WASHINGTON - Tom Maguire, Verizon Communications' new Customer Care Czar, is one tough customer. When served chicken tacos without the chicken recently, he first complained to his waitress, then went online to the restaurant's Web site to fill out a survey with scathing remarks about his experience.
That accept-no-excuses attitude serves Maguire well when dealing with his own customers. The straight-talking Long Island, N.Y., native knows how enraging poor service can be. He understands that perfect service is difficult to achieve. And he grasps how important it is that companies hear about it when they fall short.
Customer service problems in the telecommunications industry have been nearing legendary proportions - last year's "angry 75-year-old Virginia woman attacks Manassas cable office with hammer" comes to mind. It's a challenge that telecommunications and cable companies are struggling to overcome as they compete for new subscribers paying $150 to $200 a month on average for phone, Internet and television services. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast are working to keep subscribers and lure new ones into subscriptions that bundle those services.
All the while, consumers have become ever more savvy and vocal about airing complaints, holding companies accountable through lawsuits and blogs such as Consumerist.com, which describes its mission as "consumers bite back." They have found powerful tools that resonate widely, such as the YouTube video hit of a Comcast technician asleep on a subscriber's couch.
"It's tough," Maguire said. "You always want to treat people as you want to be treated, but people also have the tendency to fly off the handle more quickly these days."
In an indication of how competitive the wireless service market has become, hours after Verizon Wireless announced a flat-rate monthly voice plan in February, AT&T followed with a competing plan, followed by T-Mobile the same day and Sprint days later.
Sprint knows too well how important it is to keep subscribers happy. In one year, the wireless carrier lost more than a million subscribers because of customer service problems. The company cut off its most nagging 1,000 subscribers last July, saying they called customer service too often. Now Sprint is trying to woo back subscribers with the most aggressive flat-rate monthly plan in the industry, which includes voice, text and picture messaging, and e-mail for $99.
Comcast, which offers cable television, broadband Internet and phone services, has hired 15,000 customer service representatives in the past 18 months, launched live online chats with customer service agents and upgraded databases and internal technology for call centers.
Philip Doriot, a partner for customer service consultant CFI Group, said that bundling services has added another layer of confusion for customers already annoyed by complicated multipage billing telephone statements, long waits and transfers with call center representatives, along with shoddy repair service.
"These are complicated issues and technologies that can take longer to sort out or fix," he said, "and a consumer just wants to get good service for phone, Internet and wireless and doesn't understand why it has to be so complicated."
Verizon ranks first in the industry for customer satisfaction with traditional landline phones, according to a University of Michigan survey. Its wireless business is in the middle of customer service rankings; its Fios television service isn't rated among cable television service providers because it serves only 1.2 million subscribers.
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