department and next day subcontractor definitely detracted significantly from the quick painless, seamless delivery of both a product and service.

A second experience in the past week was replacing a car battery that had been installed a year ago by AAA.   Chicago has been in the midst of a 12-day artic cold snap. Wind-chill temperatures have been 10-30 below zero. The original battery was purchased twenty months ago when my car was stranded with a dead battery while I was on a trip. I was delighted that AAA could offer me a battery on-site at a competitive price with a 6-year warranty. Little did I know that using that warranty was another matter. During the recent cold spell my car would not start, and I had roadside assistance jump-start the car twice. The third time it wouldn’t start I asked about my warranty, so I didn’t have to continue to call for a jump-start and wait 2-3 hours for a service call. The driver that showed up from the battery subcontractor said the battery was fine, so he couldn’t replace it. I had to call again for a third jump-start in 2 days and that got the car going.  The next day the car wouldn’t start so I called a second time to get the battery replaced. The customer service agent for AAA said to go to a third party and have the battery checked and get documentation of their testing.  If they said the battery was bad, surely that would justify a replacement.  I took a couple hours to do that.  Again, a subcontractor came after an hour on the phone and an hour wait and said he was really sorry, but he couldn’t replace the battery.  He could only use their testing, and no other testing was valid for replacing the battery.  Furthermore, we were over our limit on battery jumps, so they really couldn’t help anymore.  Since I had to get to work the next day, I just went and bought a new battery from Auto Zone.  I have purchased a defective battery from them before, and the replacement process was simple and quick.  I brought my defective battery to a AAA office on Monday, and I am certain that my six-year warranty will prove to be worthless.  I was told, “that’s a separate division and we can’t help you here”.  I could call an 800 number and talk to member relations. As of this writing I have easily spent over 10 hours combined either on hold waiting to talk to someone, waiting for drivers to show up, explaining my predicament or appealing the case.

I am sure everyone has stories like this.  Companies that used to pride themselves on their service have cobbled together a business model with gaping holes that we are meant to navigate.  It is more “Do-It-Yourself” customer service.  It’s important to recognize who pays the price when costs are cut through this type of an approach.  The scarcest resource in our lives is time, and there is nothing that will create customer terrorists more than forcing their customers to waste their time with their service inefficiencies.