October 31, 2012
Like millions of Americans who live along the Eastern seaboard, my family got hit by Hurricane Sandy.
Now don’t get me wrong: Compared with residents of New York, New Jersey, and several other states, we had it easy in our little suburb north of Boston. Even so, there were a few exciting episodes, like this tree that fell on my neighbor’s house.
And then there was this power line that came down on the sidewalk across the street from our home, about 4 feet from where I had been standing 20 minutes earlier (I had been talking to a firefighter).
What fascinated me, however, was what came after all the excitement: service recovery by our electrical utility and telecom provider.
Let’s start with our local electric utility, NSTAR. As you can probably guess from the above, our power had to be cut. To restore it, NSTAR needed to coordinate with both our local fire department and our local public works department in order to get that giant tree off the power lines before it could repair them.
When I looked at the job ahead for the utility, I guessed that we would be without power for at least a day. But exactly 12 hours after NSTAR cut power so that the burning lines wouldn’t pose a hazard, the tree was gone and our electricity was restored. In fact, NSTAR beat its own estimate by about 90 minutes.
Now let’s turn to Verizon, which supplies our cable, Internet access, and home phone. In the run up to the storm, it was pretty good. The company sent us an email setting our expectations that in the event of a power failure our phone service would run on battery backup for up to 8 hours. What it didn’t say was that during much of the time that the system ran on battery backup, it would make a loud, annoying noise to remind us that the battery was running down. Nor did the email tell us how to shut off the noise, which is something we had to go puzzle out by looking at the fairly complicated box installed in our basement.
When the power came back on, our Internet access and television service booted up and worked perfectly. Not so our phone service. Sadly, when we pick up a handset we hear a busy signal, not a dial tone. People who call us get sent to voicemail immediately, where their messages will sit, as inaccessible as the surface of the moon until we can get a dial tone.
Okay, stuff happens, particularly after a “Frankenstorm.” With that in mind, I went to Verizon’s website where I was funneled into a self-service diagnostic program that failed to solve my problem. At the end of that process, I was told to start an online chat with an agent at the link “below.” Only there was no link below. So I went back to the top of the service menu and found the chat option (eventually) only to be told that chat was not available.
After repeated attempts, I have given up for this evening. However, I feel confident that I will get my problem solved soon. That’s because I have two great options: 1) cancel my landline phone service and have family members rely on their mobile phones (mine is with AT&T), which I’ve been thinking about doing anyway to save money, and now would be the perfect time, right? 2) switch back to Comcast. I’m pretty sure Comcast will get all my services working and give me a very favorable introductory price for six months — it's been trying like crazy to get me back since I switched to Verizon a few years ago.
Of course, if at the end of six months I find myself missing Verizon, I can get Verizon to come out and install new equipment and get all my services working for free. Plus it'll give me discounts and free services that I’d have to negotiate for as a current customer.
I tell you all of this not to rant but to illustrate a point. As my co-author and I explain in our new book, Outside In, customers today have more options than ever. That means that companies that behave like NSTAR did for my family will reap rewards like lower service costs and increased customer retention. Companies that can’t reliably deliver their services will not.
Which kind of firm will your company choose to be?