Nov 252009

Poor customer service is one of my biggest pet peeves, and lord knows, we encounter it virtually every day. Here’s my most memorable recent example, largely because of the sheer silliness of the situation. I visited Sel de la Terre Boulangerie, an upscale bakery serving gourmet breads, pastries, sandwiches and coffee.

  • My offense: I ordered a medium coffee in a large cup so that it doesn’t spill in my car.
  • The response: With a straight face, the cashier rang up a large because “we need to charge you for the extra milk you will be using.”

Brilliant! Annoy a customer over a measly…10 cents. Once I realized she was serious (which took an awkward 10 seconds or so), I dropped the extra dime on the counter and walked away, never to return. (There are at least 5 other places within close proximity serving as good or better coffee.)

Now for a positive spin. Because of this experience and countless others like it, we have come to expect such treatment, which is why it’s even more noteworthy when someone representing a company or brand surprises and delights you. And since the Thanksgiving season is all about showing gratitude and giving thanks, I want to call attention to someone, who on multiple occasions, has gone way above and beyond in providing me with superior service. His name is Kyle Cunningham, manager of the AT&T Mobility store at the Natick Collection in Natick, MA. For all of the legitimate criticism of AT&T’s shoddy 3G network and customer unfriendly policies, this guy makes up for all of it, and then some.

A bit of background. My BlackBerry Bold is near death. Despite OS upgrades, the device is super sluggish, has memory leak issues, and is powered by two almost completely drained batteries. Time for a new phone.

  • The problem: I am not eligible for an iPhone 3Gs for another 5 months, and the “powers that be” will make no exceptions to this policy. Sound familiar?
  • The solution: The best offer AT&T could make is $399 for the 12GB version, and only if I extend my contract for another 2 years. That is $200 more than the price I’d pay if I were eligible.

Sheer stupidity. I can cancel my account for $175 ($24 less), walk over to Verizon–whose network is far more reliable–port over my mobile number, and get a brand spanking new Motorola Droid for $200 with a 2-yr commitment. In other words, AT&T is telling a customer who has always paid on time, has 2 accounts (my wife is also a subscriber), and spends well more than the monthly average, that it will give him $24 to take a hike and go its biggest competitor. I guess AT&T doesn’t use CRM, segment its customer base, or care about retention or loyalty. Or if it does, it doesn’t know how to apply these tools and disciplines to real world situations. Maybe instead of spending time, money and resources on suing Verizon for false advertising, AT&T should focus its efforts on serving its customers.

Now that I got the marketing jargon in, back to the story. Despite it all, I am still with AT&T, because quite simply, Kyle provides the absolute best customer service on the planet. Having worked for mobile app company, WorldMate, I called on Kyle countless times over the past two years. In this particular case, Kyle not only did everything in his power short of risking his job, but he also offered to lend me his virtually brand new Bold until I am upgrade eligible. How often do you experience that caliber of service? I am 36 years old, and so far, just once in my lifetime. With nonsense business practices that create negative switching costs, AT&T puts an unfair burden on Kyle to keep subscriber attrition in check. I’m sure upper management doesn’t realize how lucky they are to have him.

In the spirit of the holiday, please express your appreciation to those who’ve served you well in the past year. If we let these folks know and share our stories with others (it’s as easy as a tweet or brief mention in conversation), just maybe kick-ass service will start to become a trend.

Nov 182009

Yesterday evening, I attended an MIT Enterprise Forum session on Marketing & Adoption Challenges, featuring presentations from the following:

  • Seth Priebatsch (CEO, SCVNGR). SCVNGR is a super cool, turnkey hyper-local mobile gaming platform with a high level of cross-device and OS portability.
  • Chuck Goldman (CEO, Apperian). Apperian is a Boston-based iPhone app development shop founded by former Apple execs.
  • Jaime Thompson (President, Pongr). Pongr is a service that connects users with brands when they snap a picture with their mobile camera and share with friends via social networks. Pongr’s differentiators include proprietary image recognition technology and cross-carrier MMS interoperability.
  • Jack Kelly (CEO, Adva Mobile). Adva Mobile is an app that enables music artists to engage fans on their mobile phones.

As you’d expect, during the panel discussion that ensued following the presentations, the challenge of discoverability was the most prominent theme. As folks in the industry well know, OS/platform fragmentation and incompatibility issues create a ceiling on viral sharing. Case in point – despite the aura and popularity of the iPhone, 93% of smartphone users don’t have one* and cannot download and use apps in the iTunes store. So while word of mouth can be potent, fueled by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media channels, you cannot simply refer an app to all of your friends.

*Note: This figure excludes iPod Touch handsets

One obvious solution would be some standardization agreed upon by the device manufacturers (a la the Blu-ray for high definition DVD), but we all know that isn’t going to happen given Apple’s obsession with control and closed software environment. And therein lies an opportunity…for Google.

Thanks to a media blitz, largely funded by Verizon Wireless (it finally has a venerable contender to the iPhone), the Motorola Droid will be the impetus to take Google’s mobile platform, Android, mainstream. While Google’s open platform strategy is the antithesis to Apple’s, like Apple it promises seamless integration with its software and tools, including Gmail, Google docs and the Google chrome browser. The next logical question: what about Search?

Imagine you do a web search for “Flight Delays Kennedy Airport” (maybe the query should be “Flights not delayed to/from Kennedy”), wouldn’t it be useful if in addition to a list of notoriously problematic flights and current delays, there was a list of mobile apps that offer flight delay notifications? In this particular case, TripIt, WorldMate, FlightTrack, TripCase, TripChill, etc. might appear. As Chuck Goldman points out, Google would have access only to apps created for Android and not to those in iTunes or other “closed” app stores where the meta data associated with the downloads isn’t accessible. And Google, much like iPhone, will take time to penetrate the market and capture meaningful share. That said, unless Apple wants to cede this competitive advantage indefinitely, it is in its best interest to lift the walls around iTunes and allow web bots to crawl and index its pages.

What do you think? Will Google’s approach with Android be the catalyst to solve discoverability for mobile app pure plays? If so, is there any hope for virality? Please share any comments and ideas you have.