I was recently in a Manhattan subway station when I spotted two old, peeling stickers on the wall (see photo) bearing these names:
New York Telephone
These names represent over 30 years of phone service in New York. And although the stickers are torn and defaced today, each company had its heyday as a seemingly unstoppable monopoly, with a certain defining attitude toward customers. The Wikipedia entry for Nynex, for example, writes of “its reputation of poor customer service and low reliability. During its era, long-term issues regarding corrupt and faulty business practices, phones frequently breaking down, and missed repair appointments were reported.”
Sound familiar? Some of the same things are being said today about Time Warner and Comcast. (As the New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson put it, “the 4th most disliked company in America just bought the 6th most disliked.”) And yet this is not unique to telecom companies. In any non-competitive environment, where customers have no easy way to punish bad service by quitting, the monopolist feels no incentive to treat customers well.
That might be the final conclusion, except for something pointed out two centuries ago by Percy Bysshe Shelley in a poem called Ozymandias. You might remember it from school: an ancient statue lies rotting in the desert, a stark reminder that no empire lasts forever. The tattered subway stickers make the same statement. Time Warner and Comcast won’t last forever, but they can choose how they treat their customers while they’re still around.
Since I’m in the business of offering strategic direction to executives who manage the customer experience, I’d like to offer a few suggestions that, I hope, will find their way to the senior leadership of Comcast and Time Warner.
First, spend some time with customers. Not in a focus group. I mean real, authentic human interaction: one-on-one listening labs helping you understand the true customer experience your company creates. (For details, read our book or contact us.)
Second, be honest about your customer experience. It doesn’t count if, as the CEO of Comcast, you go onto an MSNBC show (owned by Comcast) and have the host (an employee of Comcast) ask you softball questions that he admits are softballs. (Yes, this actually happened.) For that matter, it also doesn’t count if, as Time Warner CEO, you state publicly say that you’re “putting the customer at the center of everything we do” if you don’t then take action on that point. (Check the MSNBC interview and judge for yourself whether this is happening.)
Finally, think about your legacy. Would you rather be known as the executive who fought the FCC and won, building a formidable monopoly that scared off would-be competitors (as Joe Nocera writes could occur)? Or would you rather be known as someone who actually made people’s lives better? Or heck, at least as someone who provided nominally decent service for a fair price? Time Warner hasn’t yet cleared that bar.
For the rest of us, customers who have whatever experience the companies serve up, take heart. Some companies actually do value the customer experience, and it’s possible Comcast might come around. But even if not, every monopoly, no matter how powerful, will eventually look like Ozymandias.