How breaking a promise can break your brand

25 Sep

While not a true crisis, a Texas lightning storm last week provided a striking example of how far off track a big company can go and how smart a start-up can be. It should be the other way around but too many big companies seem unable to get the customer experience right. At the same time, I’m amazed at how many small startups are super customer savvy.

The storm that swept across Texas was a big one. It dropped 6 inches of rain in a couple of hours and brought strong lightning, wind and thunder. Apparently, the lightning was close enough to bring down our power, Internet, and cable TV. While the power company restored power in less than a day, it’s been more than a week since we’ve had Internet or TV.

When our Internet went down, it took with it a variety of Internet-connected devices including light switches, thermostats, and music players. They all worked but they could no longer communicate back to the companies that service them. The day after the outage, I received a personal note from support at a company called Rachio which makes an Internet connected sprinkler system that I use. They are a small company and they could see that our device went offline. They proactively checked in to make sure that everything was working well with their device and whether I needed any assistance. This is truly amazing customer service considering the fact that they don’t have anything else to sell me and since they don’t earn any ongoing revenue from their device.

On the other end of the spectrum was AT&T — who I pay thousands of dollars per year — who should have the resources to turn this small crisis into an opportunity to strengthen our relationship. During a crisis, the best companies are proactive, share information, work hard to over-deliver on commitments, treat customers with respect, and are generous to make things good when unexpected events create new problems. Like Rachio, AT&T has the data they need to be proactive with support. They certainly have the financial resources to create a great customer service experience if they choose.

When we called AT&T after the storm they set up a appointment 3 days later on Monday at 8am to fix our Internet and TV. To our surprise, nobody came to make the repair and nobody called us to provide an update. We called again and were told that their window was extended to 7pm. Again, nobody came and nobody called.  At 7pm we called them and were told that they weren’t going to come and that, in fact, nobody had even been assigned to our ticket. They could not estimate when anybody would come. They would not schedule another appointment. They blamed dispatch and said they had no access to information.

As infuriating as this experience was, it was just the beginning. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were exactly the same: each day an AT&T representative would commit to send someone and nobody would ever come or call. They systematically made and broke promises. They lied to us. We spoke to managers and supervisors but there was no path of escalation and no accountability.  More than a dozen AT&T employees made promises to call us back or to take an action and then failed to honor their commitments. They made it our job to spend hours on the phone.

In these interactions, AT&T committed the two most fatal brand mistakes: they created a bad customer experience and they broke their own promises. While it is inevitable that customer service mistakes happen, it’s clear that AT&T’s problems are structural. They are a choice. AT&T has decided they are going to save costs by providing limited customer service. Further proof of this can be seen in their crediting policies. Surprisingly, they didn’t proactively offer to credit us for the service they weren’t providing. When we asked for a credit, they still wanted us to pay for part of each of the days that they were unable to provide service. We now must call back every day to get additional daily credits for the outage.

On Tuesday they sent us a customer satisfaction survey which allowed us to write, at length, about the promises they made and broke. The survey was smart: it clearly asked if our issue had not been resolved. When we said it hadn’t, the survey asked us to provide a phone number so that someone could immediately reach out to address our issue. This was a great opportunity for AT&T to escalate our issues and get the relationship back on track. We provided the number and requested follow-up but nobody called.

As a marketer, I know the work that it takes to build a great brand. AT&T’s CMO certainly understands that their brand is only as good as the promises they keep and the experiences that they create. AT&T’s broader executive team, no doubt, speaks personally about the importance of honesty, integrity, and keeping promises. They have all the data they need to spot problems and proactively help customers. They have the data they need to spot customers who they have let down. Why is it that they are unable to treat customers with honesty and integrity? Why don’t they invest to save customer relationships that are worth thousands of dollars when they know they are at risk? How much financial damage does this cost them in any given year?

The difference between AT&T and Rachio runs very very deep. Rachio is clearly being built from the start as a company that values an exceptional customer experience. Like Apple, Tesla, AirBNB, Zappos and other strong companies, they are using the customer experience as a tool to build their brand. AT&T has never been this type of company and it’s probably impossible to change the culture enough to positively impact the brand.

For Chief Marketing Officers, it’s important to remember that building a great brand almost never starts with great marketing. It starts with building a great product and a great customer experience. Your brand is the promises you make. When you break those promises, there is no amount of advertising spend that can get your reputation back.

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