- September 9, 2010

Above and Beyond in Customer Service

A few weeks ago, I decided to buy a 4G iPhone. Previously, I had used an AT&T Tilt for about three years, having originally bought it because of its ability to reliably synch with Comscore’s corporate Exchange e-mail servers. Since I already had an account with AT&T, when I bought the iPhone I simply switched that account from the Tilt to the iPhone. I didn’t have too much time to get used to the iPhone’s functionality before having to leave on a combined vacation and business trip to Europe.

My family is originally from Northern Italy, way up in the beautiful Apennine mountains, so my wife and I were looking forward to spending a few days there visiting with family members and friends before heading down to Rapallo on the Ligurian coast for some R&R. With some free time on my hands, I was able to play with the iPhone and familiarize myself with its remarkable functionality. What I didn’t pay any attention to (or even think about) as my wife and I ate and drank our way across Italy was the mounting bill I was incurring for all the data I was downloading as I received and sent e-mails back to the U.S. and used the iPhone’s browser to perform all kind of online activities, including watching the Pittsburgh Steelers play a preseason game at 2:00 am Italian time. (Incidentally, the quality of the video on the 4G iPhone is remarkable -- I mean HD quality good). Back in the U.S., my Comscore colleagues were getting ready to announce our acquisition of Nedstat, the Web Analytics company, so I was also getting copied on a lot of e-mails as we coordinated Comscore’s marketing communications plans. Unbeknownst to me, I was consuming a lot of data in a short period of time

Towards the middle of my first week in Italy, I received a free text message from AT&T telling me that my data usage on the iPhone had exceeded my meager 20 MB international plan limit, and that I was incurring substantial additional charges. They kindly provided me with a URL to visit if I so desired and the telephone number of an AT&T client service rep to call. I remember thinking: “Hmm, that’s quite considerate of them to let me know I’m using so much data. They really have no obligation to do that. It’s my own fault for not paying attention.” A day or so later, I called the service number. A friendly voice answered and I explained the reason for my call. No problem, the service rep said, and proceeded to pull up my account data. As he was doing that I asked him where he was located. The answer was Texas. That surprised me since it was 9:00 am Italian time so it had to be very early morning in Texas. I asked if this was an inconvenient time. “Not at all” was the answer “It’s all part of the job.” I was impressed.

The rep then told me the bad news. I had used 70 MBs over my account limit and the additional charge was $5 per MB, or $350. Since I knew I was going to be in Europe for another week, I asked about plans with higher limits and selected one with 200 MBs. The charge was reasonable at about $200 a month for those months when I’m traveling internationally. I asked if I could I cancel at any point, knowing that I wouldn’t be out of the U.S. every month. “No problem,” was the answer. Then I asked a presumptive question: “Can I have the plan implemented retroactively?” I was most pleasantly surprised to hear that the rep could do that. So, AT&T was basically willing to forgive me the $5 per MB charge that I had contractually agreed to pay for data usage above my plan’s limit and instead charge me at a lower rate per MB using a plan that had a higher limit and which encompassed my prior higher level of usage.

In today’s day and age, this kind of exemplary service is worth mentioning publicly. AT&T wasn’t obligated to send me a notice about my data usage, but they chose to do so. And, they did so by texting me a free message. But, most importantly, they certainly weren’t obligated to install my new data plan retroactively.

I’ve used AT&T for years as my mobile carrier (I particularly value their International coverage) and I use them for a variety of other telecom services so it’s very possible that their actions were acknowledging the amount of business I give them. Whatever the reason, I’m really impressed and I can say that this experience has strengthened my loyalty to the AT&T brand. I also believe there’s a lesson here for brand marketers: the power of a surprise.

In a recent Comscore press release, I wrote about how brand loyalty has been declining since the advent of the recession. Because of this, there are significant benefits to marketers who take the initiative and provide customers something of additional value that is unexpected. Forrester calls it “ strategic generosity”. It’s basically something that surprises and delights and which says: “I truly value your business and here’s something you weren’t expecting that proves it.” Everyone values a pleasant surprise. When a marketer provides it to today’s connected consumers, the result could be a blog post of public praise – just like this one. And, in a Web 2.0 world, that’s a surefire way of increasing the odds of going viral.

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