I have been trying to upgrade my iPhone for the past two months. You would think that would be simple — I would log into my account that I have Verizon and order the upgrade. But things started to go wrong pretty quickly.
Problems with Customer Data
To begin with, even though I have updated contact information on this business account on multiple occasions, a lot of the contact information was incorrect. I was greeted by the mobile app as “Linda” — an assistant from several years back — and was repeatedly prompted to certify the device that I was doing this on, and the answers to my “secret questions” were all incorrect (though I had these tracked on a spreadsheet). I was prompted again and again to reset my password and for some reason was prompted to create a new username.
After finally getting through to customer service, I was told that the phones I wanted were not in stock, but the rep promised a return call (which I never received). My visit to a franchise store resulted in my account being locked (the account PIN only works for corporate stores) and after more calls to customer support and hours on hold, was promised another call back (which also did not happen). I was then informed that the offer I sought – a buy one, get one free deal for the costly phone upgrade – had expired during the delay while the account was locked.
I went to another Verizon corporate store and the manager explained that no records of my multiple calls to customer service indicated that I was interested in purchasing a phone! While he believed that I had indeed intended to buy a phone, he said there was no way to honor the offer — even though it was Verizon that had caused the problem by locking my account. At this point, I decided to move to T-Mobile, which offered the same deal. My wife wanted to check with another Verizon store that had a history of excellent service. The manager of that store, unlike the other manager, said that corporate could and should honor the deal.
With great reluctance, I agreed to try one more time. Once again, I could not log in, endured multiple resets (the system continued to greet me with “Hello Linda” during the process on the iPhone app though call reps told me that this was corrected), and spent over an hour on hold. But I finally got to a rep who said they would honor the deal. When I asked for proof that they would the rep said, “I have to pass it on to my supervisor, who will approve it after the order goes through.” I said, “I will trust you on this, but I hope I do not regret it”.
Multiple Channels, Multiple Challenges
Well, a few days later a package came in the mail. The recipient address on the package was to a firm we no longer use for accounting. The invoices attached showed that I was being charged the full price of both phones. Oh, and one more thing — they were the wrong models.
This experience points out multiple problems at Verizon — bad customer data leading to bad customer service. There were so many obstacles to doing business — unusable website, iPhone app with incorrect user information, lack of consistency of experience, data disconnects between the franchise and corporate, multiple promises to call back (two from customer service and two from franchise stores), different policy answers, lack of documentation of the issue (which I had explained each time I interacted with the company), and at the end of the day, the wrong product at the wrong price. I planned to return the phones, transfer the phone numbers to a new carrier and close the account. Verizon had, up to this point shown that my business did not mean much to them.
Taking Verizon’s Own Advice
The company’s poor customer service had been predicted to become worse in 2016 after Verizon Wireless decided to reduce resources in customer support. Ironically, an article published in 2020 on Verizon’s website touts the impact of digital transformation on customer experience and cautions that there is “no time to waste” before moving ahead. The article disperses such sage advice as:
- Get to know your customers
- Deliver an omnichannel experience
- Provide a ‘mobile first’ experience
- Personalize the experience
- Implement AI and
- Remember the human touch (my personal favorite)
These are great bullet points and generally good advice — the “motherhood and apple pie” of customer experience — but they do not reflect the reality of Verizon’s customer experience.
An undated Verizon white paper discusses a digital transformation roadmap. In that roadmap, they quote a study from Salesforce.com about the importance of a good customer experience: “80% of customers said the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services.”
Product Quality vs. Service Quality
Verizon has one of the best data networks in the country, according to various studies, so they are likely to remain successful and profitable regardless of the level of customer service. However, as the infrastructure of competitors matures, the company may not continue to benefit from a technological competitive advantage. They will have to deliver on customer service. And they will not be able to if they do not follow their own precepts and advice.
I am being critical of a large enterprise as an individual customer and recognize that the task of providing good customer service is monumental. The organization needs to solve the problems of customer data and content to improve its customer service foundation. That is the core of the problem.
Reality Check on Verizon’s Advice
If Verizon followed its own advice from the 2020 white paper, this is what they would do:
Get to know your customers:
What did Verizon need to know? That I had three out-of-date iPhones: a 6 a 7 and an 8. Had they “known” me better (it was in their data — I bought them from Verizon) my phones would not have been so out of date in the first place. Why was someone not suggesting that I upgrade? And when I decided to do so, the process of ordering a new phone should have been very easy to execute. Getting to know your customer also means capturing their preferences and understanding their needs. This is typically done through multiple approaches that are well known to user experience professionals — who I am sure Verizon Wireless has on staff throughout many departments. These- approaches include customer journey mapping and customer personas. Journey maps document the steps that customers must take to achieve their objective as well as any friction points throughout the process. The many complexities related to managing small business accounts with multiple roles, multiple lines, and various devices may not be evident at first glance but need to be well understood to provide even a basic level of customer service.
Possibly my particular combination of circumstances had not been mapped in detail. This calls out the importance of primary user research — working directly with users: observing and capturing exactly what they go through in real situations rather than contrived or hypothetical ones. Personas are archetypical representations of various kinds of users with their habits, lifestyle, scenarios, and needs articulated. There is likely a persona representing me and my needs; however, it may not have been based on actual users. While this sounds nonsensical, many organizations use hypothetical journeys or if they did perform primary research with actual users, many times these are not updated (with new primary research) as technology and use cases change.
Deliver an omnichannel experience:
This advice should be “deliver a functioning omnichannel experience.” I tried web navigation, app functionality, regular text, web, and app chat — and of course the voice channel — and none were effective. The app was complex and confusing and generated multiple errors or shut down without warning. Perhaps some of the app function difficulties (pages not loading, non-responsive functionality, authentication loops) were from the fact that I had an older phone. When designing an application to support various use cases that included equipment upgrades, a good practice would be to test on older models of the equipment on which one is attempting the upgrade. I did try my laptop, but the authentication required that I use an app on my phone…. which I was unable to log into!
An omnichannel experience should allow a customer to start the process on one device or channel — say chat, on their phone — and then pick up the process seamlessly on another device or channel, such as by calling customer service. Having to explain the journey and challenges each time cannot be considered an effective omnichannel experience. Getting to a rep should be easy, voice prompts should not send the user to an automated system or tell the customer to use the mobile app or website. The rep should have a good understanding of the issue by being able to see previous interactions from other channels and should not advise the customer to try using the app again.
Provide a ‘mobile first’ experience:
“Mobile first” implies other options such as those I described above in my omnichannel experience. I understand the objective of “mobile-first” — many people prefer to do business on their mobile devices — if they work. But as noted, good customer service also makes connecting with a rep easy. Designing for older tech if you are trying to upgrade people to newer tech seems obvious. If the mobile technology does not work on the customer’s mobile device, then that defeats the mobile-first purpose.
Personalize the experience:
“Linda” might have appreciated the greeting, but I did not. Such errors present a clear message that the company is not listening as this information should have easily been corrected.
Personalization depends on two critical elements: having accurate data about the customer and understanding their needs in enough depth that the personalized experience is valuable. This goes back to journey mapping, use case development and testing, and other details captured through primary customer research. But if the data about the customer and their preferences are not correctly captured and synchronized across touchpoints, there is little for the systems to act upon correctly. In some cases, this requires new technology such as a Customer Data Platform to synch data signals from various systems in the customer experience/marketing technology stack. Personalization also requires a clear understanding of underlying data flows, processes, and information governance policies, procedures, checkpoints, and metrics. This information takes time to develop but is essential to providing a good customer experience. Even the basic customer data that was in Verizon Wireless’ systems was not correct — and was inconsistent depending on how I was interacting. Franchise store data was not the same as corporate data, which appeared to also be inconsistent with data accessed through the iPhone app and website. Consistency requires that different systems be integrated and harmonized.
While categorically, this bullet point is reasonable advice, the challenge is that it is an ambiguous recommendation at best. AI to do what? Exactly what is meant by “implementing AI”? Verizon’s white paper stresses that: “personalizing emails and texts to customers is virtually impossible without help from an AI or machine learning (ML) algorithm that identifies content relevant to each individual”. I believe in this case they are mistaking simple “identity personalization” versus “functional personalization.” Personalizing email, text, and greetings such as “Hello Linda” can be a simple rules-based “Insert First_Name” or other data surfaced from the relationship or account. But here’s the rub: the data must be correct. I am not Linda. Mechanisms also need to be in place to remediate the data when there is an opportunity to do so. Corrections communicated to support reps need to be captured or synched in a way that improves the experience. A lapse in process, technology, or both prevented the use of customer feedback to correct the data.
It’s important to note that chatbots and intelligent virtual assistants also need the right data — they have to be programmed with answers and functionality to be helpful. They rely on the same data as customer service reps, so if the data is “clean” then it can serve multiple purposes. If not, the same problem will arise whether the consumer is an automated system or a human.
Remember the human touch:
One example of doing this is by following through on promises made by the humans, such as the promise that I would receive follow on calls to help resolve the issues I was encountering. Feedback from the customer experience is considered Voice of the Customer (VoC) data. When an organization collects VoC feedback, there is an explicit or implicit promise to act. Why was there no response or feedback? It appeared that call center reps were not capturing all of the details of the conversations. Was this intentional to resolve the call more quickly? Or was it unintentional and due to time constraints or process/technical limitations? It’s difficult to tell without deconstructing the interaction details.
Call centers have a significant challenge in monitoring conversations in real-time or surfacing issues after the call. Artificial intelligence can provide real-time feedback and coaching to the rep, who will then interact more effectively with the customer. If a return call is promised, an AI-powered virtual coach can make note of that promise and flag the action for follow up which can be reported as an exception to managers should it not take place. AI and speech tone/sentiment analysis can also detect increasing levels of exasperation and frustration and escalate the call or provide “whisper coaching” from a supervisor or script.
After trying six Verizon stores, my wife was able to return the phones for the correct models. I still am not sure if the offer was honored (will have to wait for another monthly billing cycle) but the quality of customer service from store to store was vastly different. When my wife related to one manager that I had spent 20+ hours trying to do the upgrade, the manager responded with “Have you ever bought anything? Buying things takes time.” She turned without a word and left that corporate store. The franchise store was much more caring and compassionate. That is the human touch.
At the end of the day, executing on the goals of and operationalizing the new processes required by digital transformations is much more challenging than many leaders want to admit. It’s not easy and requires fundamental blocking and tackling around data quality, information architecture, user experience, knowledge processes, governance, feedback mechanisms, and analytics — more than it requires sophisticated and expensive technology. I am sure there are lots of stats showing that Verizon’s digital transformation was a success. And, I am sure there have been many benefits and efficiencies from the program. But from the perspective of a small business customer trying to do business, it receives a failing grade.
Appalling, disgraceful service Seth, and it seems no better with just about all mobile/wireless providers. Why do we allow companies to get away with this is a complete mystery to me. Perhaps it’s because we have no REAL choices. My blood boils when I hear stories like this. On the other hand, if my understanding is correct, (since I am not American nor living in America,) if Comcast could finally do a turnaround, anyone can. I’d love to hear others’opinions on this.
It was very frustrating at the time and I did tell people on multiple occasions that I would use the experience in my presentations and writing. It took a while to translate into actionable and constructive feedback. The way my wife was treated at the corporate store was most upsetting to me. While the problems of providing good customer service at the scale that Verizon Wireless has to do so is far from easy, can it be more difficult than building and managing such highly complex infrastructure and capabilities? We all take for granted the amazing functionality that we carry in our pockets and use each day. However the human to human interaction is not complex. How we treat each other is baked into the culture of an organization and that kind of interaction speaks loudly about that culture. I have always felt in many cases that when we are stuck with a limited number of providers, our choices i about who we hate the least rather than actually liking the company and wanting to do business. The franchise stores depend on good customer service and that is reflected in how they interact. Corporate not so much.
(Aki, I see they are not on your list of consulting customers. Perhaps they need to reach out. 🙂 )
Funny you should say that, Seth. I’m based in South Africa, and there are many, many incredibly competent and inspiring consultants in the USA – most of whom also contribute to these columns. But rest assured, we have tons of organisations here that will keep me busy until I am 90!