Too Big to Fail – But Not Too Big to Suck

On a recent “Real Time With Bill Maher” show, Maher responded to the announcement that Time Warner Cable would merge with Comcast Corp. in a $45 billion purchase. He noted that, combined, the two cable systems represent 19 of the 20 largest U.S. markets; and, apart from suppliers like Dish and DirecTV, they have no competitors in these metros. Further, Maher said, the two companies have the lowest customer satisfaction ratings of any cable system. So, as he asked his panelists, where is the value for customers in this merger if both companies are known to have questionable service performance?

On a recent “Real Time With Bill Maher” show, Maher responded to the announcement that Time Warner Cable would merge with Comcast Corp. in a $45 billion purchase. He noted that, combined, the two cable systems represent 19 of the 20 largest U.S. markets; and, apart from suppliers like Dish and DirecTV, they have no competitors in these metros. Further, Maher said, the two companies have the lowest customer satisfaction ratings of any cable system. So, as he asked his panelists, where is the value for customers in this merger if both companies are known to have questionable service performance?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will, of course, have a great deal to say about whether this merger goes through or not. During the past couple of decades, we’ve seen a steady decline in the number of cable companies, from 53 at one point to only six now. Addressing some of the early negative reaction to its planned purchase of TWC-which would increase Comcast’s cable base to 30 million subscribers from the 22 million it currently has (a bit less than 30 percent of the overall market)-Comcast has already stated that it will make some concessions to have the merger approved. But, that said, according to company executives, the proposed cost savings and efficiencies that will “ultimately benefit customers” are not likely to either reduce monthly subscription prices or even cause them to rise less rapidly.

Comcast executives have stated that the value to consumers will come via “quality of service, by quality of offerings and by technological innovations.” David Cohen, their Executive VP, said: “Putting these two companies together will not deprive a single customer in America of a choice he or she will have today.” (Opens as a PDF) He also said, “I don’t believe there’s any way to argue that consumers are going to be hurt from a price perspective as a result of this transaction.” But, that said, he also admitted, “Frankly, most of the factors that go into customer bills are beyond our control.” Not very encouraging.

As anyone remotely familiar with Comcast’s history will understand, this is not the first time the company has navigated the river of communications company consolidation: 1995, Scripps, 800,000 subscribers, 1998, Jones Intercable, 1.1 million subscribers; 2000, Lenfest Communications, 1.3 million subscribers.

In 2002, Comcast completed acquisition of AT&T Broadband, in a deal worth $72 billion. This increased the company’s base to its current level of 22 million subscribers, and gave it major presence in markets like Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Denver, Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia and San Francisco-Oakland. In a statement issued by Comcast at the time the purchase was announced, again there was a claim that the merger with AT&T would benefit all stakeholders: “Combining Comcast with AT&T Broadband is a once in a lifetime opportunity that creates immediate value and positions the company for additional growth in the future. Shareholders, employees, and customers alike are poised to reap considerable benefits from this remarkable union.”

There have been technological advances, additional content, and enhanced service, during the ensuing 13 years. But “immediate value” and “considerable benefits”? Having been professionally involved with customer research conducted at the time of this merger, there was genuine question regarding the value perceived by the newly acquired AT&T customers. In a study among customers who discontinued with Comcast post-merger, and also among customers who had been Comcast customers or AT&T customers prior to the merger, poor picture quality (remember, these were the days well before HD), service disruption and high/continually rising prices were the key reasons given for defection to a competitor.

Conversely, when asked to rate their current suppliers on both key attribute importance (a surrogate measure of performance expectation) and performance itself, the highest priorities were all service-related:

  • Reliability of cable service
  • Availability of customer service when needed
  • Speed of service problem resolution
  • Responsiveness of customer service staff

On all principal service attributes except “speed of service problem resolution,” the new supplier was given higher ratings than either Comcast or AT&T. And there were major gaps in all of the above areas. Overall, close to 90 percent of these defected customers said they would be highly likely to continue the relationship with their new supplier. When correlation analysis was performed, pricing and service performance were the key driving factors. In addition, even if Comcast were now able to offer services that overcame their reasons for defection, very few (only about 10 percent) said they would be willing to become Comcast customers again.

Finally, we’ve often focused on unexpressed and unresolved complaints as leading barometers, or indicators, of possible defection. Few of the customers interviewed indicated problems with their current suppliers; however, as in other studies, problem and complaint issues were frequently surfaced for both Comcast and AT&T.

It should be noted that having lost a significant number of customers to Verizon’s FiOS, Comcast has a winback program under way, leveraging quotes from subscribers who have returned to the Xfinity fold. In the usual Macy’s/Gimbel’s customer acquisition and capture theater of war, this marks a marketing change for Comcast. As often observed (and even covered in an entire book, with my co-author, consultant Jill Griffin), winback marketing strategies are rather rarely applied, but can be very successful.

One of the key consumer concerns, especially as it may impact monthly bills, is the cost and control of content. For example, Netflix has agreed to pay Comcast for an exclusive direct connection into its network. As one media analyst noted, “The largest cable company in the nation, on the verge of improving its power to influence broadband policy, is nurturing a class system by capitalizing on its reach as a consumer Internet service provider (ISP).” This could, John C. Abell further stated, be a “game-changer.” Media management and control such as this has echoes of Big Brother for customers, and it is all the more reason Comcast should be paying greater attention to the evolving needs, as well as the squeeze on wallets, of its customers.

Perhaps the principal lesson here, assuming that the FCC allows this merger to proceed and ultimately consummate, will be for Comcast to be proactive in building relationships and service delivery. There’s very little that will increase consumer trust more than “walking the talk,” delivering against the claims of what benefits customers will stand to receive. Conversely, there’s little that will undermine trust and loyalty faster, and more thoroughly, than underdelivery on promises.

When Companies Lose Customers …

United Parcel Service suffered staggering customer defection as a consequence of its 15-day Teamsters work stoppage in 1997. The result was that, even after their 80,000 drivers were back behind the wheels of their delivery trucks or tractor-trailers, many thousands of UPS workers were laid off. A UPS manager in Arkansas was quoted as saying: “To the degree that our customers come back will dictate whether those jobs come back.”

United Parcel Service suffered staggering customer defection as a consequence of its 15-day Teamsters work stoppage in 1997. The result was that, even after their 80,000 drivers were back behind the wheels of their delivery trucks or tractor-trailers, many thousands of UPS workers were laid off. A UPS manager in Arkansas was quoted as saying: “To the degree that our customers come back will dictate whether those jobs come back.”

The UPS loss was a gain for Federal Express, Airborne, RPS and even the United States Postal Service. They provided services during the strike that made UPS’ customers see the dangers of using a single delivery company to handle their packages and parcels. FedEx, for example, reported expecting to keep as much as 25 percent of the 850,000 additional packages it delivered each day of the strike.

UPS’ customer loss woes and the impact on its employees was a very public display of the consequences of customer turnover. Most customer loss is relatively unseen, but it has been determined that many companies lose between 10 percent and 40 percent of their customers each year. Still more customers fall into a level of dormancy, or reduced “share of customer” with their current supplier, moving their business to other companies, thus decreasing the amount they spend with the original supplier. The economic impact on companies, not to mention the crushing moral effect on employees—downsizing, rightsizing, plant closings, layoffs, etc.—are the real effects of customer loss.

Lost jobs and lost profits propelled UPS into an aggressive win-back mode as soon as the strike was settled. Customers began receiving phone calls from UPS officials assuring them that UPS was back in business, apologizing for the inconvenience and pledging that their former reliability had been restored. Drivers dropping by for pick-ups were cheerful and confident, and they reinforced that things were back to normal. UPS issued letters of apology and discount certificates to customers to further help heal the wounds and rebuild trust. And face-to-face meetings with customers large and small were initiated by UPS—all with the goal of getting the business back.

These win-back initiatives formed an important bridge of recovery back to the customer. And it worked. The actions, coupled with the company’s cost-effective services, continuing advances in shipping technology, and the dramatic growth of online shopping, enabled UPS to reinstate many laid off workers while increasing its profits a remarkable 87 percent in the year following the devastating strike.

UPS is hardly an isolated case. Protecting customer relationships in these uncertain times is a fact of life for every business. We’ve entered a new era of customer defection, where customer churn is reaching epidemic proportions and is wrecking businesses and lives along the way. It’s time to truly understand the consequences of customer loss and, in turn, apply proven win-back strategies to regain these valuable customers.

Nowhere are the effects of customer defection more visible than in the world of Internet and mobile commerce, where the opportunities for customer loss occur at warp speed. E-tailers and Web service companies are spending incredible sums of money to draw customers to their sites, and to modify their messages and images so that they are compatible and user-friendly on all devices. Because of this, relatively few of these companies, including many well-established sites, have turned a profit. Customer loss (and lack of recovery) is a key contributor. E-customers have proven to be a high-maintenance lot. They want value, and they want it fast. These customers show little tolerance for poor Web architecture and navigation, difficult to read pages, and outdated information or insufficient customer service. Expectations for user experience are very high, and rising rapidly.

Internet and mobile customers, to be sure, have some of the same value delivery needs as brick-and-mortar customers; but, they are also different from brick-and-mortar customers in many important and loyalty-leveraging respects. They are more demanding and require much more contact. They require multi-layer benefits, in the form of personalization, choice, customized experience, privacy, current information, competitive pricing and feedback. They want partnering and networking opportunities. When site download times are too long, order placement mechanisms too cumbersome, order acknowledgment too slow, or customer service too overwhelmed to respond in a timely fashion, online shoppers will quickly abandon their purchase transactions or not repeat them. Further, they are highly unlikely to return to a site which has caused negative experiences.

What’s more, the new communication channels also serve as a high-speed information pathway for negative customer opinion. If unhappy customers in the brick-and-mortar world usually express their displeasure to between two and 20 people, on the Internet, angry former customers have the opportunity to impact thousands more. There are now scores of sites offering similar negative messages about companies in many industries, and giving customers, and even former employees, a place to express grievances. It’s a new form of angry former customer sabotage, which adds to the economic and cultural effect of customer turnover.

For many of these sites, part of their charter is to help consumers find value; and, like us, they understand that customers will provide loyalty in exchange for value. They also recognize that the absence of value drives customer loss, and that insufficient or ineffective feedback handling processes can create high turnover. As one states: “The Internet is the most consumer-centric medium in history—and we will help consumers use it to their greatest personal advantage. We will increase the influence of individuals through networks of millions. We will raise the stakes for companies to respond. We will require companies to respect consumers’ choice, privacy and time, and will expose those that do not.” This may sound a bit like Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” but it does acknowledge the power of negative, as well as positive, customer feedback.

Some businesses seem minimally concerned about losing a customer; but the only thing worse than the loss of high value customers is neglecting the opportunity to win them back. When customer lifetime value is interrupted, it often makes both economic and cultural sense for the company to make an active, serious effort to recover them. This is true for both business-to-business and consumer products or services.

So how does a company defend itself against the perils of customer loss? The best plan, of course, is a proactive one that anticipates customer defection and works hard to lessen the risk. Companies need defection-proofing strategies, including intelligent gathering and application of customer data, the use of customer teams, creating employee loyalty, engagement and ambassadorship, and the basic strategy of targeting the right kind of customers in the first place. But in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, no retention or relationship program is complete without a save and win-back component. There is mounting evidence that the probability of win-back success and the benefits surrounding it far outweigh the investment costs. Yet, most companies are largely unprepared to address this opportunity. It’s costing them dearly, and even driving them out of business.

Building and sustaining customer loyalty behavior is harder than ever before. Now is the time to put in place specific strategies and tools for winning back lost customers, saving customers on the brink of defection and making your company defection-proof.