5 Business Lessons I learned from Sprint

January 7, 2009

Palm Treo

I’ve been a customer of Sprint’s now for over 11 years since 1997. It’s been a love/hate relationship, the actual service itself has been fine, but the customer service piece has been a struggle (and, that’s to put it lightly). The good news is that I’ve learned a good deal from the experience and I’m here sharing with you about how we can learn from the big guy and build better businesses. Thanks Sprint!

I’m in a two-year contract and it’s about to expire (March, 2009) to be exact. Every two years, I do a “dance” with their “retention” department to make sure I’m getting the best deal and to make sure they realize that I’m also considering alternatives. This year, I’m considering making the change to the iPhone or maybe the Android G1. I probably would have kept my Palm Treo and just stayed with Sprint as usual, but I will be leaving as soon as the contract is up. As you know I generally find negotiating fun. Not Sprint, the conversations are generally long and surprisingly, unpleasant.

Here are my 5 take-aways:

1) Don’t take your loyal customers for granted. It’s too easy to just rely on your current clients to stay with you through thick and thin and *NOT* treat them well. Losing a loyal customer is extremely expensive. I’ve spent over $15,000 on Sprint in the past 11 years. Losing me is expensive, but replacing me is going to be extremely expensive. Consider the cost of advertising and retention, not including my personal story shared numerous times. Take the time to thank your customers, add something special to your service. I love AMEX’s simple use of “Member Since”. At BuddyTV, we recognize long-term members through “Member Since” - what an easy way to recognize your best customers. Calling into customer service at Bank of America, I get a thank-you for being a long-term customer. Simple things go a long way and it doesn’t have to cost a thing!

2) Never threaten a customer. I think this is obvious. Not to Sprint. As I asked to speak with a higher ranking manager, the customer representative told me that my “account was subject to an audit as I’m receiving too many discounts and it may go away.” In fact, I was assured all of my discounts would be gone by March, 2009 since it’s the end of my contract. So, because I called in and asked to speak with a manager, my account is now going to get audited. Right… Reminds me of the ill-fated move by the record industry to sue its own customers for downloading music. I understand it’s illegal, but spend your time building a better business not suing or threatening your customers who are supposed to be doing business with you.
3) Simplify. I was on the phone for a solid 60 minutes with Sprint. I had to have a pen and pad of paper to go through all the options of plans and phone discounts I could get if I signed on for another 2 years. I understand plans can be confusing, but reducing options for the customer so they can make an informed decision easily makes business sense for both the business and the consumer. What if they started with “Mr. Liu, for our loyal long-term clients like yourself, our most popular plan is the Unlimited Plan?” If you’re running a web business, the cardinal rule is “less is more” - give less options, not more. Make it really easy for the customer. The same could be said for a new restaurant, new store, new anything. Focus on LESS and do it well!

4) Let Go. Simply put, there are good clients and bad clients. Bad clients eat up more time, they are less profitable, they would be better off to go to your competitor. Honestly, I would have been fine, if Sprint were upfront and said “Mr. Liu, we can no longer afford having you as a customer.” I would have saved 60 minutes and that would be that. Instead, their mistake was their inability to try to meet my needs and then try to convince me as to why I was wrong for trying to negotiate. If you have a client that’s not working out, be honest, and if you can help them find an alternative. I love Les Schwab, I tried getting a flat fixed there when the wait was well north of 4 hours and they got me directions for the nearest competitor.

5) People Remember and Pass Along Memorable Stories. Years ago a customer brought a used tire to Nordstrom’s due to its unconditional guarantee and the sales clerk accepted the tire because that’s what the customer wanted. These stories are memorable and are passed along. You rarely hear of any stories of Nordstrom clerks who hassled their customers, the clerks go out of their way to meet customer needs. Does your company create experiences that customers are eager to pass along? Is what you are doing unique and special that it’s memorable? Keep in mind that it works both ways and can be negative as well. I can’t imagine calling back into Sprint again…

No hard feelings towards Sprint, it’s a tough business. I found it a good reminder that great customer service is really hard to come by. The good news for entrepreneurs is that the bar really isn’t that high to provide great customer service that is truly unique and memorable. What things are you doing today that are simple and memorable for your clients?

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56 Comments »

Comment by emmanuel
2009-01-07 08:54:56

great post and it’s really informative, keep it up.

Comment by Jesse Witham
2009-01-07 22:01:27

I agree.. all of your posts have been great so far. keep it up!

Comment by Andy
2009-01-07 22:43:22

thanks guys!

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Comment by Jacob Rothenberg
2009-01-07 09:11:12

Great insights. As someone who currently works a day job in a business-to-business corporation, I can tell you that a customer service (or the lack thereof) sets the perception of a company.

An example of a web business being brought into the limelight for superb customer service is Zappos. Their business’s customer relations team is known for quick responses and impeccable followup with any customer issues. I couldn’t begin to count the amount of amazing customer service stories I have read on the web from customers…even though Zappos doesn’t advertise very much, they are known as THE site to go to for shoes — simply because their customer service is that darn good!

Comment by Andy
2009-01-07 22:43:57

I love zappos, what a great example of a company known for their service. Great example!

 
 
Comment by howard
2009-01-07 09:28:56

Here is an interest stat. In one’s lifetime, a happy custmer will share their positive customer experience with 3 other people, but a dissatisifed customer will share their experience with 3000!. With your blog post, you’ve alread disswayed me (and probably hundreds of others) from ever signing up with Sprint… Expensive mistake!

Comment by Andy
2009-01-07 22:45:24

you’re absolutely right, great point.

 
Comment by Michael
2009-01-22 20:04:51

Reminds me of an interaction I had a few years ago with Zeek’s Pizza: simple little matter about super-paltry toppings on $50 worth of pies. I sent a letter and never heard anything back. Anyways, not to rant, but I’m a teacher, and I’ve been using that letter as part of a letter-writing unit ever since. Students love knowing that they have a voice, that they can actually complain and campaign. And I get a quiet satisfaction knowing I might have turned a few souls away from Zeek’s. Come to think of it, Kinko’s customer service is pretty terrible too.

Nice work, Andy.

Comment by zeek Subscribed to comments via email
2009-10-30 21:45:14

YOU are the exact reason that i hate my job. What you don’t understand about Zeek’s is this; the dough, and the toppings can be very expensive, especially when we use fresh basil, cilantro, oregano, arugala, and many other things. Our crust is probably the best delivery pizza crust there is, and i have been told by many of our customers that they appreciate the fact that we dont pile on cheese, pepperoni, etc. because for once their pizza isnt covered in a half inch of grease when they go to take a bite. I hope you never come back to Zeeks, people like you who are so OCD that nothing you happy. BITE ME :)

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Comment by HOBO(nickname)
2009-01-07 09:40:20

Customer is the only reason to a business.

 
Comment by jtGraphic
2009-01-07 09:44:48

I like your bit about customer service. 90% of my business comes from referrals, and I get those referrals because our customer service is outstanding. Not just good or great. Outstanding. I won’t accept anything less. It really goes a long way when so many large providers are falling short. People are also willing to pay a premium for it.

Side note: I’m not sure if you keep a close eye on comments or not, but I’m using Firefox 3.x on a Mac and the font for comments seems really small. I find that I’m not reading them because it’s a hassle. Just thought you might gain from bumping the font up a notch.

Thanks, keep up the good work Andy.

-jt

Comment by Andy
2009-01-07 22:46:56

Jt - thanks for your comment. I’m trying to fix the comment thing, it’s starting to wear on my eyes too. Good point that people are willing to pay a premium for it, you won’t get Walmart prices at Nordstrom’s…

Comment by jtGraphic
2009-01-08 00:30:59

I see you’ve been in changing some things. Of course I’ll keep coming back and seeing what you’ve done with them. I’ve forgotten if you had Gravatars before, but that’s usually how I pick my comments out for replies. Just some more thoughts. Thanks for the feedback.

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Comment by Rich Subscribed to comments via email
2009-01-07 10:00:20

Nice Post Andy! Your story got me thinking about DirecTv and how I always get great customer service. They created a top of queue program for long time customers, (I have been a customer since 95). It is really nothing to them but to me it is everything not to wait or waste time on hold. DirecTV is building a support model that recognizes profitable and loyal customers. Just thought I would share.

Comment by Andy
2009-01-07 22:47:27

I love these examples.. keep them coming.

 
 
Comment by FunkySouth
2009-01-07 10:13:14

Interesting post, I do this all the time with my phone contract on O2. But what i love about them is the customer service is great and that why I love them. Because of this i talk in a positive way about them to friends and family.

Happy customers = more money.

Comment by Andy
2009-01-07 23:04:51

Taking care of customers definitely leads to more money and is the key to long-term success

 
 
Comment by zioneyemedia
2009-01-07 11:10:50

Liusky, I hear you bro. I’m almost there in terms of getting out of Sprint. I agree about the customer service being a$$, and would have loved a better customer retention management system than a take-it-or-leave-it business plan that they have now. I would love to get an iPhone but I hate AT&Crap (short story, my family got screwed by AT&T back in the day, and like you said, personal stories go far in this business), so not sure what direction to take at the moment.

Comment by Andy
2009-01-07 23:06:25

D- great to see you here and thanks for visiting! you’d think that one of the big providers would step up with great service. i’d love to hear what you end up choosing to do.

 
 
2009-01-07 11:38:46

I agree that you should never take your customers for granted. They’re the ones that can make or break you.

 
Comment by Jorge Martinez
2009-01-07 13:00:23

Great post Andy.

I think one thing the customer service industry is missing, is a sense of ownership. When this exist, everyone wins. The client/customer get the best service/attention because on the other end, there is an individual (the customer service rep) that is hoping to stand out from the rest of the staff. The service rendered becomes an extension of who they are—and that matters.

Not too long ago, my sister upgraded her phone and was not 100% sure she would be comfortable with the new model. She was told she had a few days to try it out and that if she felt the phone was not for her, she would be able to swap it for another—no questions asked. Turn out she shows up a day late and is told there is no way she can exchange the phone. Her only option was to pay a premium for a new phone.

She was pissed! she’s been a customer for many, many years. The difference of one day would not have made the phone any less usable for the next person, assuming the phone is being resold (I don’t know what happens to returned phones). My sister wanted to leave that company but doing so would still have cost her additional money. She would have been stuck with a pricey $300 phone she hates using and whatever charges would come with signing up for a new service elsewhere. In the end she felt it would be best to stay and learn to like the phone. She is reminded how much she hates the brand every time the phone rings.

I’d say her misery for $92 per month is a pretty good deal, huh? (Insert sarcasm)

Going back to ownership in the workforce, My hosting company is pretty decent to begin with but if you buy enough from them, you get bumped up to a premium account status where the added benefit is a dedicated rep. I love this. It would be nice though if this was offered to all at no extra cost.

I’ll be back for more Andy. Good luck,

Jorge Martinez
http://twitter.com/pixelbug

Comment by Andy
2009-01-07 23:10:37

Jorge - great story. it’s these stories that demonstrate short-sightedness, granted it’s very hard to run such a large business, but customer service needs to permeate throughout the organization top-down and prioritized. there are several large companies that do this well, so it can be done well. I think the sense of ownership is very important especially for the front lines. we, as managers, need to recognize our customer service folks are our most important employees. great point!

 
 
Comment by Oz
2009-01-07 13:02:49

American Airlines should read this. Actually, all airlines that are not Southwest should read this. How many times have I made small changes to a flight and am then charged the difference in fare plus a $100 “change fee.” Rude custy service also.

Comment by Andy
2009-01-07 23:11:54

funny, i think just about everyone has an airline story, most terrible. my friend neil had to pay for water on his flight. are you kidding? i love virgin airlines, so far, their customer service has been a cut above the rest.

 
 
Comment by Ruben Ricart
2009-01-07 13:27:17

Boy, can I relate to you! I had sprint for about 4 years and canceled my account about 1 1/2 years ago - they are a hassle to work with - they don’t cooperate with the exception of a few customer service reps their overall customer service department, useless! - Thanks for the post!!! You are like me - I try to learn a lesson from everything I do in life as meaningless as it may seem.

Comment by Andy
2009-01-07 23:13:07

agreed. i’m surprised by how much i learn from bad experiences…

 
 
Comment by AJ Kumar
2009-01-07 13:48:43

Andy, great take aways.

Just from my experience from having dealt with the top phone companies…

sprint - okay, slowly getting better
At&t - Sucks, reception is terrible more than half the time
Tmobile- bad reviews. they give you more minutes to make up for their lack of quality
Verizon - Best in my eyes, which is why I joined the IN network (no Iphone I know, but I hear there will be one in 2010

*these are my opinions from my personal experience.

 
Comment by chiropractic
2009-01-07 14:01:28

Andy, this is terrific! Could apply the same formula to my chiropractic business. I’ve learned that treating existing clients like gold is far less work then focusing on new clients. Bonus is existing clients are often the source of the new ones and they are “pre sold” on the services we provide. I find we just have to not screw things up and everyone is happy.

Comment by Andy
2009-01-07 23:15:25

especially being in a very trusted environment like your business, word of mouth drives a ton of business. one thing i’ve found also is to always ask for the referral, when people are happy, they want to help, and asking is always going to generate more referrals than not.

 
 
Comment by Paul Green
2009-01-07 15:45:15

HAPPY CUSTOMER = $$$$$$$

Comment by Vik Dulat
2009-01-08 22:46:56

This is so true. Offer your customers more than what they are expecting.

 
 
Comment by Aadil
2009-01-07 20:56:34

Wonderful insights Andy! Reached this page through Neil Patels blog.
Fantastic read indeed!

 
2009-01-07 21:19:21

People do remember and pass along memorable stories, that is for sure. What businesses should remember is that they are also passing along bad stories if the experience doesn’t live up to their expectations.

Matt

Comment by Andy
2009-01-07 23:16:12

even more so than good stories as howard pointed out!

 
 
Comment by Raja Kamil
2009-01-07 21:27:20

Could it be that, this player think his business is big enough?

Comment by Andy
2009-01-07 23:17:43

raja - it definitely could be. that would drive me nuts, a business that doesn’t innovate and rests on its laurels… sure fire way to get kicked by another competitor.

 
 
Comment by Jesse Witham
2009-01-07 21:59:55

great point about not only are they losing a customer, but they also now have the expense of replacing you on top of the initial monetary loss.. many companies do not realize that

 
Comment by Bryant Keefe Subscribed to comments via email
2009-01-08 07:39:12

Sprint is run by dumb people. I have also been with them since the 1997/1998 and I have had up to 6 lines at a time. I used to get those $800 to $1200 a month bills back in the day. Today they get $195 per month so $2400 per year from me. I still have 3 lines, 2 phones and a wireless card for my laptop. I will not stay with them at the end of my contracts and may pay the $600 to leave early. Not only is their service atrocious but their line of phones is antiquated at best. They have be losing billions of dollars so the market may reward them for their failure to treat us as the gold that we are.
Sprint is a perfect study in how NOT to run your company.

Great post!

Bryant

 
Comment by Vik Dulat
2009-01-08 22:46:07

To this day, I still don’t understand why companies threaten customers. One mad customers tells their friends and their friends and so on.

 
Comment by Adam
2009-01-12 12:14:01

Weird. I have exact opposite experiences with Sprint. I’ve been a member since mid 2005ish. I jumped on the Sero plan 2 years ago. They had to completely redo my account but eventually they had it set up. On top of that, I get a 23% discount through my former employer and negotiated unlimited texts/data/picture mail. The only thing limited on my plan is minutes (450) but with free sprint to sprint I never use them. There was also a promo awhile ago for $5/month off your bill.

In the end, my bill is $24. It has been as low as $18 before. Including taxes ;-) I want the iPhone bad, but paying $80/month for the same features just isnt worth it to me.

 
Comment by Jun Loayza
2009-01-12 17:43:45

“Let Go” is the point that I feel is most powerful. You always naturally seem to want more and more, but sometimes, you really have to control yourself to understand that it is quality, and not quantity, that makes a startup succeed.

Here are the lessons that I have learned as an entrepreneur. I’d sure like to know what you think about them!

Great post and I look forward to staying in touch!

- Jun Loayza

 
Comment by Tee
2009-01-14 20:09:47

Thanks Andy! This was exactly what I needed at the moment! If I may, I would add one (or make it a sub point?): Make it personal. I have always made it a point to have a personal relationships, to the extent that I could, with clients. It makes my job much more fun and my clients truly appreciate the connection (most of the time!).

 
Comment by Article Spinning
2009-01-25 03:10:40

Thanks for sharing this, Andy. If people like spreading anything around, it’s mostly negative experiences they had dealing with companies/services. That’s why every company must do all they can to NOT allow customers to have negative experiences, as you did with Sprint. I hope someone important at Sprint finds this post and makes corrections, least they lose many more customers.

 
Comment by Harnish
2009-01-26 16:22:07

Just as a good product or service is viral so is a bad one. And you are not the only disgruntled Sprint customer, I was too at one point and I just quit. And when other family and friends asked me for a referral I brought up my experience. They never bought their service or their phones.

 
Comment by Valorie Subscribed to comments via email
2009-02-20 13:21:25

Amen!

I was in management with Nextel (Pre Sprint buyout) for years.
And I always practiced “old school” customer service:

The customer is always right.
Always bend over backwards to help them.
Never bend over forwards, however.
Send them away with a smile and a sense of relief.
Ingrain in them that they can always come to you with an issue.
Word of mouth is your best advetisement…or your worst, you decide.

However, having said all that, Nextel’s corporate customer service was exactly as you described…horrible.
You could come to my stores and get excellent customer service, but at the same time they had already been trampled by our telephone “customer “service” dept.

I see Sprint is no different!

(I left the company at the onset of their nerge, which turned into a buyout and eliminated many jobs.)

 
2009-03-11 11:20:19

You are a very smart person!

 
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2010-10-29 19:26:23

Maybe you could edit the webpage title 5 Business Lessons I learned from Sprint to more generic for your webpage you write. I enjoyed the post all the same.

 
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