On Great Products and Bad Customer Service

The much anticipated announcement of iPhone 4 has left most everyone with shiny object syndrome. Our copywriter, Jason, asked “is  it possible to have a crush on a device?” That’s the magic of Apple and why their market cap has now surpassed Microsoft’s. Say what you want about their walled garden and imperfect draconian app approval process, but Apple gets user experience and beautiful design like no other company has.

I think Droid is coming close – and am interested to learn more about the upcoming Motorola Droid, but it’s a tough ticket to out shine the beauty of new iPhone. It’s an object of art. The detail, the sleekness and combination of glass and stainless steel beg you to hold it, touch it. Stare at it. You almost want to hang it on the wall. Being without a contract with AT&T, I’m free to go to any provider. But I really want the iPhone and tell myself, I may not be able to make a phone call because of AT&T’s shoddy service, but at least I’d have something exquisite to hold and stare at.

My wife, a Verizon customer, is planning to purchase a Motorola Droid in July to replace her awful HTC Windows Mobile device (which has never worked well and has been replaced three times in less than two years). And that gives me pause to consider the Droid Incredible by HTC – they’ve not proven themselves and I’m skeptical despite the good reviews for the Incredible thus far. The HTC brand doesn’t (yet) have the emotional tug of Apple. Say what you want as well about AT&T, but Verizon’s no saint – my wife has had a run in with their customer service over her expensive but poor quality HTC phone. She typically receives great service when her contract is about up. It’s almost like you have to choose between the lesser of two evils although you know which one wins the coverage war hands down.

And that’s too bad. Imagine if AT&T took a page from Apple and created a magical experience. Imagine if instead of changing their plans to eliminate unlimited data and trying to put a positive spin on it they focused on making the customer experience fluid and delightful. The combination of that and Apple would truly be a force to reckon with. As it stands, once the iPhone is available on Verizon or other networks, I’m sure many will flee AT&T. Will they care? Not sure. But right now, they’re a company without a heart.

Why do so many big companies have to create such poor customer service? Why is it more cannot realize how powerful raving fans can be? How often raving fans will go out of their way to recommend you and talk about their experience? Imagine how much you could save on advertising expenses if your customers did your marketing for you!

Another example is United Airlines and their Mileage Plus program, which I’m enrolled in. I’m trying to plan a summer trip with the guys to Alaska and wanted to use my miles. I receive a nicely designed email promoting special fares to Alaska with the ability to use as few as 20,000 miles and no blackout dates (yeah!).

But after getting the screen above a few times (trying later) I called today to talk to a live person, who told me no flights are available with Mileage Plus. I can, however, pay $914.00 for my chosen flight (lowest price is $689.50) even though that flight shows $849.20 on their site. Ouch! But I can travel 5 days before my desired date and three days AFTER my desired return date with miles.

Hop over to Continental and you can get the VERY SAME FLIGHT for $400.09 Round trip. Seriously United? Aren’t you both one big airline now? What’s the point of being so restrictive with the miles? I’d be happy to use 60,000 miles for a roundtrip ticket. I tried to on my upcoming trip to Hawaii but didn’t have enough miles for the three of us and again, Hawaiian was far less expensive (1/3 the cost) so no point on using miles to pay more.

Why can’t United make the use of miles an experience that creates more trust and passion for their brand? Instead, I’m growing to distrust and really hate United. If you don’t really want people to use your mileage rewards program, then don’t offer it. Do business simply and straight forward. Cut the games. They’re not helping you (maybe in short-term profits, but not long-term brand loyalty).

Unlike AT&T with the iPhone at this point we do have options for flying. In the future will try booking with other airlines and use United as a last resort.

On the flip side, Inc. magazine has a great feature on businesses that get it. Businesses that invest in their employees which translates most often into rewarding experiences for their customers. How refreshing. These are the types of businesses I want to work with. These are businesses with vision and a long-term perspective. And based on what I read, they’re profitable too. Scale this up to businesses the size of AT&T and United and imagine what you could do! Customer service is marketing. Why don’t more companies recognize the power of creating wow and delight? That’s the burning question in my mind.

UPDATE: I learned a bit more about how United’s Mileage Plus program works – it defaults to Saver award, which is extremely limited since they’ve cut 30% of their flights and can sell the seats rather than give them up for free. The Standard award is always available for twice the miles. My problem stemmed from the fact that they don’t have many flights to Anchorage and the system required a live person to manually input the flight info – and after about a 45 minute online chat with a rep in Manilla, I was able to book a flight to Anchorage from Portland via – yep – San Francisco  for 50,000 miles. It still was not a fluid experience – and had I not talked to an expert in travel, likely wouldn’t have found the work around.

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