Losing a Customer for Life After Death


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Here at AMP, we talk at length about ways to drive brand awareness and advocacy but what about the other end of the marketing spectrum? What about those instances where a company has screwed up so epically, that it has actually caused a consumer to swear off the brand forever (and no, it’s not a tobacco brand)?

In 1987, when I was just a little tyke in short-pants, my family signed up for cable TV service. This ground-breaking entertainment option gave us a seemingly endless supply of TV channels. Never again would I have to play with an oversized antenna to watch the Fall Guy (epic show, BTW) and I was free to practice all my at-home, amateur stunts off the arm of the couch in the crystal-clear glow of our RCA television.

In 1989, my father suddenly passed, forcing my mother to deal with a burden of responsibilities. Chiefly among them was raising the nightmare that morphed into the blog author before you, along with taking over all of the family’s finances.

She dutifully paid her cable bill, every month for the past 21+ years. Our local cable company happily took her money. As I grew over the years, so did her entertainment options with the advent of digital cable, Internet service, HDTV, DVR and the occasional dabbling in movie channels. Never Cinemax though, my teenage years lamented.

Her bill had inflated over time along with a separate phone bill until ultimately it made sense to consolidate all these services under one provider. There was a great deal running with a competitor, so she decided to make the jump. Once the new service had been installed, she called our old provider to discontinue service and cancel the account. That’s when things took an unfortunate turn.

When she spoke to a customer service rep, he asked to speak to “Robert”. My mother explained that she has been managing the family account that’s been in her late husband’s name for the past twenty-something years. Apparently, my mother’s name was not on the account and the account holder was my father (it was the 80s! THAT’S HOW THINGS WERE BACK THEN). The customer service rep, unsure of what to do, again stressed that he needed to speak with my late father. My mother, sense of humor intact, wished him luck then explained that she has been managing the finances for all utilities in his absence.

Then the customer service rep insisted to see a death certificate. Or a newspaper clipping announcing his death.

I’m going to pause here so you can let that sink in for a minute.

It is this company’s policy that only the account holder (and approved persons) can make changes to an account, whether it’s adding more service or cancelling. This is especially interesting since DVR wasn’t available in 1987. Clearly they had revised the rules over the years, but why not grandfather her in on the former policy / agreement? Oh right, because the agreement is subject to change. It’d be nice if the other party in said agreement had that type of power. “I’ve actually revised my terms and conditions and I’ll only be paying 80% of the bill, effective immediately.” Man, that’d be awesome.

I learned from a personal follow-up call to the company that my mother could have simply produced any document that lists her as an executor of the estate or owner of the property (i.e. a copy of her mortgage). Wouldn’t that have been a lot easier to ask for? Way less dramatic, though.

The above experience lies at the intersection of bad policy and poor customer service. I understand that in these economic times people have resorted to desperate measures, faking one’s death notwithstanding. But there are a number of other utility companies out there that do not employ that policy. Best practices be damned, I suppose. The result of that experience is a customer who has switched to a competitor solely based on a better offer but now has vowed never to return.

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