Most companies can handle the ordinary customer service issues just fine. Often, the difference between a company with terrible service and great service is what happens when things go a little wrong. Do customers get their problems resolved quickly and painlessly, or do they fall through the cracks and get ground up by the machine?
Last week I had the experience of being ground up by the Verizon machine.
I have a prepaid Verizon SIM for my iPad, and I was on vacation in a rustic camp on an island in Northern Minnesota. The iPad was my only reliable Internet service, and when I used up my data allotment I needed to refill my account.
At first I tried to use the "Manage my Verizon Account" feature on the iPad, but that gave me an error message and instructed me to call a toll-free customer service number. I called the number and explained my problem to the customer service rep, who told me that I needed to log on to my Verizon account through a web browser to refill it.
This presented a problem, since the iPad's data allotment was used up and there was no other reliable Internet connection available. I explained this to the Verizon rep, who gave me a verbal shrug and told me there was no other way.
So I sat at the end of the dock, where I could just barely get an Internet connection on my T-Mobile phone, to slowly and painfully navigate the Verizon website. After probably a half hour of this, I was told that I could not reactivate my account online, and I was given a different customer service number to call.
I called that number, explained my problem to the rep, who forwarded me to a different department and another rep, who forwarded me to another rep in another department, who forwarded me to another department. Of course I had to explain my problem all over again with each rep and read off the same IMEI and ICCID numbers each time.
For those playing along at home, the IMEI is 15 digits and the ICCID is 19 digits. You can imagine how much fun it was reading 34 digits to each of four different Verizon reps, all while sitting at the end of a dock with the wind blowing across the microphone of my phone.
The final rep, who was apparently in the same department as the very first person I spoke to, chastised me for calling back after I'd already been told I needed to go online (seriously!). When I explained to her that I had managed to go online and that hadn't worked either, she offered to transfer me into an IVR where I could refill my account through the phone.
After punching in the same 34 digits into the IVR, the prerecorded voice pleasantly informed me that I could not refill my account through the IVR and I would need to call customer service.
It was at that point (after two hours, five reps, and three different self-service channels has yielded nothing) that I gave up on trying to give Verizon any of my money. There is a happy-ish ending, though, in that I managed to find a particular spot on the island where I could leave my T-Mobile phone, activate the hotspot, and get a solid Internet connection in the cabin. T-Mobile was a lot cheaper, too.
I'm not sure what crack I fell through at Verizon that day, and I don't think I want to find out. Whatever the situation, it was clear that none of the normal service channels were able or willing to help me.
Verizon likes to talk a lot about how they have the best coverage, and there's no question that Verizon's coverage on the island was much better than T-Mobile's. But in the end, Verizon's coverage didn't matter because T-Mobile made it so much easier to be their customer.
The lesson from that day is that it doesn't matter how great your core product or service is if your overall customer experience is bad enough.