Big Company Customer Service

comcast-truck-cmcsa-cmcsk_largeI know that many of my clients compete against the bigger cable companies, and one of the easiest selling points for years has been that small companies have superior customer service. It seems like every few years the big companies go through a big public display about how they are working to make customer service better. But maybe, just maybe, this time they might be doing some things that will actually work.

A few weeks ago both Comcast and Time Warner were hauled in front of a US Senate hearing to talk about their poor customer service. The purpose of the hearings was to ask why customers pay more than the advertised prices for specials. The answer was obviously that there are many ‘fees’ that the companies do not consider as part of the base cable or bundle rates. But much of this is not disclosed to potential customers, even in the fine print.

The Senate committee issued a report and faulted Time Warner (now part of Charter) for overcharging customers. The committee further reported that Comcast was guilty of not allowing customers to disconnect without a ‘good reason’ (as if not wanting the service any longer is not good reason enough).

There are numerous stories on the web of customers that have tried unsuccessfully to disconnect from Comcast. Listening to the recordings make it obvious that the company was giving bonuses for ‘saving’ customers who wanted to leave Comcast and that some customer service reps were going overboard to earn those bonuses.

The process of disconnecting is something that customers really hate about the cable companies. There has been some discussion at the FCC and at state Commissions of requiring any ISP that lets customers subscribe online to also be able to disconnect on line. Everything should be as easy as subscribing or unsubscribing to Sling TV or an online music services.

But the companies say that they are taking steps to improve customer service. And maybe they are getting better; so far this year there have been no more of the painful recordings of calls where Comcast won’t let somebody disconnect.

Comcast says it’s taking specific steps to improve service, and they will be:

  • Experimenting in some markets with an online tool that lets a customer track the status of a repair technician. People waiting endlessly for a technician has been one of the biggest complaints about them for years.
  • Hiring over 5,500 US-based customer service reps over 3 years (although they say they will not be decommissioning overseas customer service centers).
  • Creating a ‘holistic’ view of a customer’s account history internally within the company so that a customer won’t have to start over from scratch each time they call Comcast about a recurring problem.
  • Opening or renovating hundreds of retail stores.
  • Devoting 125 new employees to handle complaints made on social media.
  • Providing an interactive trouble-shooting app to help customers diagnosis problems. I guess now instead of calling I can have the app ask me the requisite five times if I have unplugged and rebooted my cable modem!

Charter is making similar claims and plans on hiring 20,000 in-house customer service reps and technicians to replace contractors.

Time will tell if they get any better. After all, Comcast was in front of the same Senate panel just two years earlier. But some of the changes (like having a record of customer history) are things that most of my clients have had for decades. Most people interact with customer service so infrequently that if Comcast or Charter can make even modest improvements they will be perceived by many as doing a much better job.

A Better Customer Interface

AndroidToday a lot of the time and money for what we think of as programming is really spent connecting APIs (Application Program Interface). APIs are defined as a software component that defines the operations, inputs, outputs, and underlying functionalities of a specific program that are then used to have a reliable interface with a given program so that programmers can query programs or can link different programs together.

The software world is full of APIs that are the basis for building and operating most complex software systems. APIs can be simple, such as an API that just looks up a customer’s address when querying a database with their name. Or an API can be more complex, such as having an API routine that calculates the outstanding balance for a given customer and then ages the accounts receivable. The process of connecting a new software package to all of the needed APIs is time-consuming and expensive and is one of the reasons it sometimes takes months to implement a large new software package.

APIs have been integrated into almost all parts of the software world and there are plenty of them in the telecom world. For example, an integrated billing system uses a lot of APIs. APIs are used to allow OSS/BSS software to gather calling details from a voice switch to add or delete features. APIs connect to the software in a cable headend to define what channels a given customer should be receiving or to capture billing information from a pay-per-view event.

But there is a downside to using API-based software that anybody paying for software is all too familiar with. Almost every complex software package you buy these days in a telecom environment requires signing up for software maintenance – and it’s not cheap. Software maintenance is often set at an annual fee of 10% – 12% of the cost of the original software package. A large percentage of that money is to pay for keeping abreast of the changes in APIs. Every time the software changes somewhere in a telecom system, such as in your voice switch, those changes then ripple through the rest of your software systems.

Even if a large telco employs their own programmers a lot of programming time is used in working with and updating APIs. Reliance in APIs goes far beyond the telco world. Establishing the right APIs is the number one hassle of writing an application for smartphones, and it’s the difference between the APIs of iOS and Android that requires app makers to create and maintain two versions of their software.

There was an attempt a decade ago to make it easy for software packages to communicate with each other under the label of the Semantic Web. That initiative ran into a wall because of the massive effort required to make APIs work easily. However, it looks like maybe we are on the verge of doing away with the need for a lot of those APIs, at least in the manner we use them today. It seems likely that we are headed towards a time when bots are going to take over a lot of the tasks that require API interfaces today.

I use the Amazon Echo with the Alexa bot. Already today I can ask Alexa a question in English such as, “Which Baltimore Oriole has the most home runs?” and Alexa will search the web and bring back the answer Cal Ripken. Alexa and other personal bots are improving at breakneck speeds. We are getting close to a time when we are going to have bot-to-bot communications, which over time will replace a lot of the software in place today.

Soon we are going to be able to use our personal bots to interface with other software systems. I should be able to ask Alexa to go my bank and get a copy of my June bank statement. Alexa will then interface with my bank’s bot and get the needed information. The plan is for bot-to-bot communication to be in English, so if I don’t get what I want I can look to see what went wrong with the transaction between the two bots.

The beauty of bot-to-bot communication is that each customer is going to be able to find out what they want. Today, the owners of a web site for something like a bank have to pre-determine what they think customers are most interested in and then set up menus to supply those answers. But with bot-to-bot communication the bank doesn’t need to guess what customers want and doesn’t have to arrange the data in a format needed to support the APIs. The bots will figure this out for each customer inquiry. Bot-to-bot communication means doing away with a lot of clunky customer service interfaces and that means cheaper software costs for the bank. And for customers it means getting what you want by talking to your own bot in plain English. That should cut down on a huge percentage of customer service calls.

APIs won’t die, of course, but even interfaces with APIs can be automated using bots so that when something changes in a hardware or software system the bots in connected systems can figure out what this means on their own. That’s bad news for computer programmers, because today a lot of their work is connecting to or updating APIs. But it’s good news for consumers and it should be good news for any company spending too much money maintaining software that uses a lot of APIs.

Responding to Customers in a Virtual World

Amazon EchoI don’t know how typical I am, but I suspect there are a whole lot of people like me when it comes to dealing with customer service. It takes something really drastic in my life for me to want to pick up the phone and talk to a customer service rep. Only a lack of a broadband connection or having no money in my bank account would drive me to call a company. My wife and I have arranged our life to minimize such interactions. For instance, we shop by mail with companies that allow no-questions-asked returns.

The statistics I hear from my clients tell me that there are a lot of customers like me – ones that would do almost anything not to have to talk to a person at a company. And yet, I also hear that most ISPs average something like a call per month per customer. That means for everybody like me who rarely calls there are people that call their ISP multiple times per month.

It’s not like there aren’t things that I want to know about. There are times when it would be nice to review my bill or my open balance, but unless there is no alternative I would never call and ask that kind of question. But from what I am told, billing inquiries and outages are the predominant two reasons that people call ISPs. And if a carrier offers cable TV you can add picture quality to that list.

Customer service is expensive. The cost of the labor and the systems that enable communicating with customers is a big expense for most ISPs. Companies have tried various solutions to cut down on the number of customer calls, and a few of them have seen some success. For instance, some ISPs make it easy for a customer to handle billing inquiries or to look at bills online. This is something banks have been pretty good at for a long time. But it’s apparently difficult to train customers to use these kinds of web tools.

Many companies are now experimenting with online customer service reps who offer to chat online with you from their website. I don’t know the experiences other people have had with this, but I generally find this even less satisfactory than talking to a real person – mostly due to the limitations that both parties have of typing back and forth to each other. Unless you are looking for something really specific and easy, communicating by messaging is not very helpful and might even cost a company more labor than talking to somebody live. Even worse, many companies use a lot of pre-programmed scripts for online reps to reduce messaging response times, and those scripts can be frustrating for a customer.

There are a handful of solutions I have seen that offer new tools for making it easier for customers to communicate with an ISP. For instance, NuTEQ has developed an interactive test messaging system that can answer basic questions for customers without needing a live person at the carrier end. Customers can check account balances, report an outage, schedule and monitor the status of a tech visit or do a number of other tasks without needing to talk to somebody having to wade through a customer service web site.

But I think the real hope for me is going to be the advent in the near future of customer service bots. Artificial Intelligence and voice recognition are getting good enough so that bots are going to be able to provide a decent customer service experience. Early attempts at this have been dreadful. Anybody who has tried to change an airline ticket with an airline bot knows that it’s nearly impossible to do anything useful in the current technology.

But everything I read says that we will soon have customer service bots that actually work as well as a person without the annoying habits or real service reps like putting a caller on hold, losing a caller when supposedly transferring you to somewhere else, or in trying to upsell you to a product you don’t want. And there ought to be no holding times since bots are always available. If a bot could quickly answer my question I would have no problem talking to a bot.

But as good as bots are going to be even within a few years, I am waiting for the next step after that. I have been using the Amazon Echo and getting things done by talking to Alexa, the Amazon AI. Alexa still has a lot of the same challenges like Siri or the other AIs, but I am pleasantly surprised about how often I get what I want on the first try. In my ideal world I would tell Alexa what I want and she (it?) would then communicate with the bots, or even the people at a company to answer my questions. At the speed at which AI technology is improving I don’t think this is going to be too many years away. I may like customer service when my bot can talk to their bot.

 

A Few Lessons from Big Companies

Text-messageI spend a lot of time reading about corporations and I think there are some lessons to learn from them that are relevant to small companies.

Selling Product versus Building Relationships. There are many  large companies that sell products without developing relationships with their customers. In our industry the large cable and telcos come to mind. They are all rated among the worst of all corporations in delivering customer service and they even antagonize many of their customers. This works fine for them until they get competition, and then the customers who don’t like them quickly jump ship to the new competitor.

But there are large businesses that go out of their way to build customer relationships because they believe that loyal customers are their most important asset. Consider car manufacturers. They realized a long time ago that they were not going to be good at customer service, so they created a network of dealers who are local businesses with ties in each community and these dealers have built trust over generations. And there are many other companies that deliver great customer service. Tech firms like Amazon, Apple, and Google have been consistently rated among the top ten in customer satisfaction for the last few years – showing that tech firms can put an emphasis on customers and still thrive.

My most successful clients build relationships with their customers and as a result have built a loyal customer base. Many of them are or were monopolies, and there was a time when most of my clients could not tell me who their ten largest customers were. But I rarely see that today and small telcos and cable companies have learned to build loyalty through building relationships.

Growing Fast versus Growing Deliberately. Many large companies need to grow fast to be successful. Once you have taken venture capital money or gone public then the pressure is on to grow profits quickly. But growing too fast almost always changes a company in negative ways. It’s really common to see companies go into the growth mode and then forget who they are. Most tech companies, for example, started with a small core of people who worked hard as a team to develop the core company. But when it’s time to grow, and companies hire mountains of new people it’s nearly impossible to maintain the original culture that made the company a great place to work.

Growth can be just as hard for small companies. It can be as hard economically and culturally for a small company to grow from 5,000 to 10,000 customers as it is for a large company to add millions. Small companies are often unprepared for the extra work involved with growth and find that they overwork and overstress their staff during a growth cycle. Growth creates a dilemma for small companies. If you hire the people needed to staff the growth period your company will be overstaffed when growth stops.

And so a lesson about growth can be learned from large companies. They will often staff growth through temporary employees, contractors, and consultants rather than take on people that they may not need later. Companies of any size are hesitant about hiring employees that they might not need a year from now.

High-Tech versus High-Touch. A lot of large businesses are trying to feign a good customer service experience by electronically ‘touching’ their customers often. I recall last year when Comcast introduced a texting system to communicate with customers. After they sent me half a dozen text messages in the same week, I disconnected the texting function because I really didn’t want to hear from them that often. But there are large companies who are convinced that if they electronically reach out to customers often that they are engaging in relationship building and proactive customer service.

And perhaps they are with some customers. But I am more appreciative of a business where I can talk to a person when it’s needed. Not that I mind electronic communications. I like to know that AT&T has auto-billed me and I like knowing when charges hit my credit cards. But I don’t want to be bothered by a business when they aren’t passing on information I want or need.

The important point here is that you have to touch your customers sometime and whether you reach out electronically or in person it’s better than no-touch and not talking to your customers. I know telecom companies that call every customer at least once a year to ask them if they like the service and if everything is okay. Such calls are welcomed by most customers and this is a great tool for businesses to build relationships. But just be prepared that if you ask your customers how you are doing that you need to be ready to deal with negative feedback. That is how to build happy customers.

Branding your Company and Products

Just FYI, no blogs last week due to flu bug. Funny how you can’t write when you can’t sit up.

Today’s guest blog is written by Mindy Jeffries of Stealth Marketing. She will be writing a series of blogs that will appear here occasionally. If you want to contact Mindy you can call her at 314 880-5570. Tell her you saw her here!

In my last blog, I talked about branding things – things with which your customers interact! “Things” is a little vague, so let’s clarify – your branded assets include things like: your office, trucks, people (uniforms), website.  What about branding your product?  What are the stepping-stones of branding your service that you’ll be delivering to your customers?  This gets complicated really quickly, so how can we simplify it?

Let’s begin with the strategic analysis of the brand.

The first step is a customer analysis.

Here are questions you have to ask yourself:  what are the current trends in the telecommunications industry? What is affecting your business?  We all know some of those major trends; landline disconnections, and streaming TV, for example. But now let’s add motivation questions.  Which customers are motivated to use cell phones in which parts your geographic footprint?  What are the unmet needs of your customers?   Brainstorm these questions with your team and figure out answers relevant to your brand. In the end you’re shooting for stellar customer service, making each customer happy beyond expectations.

The second step: Competitor analysis.

What are your strengths compared to all competitors including these new Internet competitors?  What are your answers to the “cell phone problem”?  What are the strategies to attack the segments we have previously identified? And last but not least, what are your vulnerabilities?  Examining your vulnerabilities is hard, you have to strip away your bias, take a step back and look at the big picture. Be honest with yourself. Analyze yourself like you would your competitors. Which leads nicely into…

The third step: Self-analysis. 

Ask yourselves and your customers: what is the current image of the brand?  What is the brand’s heritage?  What does your product provide? What are its strengths?

The last step: Determine your organizational values.  

What are the positive attributes of your leader or leadership team? It might be something as simple as: “we always go the extra mile!” or “We’ll make sure the customer is always satisfied.”

Still not sure what organizational values look like?

Here are the Stealth values to give you an idea!  We exist to help others, we are passionate about what we believe in, we are perpetual students, we love challenge, we like to stretch boundaries and evolve to the next level of everything.  We are driven by relationships because relationships drive communication and good communication drives success.  We work to achieve success.

How Good Should Your Customer Service Be?

This is the hardest question I have asked as a blog title, because there just is no easy answer. Before I try to answer the question at all, let me set some parameters. I am talking about smaller companies and not those that operate large call centers. There are dozens of consultants who specialize in software and metrics for large call centers. But most of my clients do not operate call centers and they have a more intimate relationship with customers. So let’s look at this question in terms of smaller companies.

One glib answer I could offer is that your customer service has to be at least good enough to make your customers happy. And there is certainly some truth in that, but that sounds a bit like consultant speak. So let me dig a little deeper and ask: what ought to be the goals for a smaller customer service group? Here are some of the traits a small customer service group needs to have to produce the best results. I have learned these over the years by having worked with literally hundreds of small customer service groups:

  • Friendliness. One of the advantages that small companies have over large ones is that your employees can get to know your customers and form bonds with many of them. This should be encouraged because when somebody knows the person they are talking to on the phone the whole transaction is more likely to go well. So encourage your customer service reps to get to know your customers.
  • Accuracy. Accuracy means just what it says. It means making sure every order you take is accurate so that the customer gets what they asked for. It means giving customers the right answer when they ask a question. It means perfect directory listings. And to be accurate requires training, but more importantly it requires that your reps are graded for paying attention to details.
  • Prompt Responses. Customers love it when a customer service rep has the information they are looking for right at their fingertips. If they call with a billing question they don’t want to be put on hold for five minutes while your rep tries to find the answer to their question. The way to make this happen is to have a good OSS/BSS system. If you want your reps to do a great job you must have great tools. Companies often get very comfortable with a software system and never consider changing. I visit many clients and see them using outdated systems that make it hard for their employees to do a great job. There is no excuse for that these days. There are a number of quality vendors and you should not be afraid to change if your current software is not doing what you need. I always ask the question – who is more important to you, your customers or your vendor? Do not get wedded to a vendor just because you have used them for many years. If they can’t and won’t keep their software current to fit your needs, look for somebody that will.
  • Knowledge. Your customer service reps ought to be able to answer most questions about your products and prices without having to look up basic facts each time. Make knowledge a priority in how you grade their performance each year. They ought to know how your most common features work and should be able to walk a customer through using them. They ought to know the basic troubleshooting steps needed to fix basic problems when they get a trouble call. If they can take care of a problem without having to refer it to a technician, then you will have saved money and have a happier customer.
  • Empowerment. Your customer service reps should be empowered to fix customer’s problems on the spot. Some companies have policies like always requiring higher approval before giving a credit to a customer. Empower your employees to make decisions and take care of customer problems on the spot. You can always review credits that are given out and if you don’t like the way they were done you have a teaching opportunity to do it better the next time. But don’t be afraid to empower your employees to take care of customers so that the customer can get a problem resolved on one phone call, talking to one person.
  • Not Scripted. I don’t know of a person who doesn’t feel marginalized and unimportant when a customer service rep is clearly reading something to them off of a screen instead of talking to them person-to-person. This is something that many large call centers foster, and sometimes calling customer service feels like talking to a robot. I don’t think this works well for large companies and is one of the reasons that people hate large telco and cable company customer service. So don’t fall into this trap and try to put pre-packaged words into your reps mouths. Make sure they know what they need to know and then just let them talk to customers like a person.
  • The Right Policies. Your reps need to be working with policies that are customer friendly, and this is all up to you. I often find policies that make me shake my head. For example, I have one client who required a money order or cash for a customer to reconnect service for non-pay. Of course, this leads to customers just deciding to not come back. The policies you have in place in dealing with customers need to all have the same underlying premise – they must be customer-friendly and they must make it easy for customers to use you as their vendor.

Branding and How a Customer Views Your Company

Etsy engineers and customer service at work

Etsy engineers and customer service at work (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s guest blog is written by Mindy Jeffries of Stealth Marketing. She will be writing a series of blogs that will appear here occasionally. If you want to contact Mindy you can call her at 314 880-5570. Tell her you saw her here!

I watch a lot of old movies and sometimes I find myself thinking back to the 1940’s and 1950’s. The world was not only pretty straight forward; it was also black and white. Have you ever thought that?  Be honest!  Think of where we are now. How different our marketing world has become in the past few years.

Marketing has become so multi-dimensional!

This marketing evolution is good for everyone.  Good for businesses, good for marketers and very, very good for customers.

So my question is: how is your business looking in this multi-dimensional world? Let’s start by listing a few of the places you are seen and then I will explain the importance of each one:

  1. Your office or headquarters
  2. Online
    1. Website
    2. Social media outlets
  3. Your customer service efforts
  4. Your employees – on and off the job
  5. Public Relations

These are the questions I ask myself as I walk into an office for the first time:

  1. How would this office look to a customer? Is it exciting or cluttered?
  2. How does it match or build on my advertising?  Is it an extension?  It should be. Are we saying we are a high-tech company?  The office should reflect that.
  3. Is the office clean?
  4. Is there adequate parking?
  5. Is it efficient at handling lines?
  6. Are the marketing/promotional materials current?

Does/Is the Website:

  1. Reflect the brand well?
  2. Organized?
  3. Optimized?
  4. User-friendly, with obvious access to information?
  5. Allow a user to find the pricing for the services offered?
  6. Modern? An archaic web presence is a poor reflection on your business.

On Social Media, are you:

  1. Transparent? Are you answering critical posts quickly and resolving the problem publicly? Do people trust the information you’re providing? Are you resolving problems publicly and respectfully?
  2. Using it for customer service? If yes: are you answering customers’ questions and concerns quickly?
  3. Creating a useful environment for the entertainment industry?

Customer Service, do you:

  1. Train and empower customer service representatives?
  2. Offer transparency in customer service?
  3. Be sure the customer service reps have all information about offers and promotions before the customer does?
  4. Remember customer service employees are an extension of your company?

Other (company branded vehicles, employees, community efforts or in the customer’s home):

  1. What happens when an employee is at the grocery store and a question comes up? Do they respond in a positive manner? What do they do when no one is looking?
  2. How do the trucks look? Banged up?  Well branded and identified? The cable companies whom you compete against never seem to get this right. The trucks have stickers on the side or are branded from the last acquisition.  This is an opportunity to look clean, neat and high-tech.
  3. What is the process as employees enter customer’s homes? Do they track mud or wear clean booties over their work boots? Do they leave each area a little bit better than they found it?

For Public Relations, you should:

  1. Find places to speak and then get out on the circuit!  Tell your story.  What is new in your business? Your story is anything from hiring a new person to launching a new platform.
  2. Join business clubs such as: Rotary or Kiwanis and tell your story and meet other business people, figure out if they need your service.
  3. Send the stories of significance to the local paper.  Many papers love the extra content.
  4. Identify key employees to help you in community ambassador roles.

The items discussed above go to branding. Branding helps your company build loyalty and confidence with customers and potential customers. Remember, each time a customer comes in contact with your company it is either a positive contact or a negative one. Therefore, examine each touch point carefully.

CCG Number Portability

I don’t write too many blog entries that are direct sales pitches for CCG services. I will admit that many of my blogs hint at the services we offer, but the main intentions of these blogs is to plant ideas for small carriers that we have found to be useful. But this is one of those sales pitch blogs, and if you do number portability you should read it. We now offer the fullest range of number portability products in the industry and we think we have the best prices. The main benefit for small carriers is that we don’t require annual minimums, so if you don’t do a lot of ports we are going to be your best solution. We offer two different number porting products – traditional number porting and LSR service. And in a related service we now offer directory listing update service.

Service Provider LSR Number Porting Service

Before you can port a number you must determine who owns the number and get the owning carrier to release the number to you. This process is referred to in the industry as the LSR porting process. CCG offers the only turn-key LSR porting product in the country and we can interface with any carriers to complete the porting LSRs.

This is the process of notifying the owner of numbers that you are porting their numbers away and is not the same as the process of updating the NPAC database. Rather, this is coordinating the transfer of telephone numbers with the RBOCs, CLECS, cable companies, independent telephone companies or wireless companies that own the numbers. This step is something that must be done before the number port can occur. There was never a lot of need in the past for this service, but now there is such a proliferation of numbers owned by many different service providers that you can’t assume that the numbers you want to port belong to an incumbent carrier.

Product Detail. CCG does the following for each LSR Number Port:

  • CCG will determine who owns the telephone number(s). For example, while you may be trying to port a customer that is using a CLEC like Vonage or Level3, you might find that the numbers actually belong to some other CLEC. We also routinely find that businesses can have numbers that belong to multiple service providers even if they are being billed by just one.
  • CCG will obtain the needed Customer Service Record (CSR) used to verify the porting data provided by your customer and confirm the desired due date.
  • CCG will interface with the “old service provider” LSR system to request a number port. We have found that every carrier has unique LSR processing systems and we can efficiently process with any service provider.
  • We will monitor the porting process. We will troubleshoot any porting requests that are not porting properly and we will escalate as needed to meet your due date. We will notify you when the port is complete and forward you the carriers FOC. We will provide you with documentation that each port has been processed and is complete.

NPAC SOA Number Porting Service

We also now offer the traditional number porting product where we can help you change the ownership of the number in the Neustar database. This allows you to gain control of numbers that previously belonged to another LEC, CLEC or wireless provider. We offer quick turnaround to make sure that you meet your desired service cut date.

In this process you will give CCG access to your database at Neustar. But unlike some other consultants providing this service we also can get you access to the same database and the reports and troubleshooting tools at Neustar.

We can be your turn-key interface in the Neustar Number Portability Administration Center (NPAC) database. We think our prices for this service are the best in the industry. And for small carriers we have no annual minimum commitment. If you only do a few ports per year you should give us a call.

Directory Listing Update Service.

We now also offer a service to update the directory listings for new customers. These updates are very inexpensive for customers who want to keep their directory listing the same as before. But we can also handle complex directory updates.

We also will make sure that you know when the annual directories will be published and we can help you verify all of your listings for accuracy before the directory hits the street each year.

Finally, we can bundle all of these services into a turn-key package that makes it easy for you to add new customers.

Contact Terri Firestein at CCG at 301 788-6889 to learn more about these services and to get a price quote.

Competitive Telecom Marketing

Today’s guest blog is written by Mindy Jeffries of Stealth Marketing. She will be writing a series of blogs that will appear here on Fridays for a while. If you want to contact Mindy you can call her at 314 880-5570. Tell her you saw her here!

Welcome to the new world of competitive targeted marketing; a world where you put each of your current customers and potential new customers into a bucket that best describes them. This may sound complicated, but competitive targeted marketing fits easily into budgets because you just manipulate the buckets one by one. What this means is that if you can afford to market to only one bucket of customers this month, you do that.  If you can afford several buckets, then you can market to more. In order to market to all of your buckets over time you have to generate a viable telecom marketing plan.

The first step in this process is to get your customers into the various buckets. To do that you need to put yourself in your customers’ place and examine the choices every customer has sitting at home at the end of your lines. What are they evaluating each month? Since you don’t know what your customers are thinking this becomes a series of riddles as you try to get into the customer’s mindset. And you should have a solution for every riddle. If you can’t answer the riddles posed by some of your products you should be using that product yourself to see it from a customer perspective.

Here are some of those riddles, meaning the questions that your customers are probably asking:

  • How much will this cost?
  • Can I rely on their customer service?
  • What’s best for me – a local provider versus not so local?
  • Programming choices?
  • Who has the channels I love?
  • Are telephone services limited to cell only?
  • How critical is 911?
  • How is reception on the various carriers in your area?
  • What Internet speeds do I need?

As you answer these riddles from a customer perspective you have your matrix!  Now, how do you shape the marketing messaging to compete against your competitors? In order to figure out how to shape your marketing messaging, you must ask yourselves questions about your products.

For example, let’s evaluate your Internet product. How competitive are the speeds? Usually, speed is where telecom companies can be very competitive. What service has greater reliability during a storm? Which service in your area is back in service quicker after a storm? Reliability is an area that is hard to beat in telecom companies. Ask yourself the hard questions and evaluate your product honestly compared to the competition.

Telecoms own the information channels, but most of us don’t think that way. We derive messaging from the fact that we open the information channels back up quicker when you need it. Still haven’t found your marketing edge? Examine some other aspects.

  • Are there unique ideas for pricing that fit local niche markets?
  • Can you undercut the competition by bundling?
  • Packaging? Buy the fastest Internet and get phone for free?
  • Are there areas you can serve that can’t get Internet any other way, but can get video and phone other places?
  • There are lists available of phone or Internet customers by competitor as well as satellite lists. You can buy those lists and then you can mail just those specific customers with a compelling offer. Show them how you can compete!

Once you form your matrix you can put each of your customers and potential customers into a bucket. You then decide what product you are going to offer them at which compelling price and how are you going to tell them what you have to offer by which medium.

Keep it Simple

I spend a lot of time looking at the products that carriers sell and one conclusion I reach is that simpler is better. I have found carriers with a multitude of options, with dozens of data products, many cable TV options and even many voice options. And I think I know where this came from. In the 90’s there was a movement to ‘give the customers more choice’ and I think that led some carriers down the path of customizing products for every customer who asked for something different.

But that does not seem to make sense for a variety of reasons. In probably the most extreme example, I know one carrier who has over forty Internet data products. This leads me to ask if a company really needs to be selling a 10 mbps, a 15 mbps, a 17 mbps and a 20 mbps data product? And the obvious answer is no. There is not enough practical difference between these products to justify having different ones.

It makes a lot more sense to have just a few data products. The companies that I see doing the best at selling data have three of four products, which can be characterized in terms of speed and price as low, medium and high, with maybe a fourth thrown in for a lifeline product. And they will have just a few cable TV options instead of the dozens of packages that I see at some companies. The same with voice, there might be a basic line and a line with unlimited long distance.

There are a number of reasons to keep it simple:

Customer service. It is important that all of your employees, from top to bottom in the company know your products. To some extent every employee in your company is a salesperson when they talk to the general public at or away from work. The basic triple play products are the core of what most carriers sells for a living, and if your employees don’t know what you sell then they can’t talk about your product to the public. As an example, every employee at your company ought to be able to instantly quote the latest prices and speeds for your Internet data product. This is an easy challenge to test – go out today and ask the next few employees you see if they can cite the speeds and prices of your basic residential and business data products. I would venture to say that most companies are going to fail this simple test.

Let’s face it – the success of your business depends on you being able to make a convincing story to customers of why your product is a better deal than the competition. For data products that difference is going to boil down to speed and price. Sales don’t just happen on the customer service lines, the opportunity is there every time one of your technicians is fixing something or an employee is standing in line at a grocery store. So make the products simple and make sure your employees can all cite your products and prices.

Sales, marketing. It’s much easier to market a simple product line. If you can summarize your pricing with a minimum of copy then you can spend your marketing efforts on talking about the benefits of your products and how you are a better deal than the competition.

And it’s certainly a lot easier to take an order from a customer when you don’t have to explain a ton of options. I can’t imagine the effort that is required in a company with dozens of data options when it is time to explain the product to a new customer or to discuss upgrading to an existing customer. Keeping it simple makes the whole sales process easier.

A simple product line also makes it a lot easier to build a customer portal so that customers can change products on their own. I just wrote last week how I recently went to AT&T wireless to change my voice plan and I was a bit overwhelmed by the number of options I had. I’m in the business and if I felt that choosing an option was a lot of work I wonder how somebody unfamiliar with the products in our industry must face these kinds of choices.

Provisioning. Whether you provision manually or have software that allows you to automatically provision products, having a simple product line is going to cut down on errors in provisioning. I talk to employees at carriers all of the time and a common problem I hear is that customers don’t get the products they thought they were signing up for. And when that happens you have started out on a sour note with a customer. With a simple product line, provisioning becomes a lot simpler because there are only a few options that customers can buy.

I do have a number of clients who have simple product lines. But even with those companies I will often see things like a phone product priced at $18.62 and it makes me wonder why it’s not priced at $18.99 or $18.49 or some number that everybody can remember. If you want your own folks to remember the prices, keep them simple as well.

Some companies seem to get this. I look at Google in Kansas City and their product line is downright sparse. They literally only have a tiny handful of products. I have written about them before and I think they have taken simplicity too far. But it’s easy to understand how much easier this has made their launch considering that they are new to the business.

So take a look at your product list with an eye to see if it’s simple and easy to understand. Or better yet, get some people outside of your staff to look at it. If the general public gets your products then you probably have it right.