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Strategy - BLOG

When Persistence Backfires

Amitava Chattopadhyay, INSEAD Professor of Marketing and The GlaxoSmithKline Chaired Professor of Corporate Innovation |

Pushy customer service representatives trying to drastically alter the decisions of consumers can end up being a costly headache.

When Ryan Block, a product manager at AOL, tried to cancel his personal Comcast internet service, he hadn’t banked on a 20-minute verbal wrestling match with a customer service rep hell-bent on retaining him.

Refusing to accept his request to disconnect, the rep repeatedly asked, “Help me understand why you don’t want faster internet,” insisting that “I’m trying to help you. You’re not letting me help you.” Getting tired of the uphill struggle, Block recorded the final eight minutes of the call and shared the audio file with his 83,000 Twitter followers. The audio file went viral, being played 4 million times in the next two days.

What this sig­nals, aside from the fact that in today’s envi­ron­ment, mak­ing a con­sumer angry can have seri­ous con­se­quences for a brand, is that con­sumers are widely dis­sat­is­fied with major telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions providers.

This is not just in the U.S.; it’s a global phenomenon. For exam­ple, in India, my father had been try­ing for months to can­cel his inter­net sub­scrip­tion with a com­pany that shall remain name­less (only because a friend who is a senior exec­u­tive, at my request, stepped in and stopped the inces­sant harass­ing phone calls to him to ask why he wasn’t pay­ing his mount­ing sub­scrip­tion bills, although he had gone in per­son to hand over a let­ter request­ing the ter­mi­na­tion of the service).

Inter­est­ingly, when my father had tried to ter­mi­nate the ser­vice over the phone, the ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive sim­ply refused to accept that the ser­vice was very slow! An expe­ri­ence very sim­i­lar to that of Mr Block.

From bad to worse

But what Comcast decided to do next, stirred up another internet hor­net’s nest by offer­ing to take “quick action”, when apol­o­gis­ing to Mr. Block. Why did the apol­ogy back­fire? Well, the “quick action” and apology were the good news. The bad news was that Com­cast informed Mr. Block that they were going to take action against the customer service rep­re­sen­ta­tive concerned.

Mak­ing a scape­goat out of a hap­less ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive rather than look to see why this hap­pened and find a solu­tion to pre­vent this from hap­pen­ing again, doesn’t play well with con­sumers. They see it for what it is, find­ing a con­ve­nient scape­goat, a per­son likely to be just like them. The company has since admitted that “the agent on this call did a lot of what we trained him and paid him – and thousands of other retention agents – to do”, said Dave Watson, Comcast Cable’s chief operating officer.

The fact of the mat­ter is that com­pa­nies train ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tives on how to respond to cus­tomers. Sec­ond, they incen­tivise employ­ees to per­form in line with the train­ing. As much as 75 percent of a representative’s salary can depend on the suc­cess of the so called “reten­tion representative’s” abil­ity to reverse a can­cel­la­tion request! Accord­ing to a post on Red­dit by a per­son claim­ing to be a former Com­cast employee, if a reten­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tive fails to reverse at least 75 percent, they get noth­ing! This puts the rep­re­sen­ta­tive in a hap­less sit­u­a­tion, lead­ing to behav­iours such as the one expe­ri­enced by Mr. Block and my father.

Clearly, all the bad press has taken its toll on the Com­cast brand! As one mea­sure, its stock price dropped by approx­i­mately US$1 in the week after the story broke. That’s about 2 percent of its value, which comes in around US$2.8 bil­lion! So, quick action is good, but the quick action should be to find the real cause of the prob­lem and fix it! Not a knee jerk reac­tion to find and chas­tise a hap­less scape­goat who is equally a vic­tim of the com­pa­ny’s “system”.

Amitava Chattopadhyay is The GlaxoSmithKline Chaired Professor in Corporate Innovation at INSEAD and co-author of The New Emerging Market Multinationals: Four Strategies for Disrupting Markets and Building Brands. You can follow him on Twitter @AmitavaChats or visit his website here.

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