Spare me from companies with seperation anxiety

“You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave!”–The Eagles, Hotel California

I knew I was in trouble when one of the phone tree options was, “If you’d like to discuss canceling your account with a specialist, please stay on the line”. Discuss? What was to discuss? I called to cancel my Tivo account, not to sit down and have a cup of tea and weigh the relative merits. I was suddenly seventeen and asking my dad if I could stay out past midnight. I wasn’t calling to get permission to cancel my account. I sensed this would be a difficult phone call. And I was right.
Tivo let go
I may be broadcasting my naiveté here it seems like companies are going to greater lengths to hold on to customers these days. In fact it seems some companies are placing a lot more emphasis on keeping customers from getting away than they are keeping them happy while they have them. I suspect this because my recent experience with Tivo happened almost ver batim a few weeks earlier when I tried to cancel my gym membership at 24 Hour Fitness. In fact I now believe I dialed into the same call center in both cases, although the Tivo “specialist” was nowhere near as pliable as the one I got at 24 Hour Fitness, who had a tinge of a middle eastern accent and was probably calling me from a business park outside of Bangalor. No I’m pretty sure when you choose the “discuss canceling” option, you ring up the east German stasi-trained ex-spa salesman mated with a pit bull, sitting in a dingy basement like a scene from Brazil, chained to a metal desk with lots of ambient blue smoke in the air. She has a computer with a black and white, 13″ TV monitor and a keyboard from 1930’s vintage Royal typewriter. She wears a black trench coat and has stubby, ink-stained fingers that nervously flick through a 4-inch thick company manual called “1001 Ways to Keep Your Customer” with the word “keep” in large, bold, impersonal sans-serif letters while the other set of fingers compulsively plays with a scale-model toy guillotine. Okay that’s overkill but a nice visual, yes?

But what’s really scary about all this is the scripted way in which both my cancelation calls went. In both cases the “specialist” was compassionate at first and seemed to understand my decision. With Tivo, I had valid reasons to cancel my monthly service, although nothing was really Tivo’s fault. Namely, with the particular entertainment center I own, I have no way to watch one show and record another which means I hardly used the thing and even my UC Berkeley math major brother in-law couldn’t figure out how to hook it up any other way. So Comcast made me a better offer, an HD, 2-channel DVR for less money/month than Tivo. No brainer. So when the compassionate approach didn’t work, she started to recite all the reasons my “generic” DVR was insufficient and my “high end” Tivo box had more attractive features like internet hookup and a DVD burner (features I never used, which I explained, but got nowhere). After talking smack about my DVR didn’t work she went to Level 3: The Shameless Pleading, wherein she offers a two-month freeze on the account so I could “reconsider” my decision after trying my new “generic” DVR. I politely refused her generous offer and interrupted her diatribe hoping the slight increase in volume and irritation in my voice would convince her to get right to the “cancel my account” part. But she had one last arrow in her quiver…

She was silent for a few beats and I could picture her reading from a script “pause here and sigh audibly before continuing”. There was a palpable note of fake exasperation in her voice when she returned as she said, “Al-right, sir…(pregnant pause) I’m prepared to offer you a monthly fee of $6.95/month, no contract, for the life of your service”. Clearly I was only in it for the money all along and I had finally beat her down. I’d only been threatening to jump ship, and I’d made up the whole thing about Comcast and the connection issues…I was after that $6.00/month savings and dammit…I had pushed and pushed and prevailed in the end! Now I was peeved. Heart rate quickening I said, “Look, let me save you some time here…I’ve already thought this through and nothing you’re going to say is going to convince me NOT to cancel so PLEASE, can we cut to the chase and do whatever you need to do? I’ve already spent a half hour on your web site trying to find out exactly HOW to cancel my account (which was true) and I’ve been talking to you now for 20 minutes not including the 5 minutes I waited for you to pick up. I know it’s your job to try to talk me out of this but it only makes Tivo look desperate. It’s kinda pathetic, really. So now will you please just cancel my account?”

Normally when my blood pressure is this high I’m prone to babbling incoherently (ask my wife) but in this case I felt so, dare I say it, righteously indignant I had no problem articulating my position, while (hopefully) leaving “my opponent’s” dignity in tact. Something I learned from Dad. Not that I always do it. Although, I have rarely been in similar situations, I do remember with fondness one that happened years ago when a used car dealer tried to welch on a deal to include a set of new tires on a VW Beetle. There I was sitting in some 1960’s vintage, crap office that reeked of ashtrays, surrounded by 4 or 5 salesman and managers in cheap suits all trying to blame the mistake on one of the “new guy” who “shouldn’t have made that offer”. So I told them “Look, I have no control over what your salesmen offer your customers but it was part of the deal and I’m walking out of here if you don’t stand behind it.” I was so right it was almost sport. They relented. I drove off with a new set of tires feeling like Clarence Darrow after the Scopes verdict. I’ve learned since that being “in the right” can have a very short half life and one should be wary of the feeling…but I digress…

There may be nothing so maddening than someone calling you “sir” while they treat you as if you had the IQ of a sponge wort. She insisted “Sir, you couldn’t possibly know I she was about to offer” and if I wanted to “stay with my generic DVR with its’ substandard features” she could put me on hold for 4 or 5 minutes while she completes the cancellation process. Finally, I drew a normal breath. The end was in sight. I’m pretty sure she used the 4-5 minute wait to use the bathroom, enter a stall and morph back into human form because when she returned she assured me, in a much more conciliatory tone, that it wasn’t her intent to make me upset but she was “just being sure I was making the right decision”. At this point if I’d had the slightest inkling that she actually WOULD have passed along a constructive comment to someone who mattered at Tivo, it would have been this, “You lost me at “discuss”.

Long story short…ish, my earlier experience with 24 Hour Fitness went almost exactly as described above, but without the over-the-top hard sell. My request to cancel my membership was first met with compassion, then a reminder of all the wonderful features of the “thing” I was giving up, then an offer to freeze my membership, then an offer to permanently lower the monthly fee, then a very reluctant but more business-like acceptance of the fact that I was leaving. In both cases, I was led along the same prescribed path, one carefully designed to lead me right back to the welcoming arms of the company, having learned the error of my ways…lost but now found, blind but now sighted”. But the bottom line is the almost lock step sequence of increasingly demeaning attempts to keep my business was beyond creepy. I’m actually tempted to cancel some more stuff just to see if it happens again. In the interest of full disclosure, I re-joined 24 Hour Fitness after a month or so. It’s a long story, and they’re by no means perfect, but they weren’t nearly as nasty and clingy as Tivo during our “divorce” proceedings. Tivo, on the other hand…well I have a little message for Tom Rogers, the CEO of Tivo…join me on camera three…

Hey Tom…ever heard of a book called the “Ultimate Question”? It’s by this marketing guru named Fred Reichheld. I read it because one of our clients is in the Customer Loyalty consulting business and I needed to bone up on the latest thinking in this apparently burgeoning field. The book, and in fact this whole, new industry is mainly about people like me, customers, and how we’d answer the one “Utimate Question”: “Would I refer your company to another person?”. Simple? You bet. Almost too simple, really, but pretty powerful when you consider that every Tivo customer, Comcast customer, corner grocery store customer ultimately has an answer to that question, and to the extent that the answer is “yes”, well that’s good, you’re doing something right; you’ve got more “promoters” than “detractors”. If I had to guess, however, I’d say in Tivo’s case the short answer to that Ultimate Question is “no” more often than you think. Why? Because of the way I was treated when I tried to take my business elsewhere. And I’m sure I’m not atypical given the competitive business space you’re in. Lots of “churn”, lots of ship jumpers out there. It’s just business reality. But the difference between Tivo and a company I might refer to someone else is…that other company would have to be able to make me feel just as good about my decision to join up with them as my decision to leave. They’d need to make a key assumption…that I know what’s best for me. And they’d have to respect that. In my case, the other guy had a better deal and the rest was just technical stuff, not your fault. There’s a lot about the Tivo product I like. And I wouldn’t have minded answering questions during my “exit interview” so you can learn how to be a better company. And most important, I would have gladly steered someone else toward Tivo who had a simpler equipment configuration than I did. It was the desperate attempt to hold on, even to the extent that your Customer Service rep tried to make me feel stupid, greedy and disloyal. And that’s what I take away from my “Customer Experience” with Tivo. Too bad, I’m probably in your key demographic.

So far be it to complain without offering some solutions:

  • First, make it as easy to cancel as to sign up. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but it works. You have to treat people the same whether they’re going in the door or out. That way they leave knowing the door’s still open a crack, in case things change. So please don’t make me waste time going in circles on your web site trying to find a “cancel” link (that’s MY business, and it’s really bad usability).
  • Next, when someone calls to cancel, sure, ask them why, once, respectfully. Hear the pain and if it’s something fixable, fix it. But hey, people aren’t ALWAYS dissatisfied. Shit happens. Thank the caller for their business and extend an invitation to return. Treat them with a little class and dignity, as if the company will survive without them. It’s basic human psychology; desperation is just plain unattractive, in a person or a corporation.

I could say more but I have to go set up my Comcast DVR to record a soccer match.

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