What’s old is new

Some people like surprises. Birthday surprises, anniversary surprises, holiday surprises.

If there’s one instance where I don’t want to be surprised it’s with ambiguous notifications about changes to any kind of paid service. Why? It likely also means changes to my bill. Whether it’s the cell phone, health insurance, home or educational loan, these tend to be areas where customers like me feel more anxious about surprise “changes in service” notifications, primarily due to the hefty price tags usually affiliated with such changes. (When was the last time you received a notice from one of these service providers giving you $$$ in credit, or forgiving all your credit still owed?)

So, when I received an email notice like this one, I was less than pleased.

First of all, in this notification, there was no indication as to the kind of change in service. So I wondered, was there a security issue here? Could they not share, or even allude to, the kind of change that had been made?

Admittedly, I was entering a more emotional, less rational state of mind, and started to just want the information about these unnamed service changes, STAT. I left my product-manager-self behind, and I assumed that with such a change, there was going to be a change in cost – and it might not be in the right direction.
I could feel my heart rate rising….. And after bouncing around on 2 online chats, multiple fails in Verizon’s verify-you-are-a-customer online and phone tree experiences (all fodder for another very very long post), and the inability to actually FIND this letter they alluded to in the cryptic email, I was nearing the end of my rope.

It was in my final online chat, a good 20+ minutes later, that I was assured there was no cost, and the change in service was due to a settings change I had made (VOWiFi) in my phone.


So, I decided this post was necessary to reflect on what had happened, and think a bit more clearly on where the opportunity might lie for making this a better experience.

I start at the end of this ‘end-to-end’ customer experience, the email and its effect. Just re-read that paragraph above, where my self-talk and emotional reaction happened, and the difficulty I had in finding an explanation. The frustration and confusion escalated from one interaction to the next. This is important because 60 million people churn from cell phone carriers a year and given that most have a similar set of ‘features’ on their plan, why else might they be churning? Could ridiculous and infuriating experiences, repeated over and over in the customer-service-journey be one of the reasons?

Since the offerings of a carrier are pretty much tablestakes these days, my experience and interactions with the carrier become the differentiators. Other companies (Nordstrom, Southwest Air, Amazon) have focused with relentless care and discipline on solving that problem and done quite well for themselves. In my opinion, as technology continues to be built to solve an efficiency or automation challenge or problem in people’s lives, the “experience” or service part gets less and less focus, rigor and investment. That’s a major opportunity for differentiation that is as old school, and never changing, as a human’s desire for social belonging, status, or low priced, conveniently, and quickly delivered [name product].

In this carrier’s case, the friction-full experience of signing up, and the triage-like journey for new service requests, and problems like deciphering cryptic email notifications, leaves many customers exhausted and infuriated.

Next up: If I moved backward up the funnel to investigate how this might have happened, I consider breakdowns in cross-team comms and decision-making: namely with and between product (eng + design), customer support, marketing, and maybe even legal. This complex ecosystem is a doozy, but there are much more complicated things from which we can learn. Namely, fundamental principles in ecology, biology and physics. But that’s a post for a different day. The important thing is, there are systems and processes from which we can learn. And should.

The result of this ecosystem breakdown is an automated customer email that got shot out the door when a business rule, created by a siloed group of humans, pinged the system that something happened (the rule), so “send this email”. And then, they (some group of humans) seemingly called it quits. Job done. Email created. Finito.

If you’re a customer of any great SaaS company (Slack, Hubspot, G2, Echosign), or D2C company that treats their customers like SaaS customers (Away, Glossier, Alleyoop) you’ve been on the receiving end of some fun, engaging and informative (sometimes all three) emails. The email I received, however, is cryptic and led me down a wild goose chase of activity. I quickly found myself experiencing the product and technology of customer experience (chats, security checkpoints, my account page) and I was dismayed. It forced a heavy cognitive load on my clearly already-challenged brain. My internal voice recorder wasn’t helping: What change did I make to my service, when? And what qualifies as a “change in service”? I thought I’d have to call Verizon or do something on my Verizon online account to make a change — and I hadn’t done that. Is there a change I would’ve done on my phone itself? Argh. Just trying to figure out what this email meant was exhausting and infuriating.

Second, in multiple attempts to learn what this was all about, and what the cost would be (if any), I was thwarted by the Verizon “customer support” journey. (I am not going to dive into that specific journey in this post, because it’s length and complexity would rival Tolstoy’s War and Peace.) But what I experienced was a by-product of what the organization leadership optimizes for – efficiency, not customer-centricity. Now, I’m not the first to be less than delighted by Verizon’s customer service. But what this experience highlights for me is why big behemoth companies, with old business models, and their slow, complacent tactics, are disrupted by nimble, customer-centric ones.

To be sure, I understand investments to make product operations better, is significant and eats into profits and margins. The customer experience, the data feedback loops, and the product requirements to fix this mess are significant. But how much are the costs to acquire a new customer, put up TV and billboard ads, offer one-time or long-term promotions to fix bad behavior (that only lock in customers to longer term contracts they hate), or staff up more customer support people with dry, scripted responses to oft-repeated problems? And do those activities grow retention, reduce churn, improve customer loyalty and brand affinity, even improve a sense of customer community and story-telling (i.e. referring other customers)?

If you think making a sea change happen in an old, stodgy industry like telecommunications isn’t possible, think about what’s happened in the luggage sector: Away Travel. The customer experience, the brand experience, is newly defined alongside its core product offering and then….BAM, disruption happens.

Before you know it, your Insta feed has photos of your friends, and their Away bags.

*Bonus points: Away Travel execs (and customers) snap photos with and without their Away bags…. And, #AwayTravel even without the bag.

Director of Product Development in Sri Lanka, Away Travel. Source: https://www.awaytravel.com/our-story


Tanya Maslach Written by: