Body of Knowledge

Business Rule #1: The customers have a choice … Make sure they pick you!

For every company, it’s a jungle out there…

Every day, every moment, you are either the hunter or the hunted.customerchoice
The strong and the skilled survive while the weak get cut from the herd to be killed and eaten – or just fall back and left to die.

And the pace gets quicker each and every day. Advances in technologies, the implementation of leaner processes, and improvements in business structures and practices – all serve to eliminate the sources of friction that sap energy and slow the pace of business and commerce. Innovations easily turn yesterday’s cutting-edge into today’s footnotes in the history books.

But each and every day also brings new opportunity to hone your skills, increase your value-proposition, and improve your chances to survive – even thrive, if but for a time.

It’s not easy; in fact it’s damn hard. But the opportunities do exist.

As in Al Pacino’s locker room speech in “Any Given Sunday”, the opportunities (“inches”) are all around us.

However, a business must have a capable team that is emotionally invested and believes in the vision of the business – as well as in the leadership and one another – so that, bit by bit, those opportunities can be recognized, vigorously pursued, and realized.

There is one twist in the interpretation of this movie analogy as it applies to business, because businesses do not succeed by beating one another in head-to-head battle.  They succeed by winning customers and retaining existing customers – a sort of proxy battle, if you will – with the ultimate measure of success being the conversion of customers into fans.

As a business owner, does it suit your strategy to be disliked by your customers?  To know they endure you because they have no other choice (or the choice has not yet been presented to them)?  If they had a choice, would they still be your customer?

Why? Or why not?

Are you getting old and find yourself having things taken from you?  Like employees or customers?

Look around you.  Do you like what you see?  Can you even stand the “face you see in the mirror”?

The following are some experiences I have had as a customer – my observations and the outcomes.  Perhaps you might find a lesson in them.  At the very least, I hope you find them entertaining and give you cause for pause.

Wells Fargo – Don’t call “customer service”, call “new accounts”.

I have a revolving line of credit with Wells Fargo which did not have a branch in Binghamton, New York (where I used to live), nor anywhere nearby.  But that was okay since all I really needed was to receive a monthly statement at my office so I could review and file away.  Even my payments were set as automatic withdrawals from my account.

But my office moved and every month, I would send-in the “statement stub” noting the change of address, and every month it would be ignored.  Eventually, the statements stopped coming as the “mail forwarding service” from the US Postal Service had expired.  I would be reminded of this every month when I was doing my bank reconciliations and would see the automatic withdrawal.

I made a call to the “customer service” number to have the address changed and was routed to the Wells Fargo Customer Service Center in Bangalore, India.  There, a polite woman answered the call and proceeded to query me as to some pertinent information to verify it was me (which I was very happy to supply).  However, there was one piece of information she wanted that I could NOT supply – and that was the amount of my last payment.

You see (and as I tried to explain to her), I could not supply the amount of the last payment.  I could only tell the last payment by looking at my monthly bank statement.  Which I would receive only after the next monthly payment was deducted.  I could tell the customer service person the second to the last payment, but not the last payment, due to timing issues.  Unfortunately, this would not satisfy her.

After some time talking around in circles, I gave up and told her I would try some other way of updating the address.  At this point, in a nice cheerful voice, she said, “Very well, Sir.  On behalf of Wells Fargo, I am happy to be of service to you.  Have I satisfied all of your needs today?”

At this point and in frustration, I blurted out, “No!  You have NOT satisfied all of my needs today.  In fact, you did not satisfy any of my needs today – not even the one, single, simple, need I had which you could have done anything about!”

I went to the Wells Fargo website to seek some sort of path that might lead to a remedy.  I saw a link for “new accounts” and thought; “I bet Wells Fargo puts their best face forward to NEW business as opposed to existing customers.”  After all, once you are hooked, they got ya’.  So I called.

Sure enough, a person with a distinctly American voice answered the telephone.  Even so, I quizzed her by asking, “Are you a card-carrying member of the Social Security system of the United States of America?”  Somewhat surprised, she answered that she was.

I told her of my experience with Customer Service and the call-center in India.  She asked me a few questions so she could take a look at my account.  She asked what the new address should be and I provided it.  Then she said (much to my surprise) that it was all updated and sorted – I should receive my next statement at the correct address.   I expressed my profound appreciation for her extra effort – she knew where that “inch” could be found.

Helpful Hint:  If you are not getting satisfaction with “Customer Service”, look for a way to inquire for “New Business”.  Companies always put their best efforts into customer acquisition.

The Inches:  Wells Fargo let the ball slip in the backfield, but still recovered for a gain of a few inches.

United Airlines – Best stock to short-sell.

I travel a lot.  Not as much as some, and not as much as folks think I do, but I travel a lot.

I always fly “cattle-class” (aka “coach/economy”) unless I get a free (or bargain) upgrade.  I am not a big person, so the seat sizes do not bother me.  Since I have “priority status” on “Star Alliance” and “SkyTeam”, I have access to the airline lounges, priority boarding and extra baggage allowance.  So, in reality, I would be paying a monster-premium on the airfare for the fancier food and drink on board. So it just does not make sense for me (even if a client is paying).

However, if I have a choice of airlines (and I usually do), I prefer not to fly on an American carrier (with the exception of Southwest, which is a nice airline.)  I just don’t “feel the love”.

In my opinion, the root-cause for this feeling and resultant experience is that American carriers suffer from an “identity crisis”.  Their marketing and messaging to the public and their customers is that they are “Grade-A” airlines (and they charge “Grade-A” prices) – but they deliver “Budget Airline” service with “Budget Airline” attitude.

I am not speaking of the airlines “nickel and diming” to death.  I can understand the argument that they are charging a minimum fee for the ticket, and upselling for everything above the minimum.  I am referring to the “attitude” with which they interact with the public – their customers.  They need to remember that a good attitude does not cost any more than a bad attitude – but a bad situation confronted with a good attitude will create a “fan”, whereas any situation (good or bad) encountered with a bad attitude will create a “one-time customer”.

Fans are much better to have as clients than a customer.  Fans are willing to pay a premium and are evangelical about the brand (just look at Apple).  With “one-time customers”, it’s mostly about the cost – with competitors racing towards the bottom in the sell-price, and clawing for every extra penny they can from those who have already paid and are “captive”.

The flight I usually take back to the States when I visit New York is Frankfurt/Newark.  And, although Lufthansa is my preferred airline when I fly, the Lufthansa flight uses an old and very uncomfortable Boeing 747 (the kind with the televisions in the middle of the isle, and where you have to watch what’s playing on it if you want to watch anything at all).  So instead I take United Airlines (which merged with Continental a couple of years ago).

This last trip to New York (and three days before my scheduled return), I wanted to change my return flight from Thursday to Wednesday.  The first thing I did was to go to the United website and pretend I was booking a flight just to see how full the aircraft was (when it comes time to reserving a seat).  I was delighted to see that it was filled to less than 50% capacity.

So I tried to change my booking on-line and the United Booking System informed me that I had to call “Customer Service”.  Placing a call into Customer Service routed me to where…?  Anyone…?
… Yep, I was speaking to someone (a gentleman this time) in Bangalore, India again.

The gentleman was very polite – and not helpful at all.  He informed me that the “code” on my ticket prohibited my rebooking or making any change whatsoever.  After some debate, I figured that I took the conversation as far as I could with the script he was given and asked to speak to a Supervisor.  While on hold waiting for the Supervisor, I am looking-up flight options on Kayak (one-way and round-trip) between Newark or JFK and Frankfurt – and I find a one-way flight from JFK to Frankfurt on Singapore Airlines for $375.

The Supervisor gets on the line (this time, a woman in the States).  I explain the situation and she reinforces what the first Customer Service person told me; because of the “code” on my ticket, there were no options for rebooking.  However, she could sell me a new, one-way, ticket for $700 (the original ticket only cost me $675).

I explain to her that the flight to which I want to switch is less that 50% full (with which she agrees) and that I am expecting to pay a rebooking fee of about $150.  She says she can’t do it for any price and that my only option is to buy a new ticket.

Then I tell her that I can book a one-way on Singapore Airlines for $375 – and that I am willing to give United this $375 to rebook (after all, it looks like someone will be getting my $375).  She says that the “code” prohibits her from making the change.

This is what I don’t understand;

  • United Airlines would not have suffered from making the switch because the new flight was mostly empty and there is no chance that it would sell out (100+ seats in 48hrs) in the beginning of March.
  • United Airlines had the opportunity have a double-win – keep an existing customer happy and keep an existing customer from trying the competition.
  • United Airlines forgot that “unlike rules of nature, rules made by man can be bent or broken by man”.  Some “code” should never prohibit a person from doing the smart thing – I am not even speaking about the “right thing” to do, but the smart thing to do.
  • United Airlines had an opportunity to gain $375 in additional revenue at a minimal of cost (namely, the cost of a person with whom I am already speaking, changing my travel record which she already has on the screen in front of her).

Of course, I booked the one-way flight from JFK to Frankfurt on Singapore Airlines.  The flight was nearly full with less than 10 seats open.  From pre-boarding to disembarking, the entire experience was fabulous.  The aircraft was squeaky-clean.  The on-board service was great with good food (selected from a menu – not “chicken or beef”) and free drinks provided by the most courteous staff I ever had on a flight.  Each seat had an internet and USB connection and the in-flight entertainment system seemed to have more selections to watch than I have available at home (the listings book is 102pgs long).

The Inches:  United Airlines had an opportunity to gain some inches and win the game.
– instead they fumbled the ball like Joe Pisarcik in the “Miracle at the Meadowlands”.

… I wonder what Sir Richard Branson and his team at Virgin Atlantic would have done? Or any other entrepreneur who knows the value of a customer.

Hertz is out… Enterprise is in…

Like most business people, I have an American Express card.  One of the many “perks” that comes with American Express is a special relationship with Hertz where I get a “Hertz #1 Club Gold Card”.  This card is supposed to offer a lot of benefits not available to the general user, such as “best rental rates” and “walk to your car and drive-off”.

However, the reality has been somewhat different for me.

For instance, I find that I get a far better rate (around 50% less, including all insurances) by booking on (the German website – being sure to switch to English) and prepaying the rental than by going to and trying to use my Hertz #1 Club Gold Card.  And even though it’s “pre-paid” (in that they charge my AmEx card at the time of booking), I am still able to modify the reservation without a problem – or even cancel it completely for a full refund.

But my real issue is with Hertz’s very aggressive “revenue realization” practices combined with very poor customer service and billing resolution department.

The first instance was a charge of almost $950 for… well, I could never figure out the reason for the charge (and the folks at Hertz could not fully explain it either).  Near as we could figure out, I was charged around $350 for my pre-paid rental – and then an “alternate-me” took another vehicle at the same time for $950.

Hertz insisted that I could be in two places at once and refused to issue a credit to my American Express.  Fortunately, a call to American Express to challenge the charge resulted in my being issued a credit.

The second instance was two “mystery charges” made aware to me via an American Express “not present at transaction alert” and were from a company called ATS (discovered to be American Traffic Solutions) – one charge for $149 and another charge for $39.

I never heard of the company and when I “Googled” them, I discovered they were some sort of service bureau for collecting fines, tolls and charges related to vehicle use.  Not knowing why I would have these charges on the statement, and being unable to contact anyone at the company, I called American Express (again) and challenged the charges as suspected fraudulent.

However, when I received my actual American Express statement, the charges showed as being from “Platepass-Hertz”, with Platepass being a subsidiary of ATS and Hertz having contracted Platepass (I know, it hurts my head too – pun intended).

Eventually, Hertz provided details via American Express related to my alleged extremely heavy use of an “EZ-Pass” during a rental.   The only problem was I was 250miles away at the time – a fact corroborated by the store charges made to my American Express which occurred at the same time, but 250miles away.  Still, Hertz insisted I could be in two places as the same time.

Helpful Hint:  Let the credit-card companies act as consumer advocates when you have an issue with a vendor.  Just be sure not to abuse the privilege.

So the time came for renting my next vehicle and I decided to use someone (anyone) besides Hertz.  I searched for a vehicle using and decided to give Enterprise a chance.  I must admit that I had some trepidation for engaging Enterprise due to some of the reviews I have read and stories I heard – but I could not believe my reality could be worse than my experiences with Hertz.

Upon arrival at Newark Airport, I went directly to the Enterprise rental office (which was conveniently located next to the Hertz office with which I was familiar).  The pick-up of the rental was hassle-free and I was in my car and on my way within 15 minutes.  The vehicle itself was in fine shape (clean inside and out) and it was a new Nissan Murano with 6,000 miles on it.


From: “Enterprise Branch Manager”
Sent: Monday, March 11, 2013 3:00 PM
To: Joseph F. Paris
Subject: RE: Billing Discrepancy

Hello Joseph.  What had happened are the rates from your reservation changed once you dropped the vehicle at another location.  I went ahead and adjusted that to reflect what you were going to pay originally.  The gas actually came to $74.04, but I went ahead and refunded an additional $50 for the inconvenience.  Hope that helps!

Your total is now $380.24 for the entire rental.  Let me know if you need anything else!

Branch Manager, Enterprise Rent-A-Car

Newark Liberty International Airport


From: Joseph F. Paris []
Sent: Thursday, March 07, 2013 10:35 AM
To: “Enterprise Branch Manager”
Subject: Billing Discrepancy

Dear Sir;  I rented a vehicle from Enterprise last week and, upon reviewing my bill, I noticed it was incorrect.  In speaking with “Brenda”, who was very courteous, she reached the limit of what she could do and referred me to you.

As you can see by the attached information (on-line booking, confirming eMail, and contract), the expected amount of the rental – for the make, model and duration of the rental – is $339.17.  I took no insurances.

–      Plus I “bought” the gas in the vehicle (I believe it was $50-ish, but is not written anywhere).

–     Plus a $25 fee for dropping the vehicle off at JFK instead of EWR.

I should make a special mention that I called Enterprise twice regarding the change in drop-off.  On BOTH occasions, I was told that I would be charged only a $25 change fee.  On both occasions, I pressed to see if there were any other charges beyond the $25 and I was assured there was not.  I even made the joke that “That’s less than cab-fare” and the woman on the phone responded, “Absolutely”.

That makes the total expected rental amount to be $414.17 (approximately, given the fuel is only a reasonable estimate).

… But I was charged $617.61 – which is over $200 more.  And, unfortunately, I cannot make sense of the receipt that was provided to me at drop-off.

Please review and do what is necessary to bring this billing into alignment with my expectations.

I had used Hertz for years – and have recently become disenchanted with them.  So I decided to give Enterprise a try.  I will say that the service was exceptional and the people very helpful and courteous.  I am inclined to become a steady client.

But please help me make this a “happy ending”.

Warmest Regards, Joseph F Paris Jr
During this time, my travel plans changed and I wanted to drop-off the vehicle at JFK instead of Newark so I called Enterprise to find-out the procedure and what charges I might expect.  I was told that I would only incur a $25 fee.  And, just to be sure, I called again a day later and was told the same thing.

I dropped-off the car at JFK and didn’t bother to look at the receipt as I was in a hurry to catch my flight.  When I did look at the receipt, it was not what I was expecting in that it was over $200 more than what I expected.  Of course, I called Enterprise straight away to resolve the issue.

I called the Customer Service number on my agreement which routed me directly to the office in Newark Airport from where I rented the vehicle (and not some foreign land).  Although the Customer Service woman was polite, she could not help me correct the situation to my satisfaction.  But instead of just leaving me to hang, she offered me the eMail address of the Branch Manager.

I plead my case via eMail to the Branch Manager (the details of the eMail and the response can be seen in the shadow-box).  The Branch Manager responded to my eMail within two (2) business days with the end-result being his exceeding my expectations and adjusting my bill with an additional credit given for my “inconvenience”.  Where I was expecting to pay $414, I was going to pay $380.

The Inches:  Hertz played like the hapless Buffalo Bills in all four of their Superbowl showings and couldn’t find an inch to save themselves – but, Enterprise knew where to find those inches and dominated like the 1972 Miami Dolphins in their “perfect season”.

Epilog:  A few weeks ago, I received a letter from Hertz telling me that my “Hertz #1 Club Gold Card” has been cancelled and my renting privileges suspended until I settle the accounts.  It’s too bad Hertz doesn’t realize I don’t need them, or their privileges.  I have alternatives available.

It’s not just about “cost”, it’s about “value in the eyes of the customer”.

Today’s buyer relies heavily on the internet for research before they buy.

When we buy fuel, we buy from the cheapest – even a penny or so a gallon will make the difference between a customer doing a stop-and-buy and that same customer doing a drive-by.  The same with groceries – given two places to purchase the same item, we will opt for the less expensive.  When we purchase items, we will internet shop to compare – the decision almost always being about price.

And why not?

There has been no interaction between seller and buyer, so emotion is virtually eliminated from being a consideration in the decision-making process.  Almost all of the research is done on-line without a salesperson, so there is no “guilt-factor” or appreciation established. A customer makes a purchase based on the best offer and has an expectation that the product or service will be delivered as advertised.

When it comes time for the customer to make their next purchase, they will almost always go through the same process to evaluate and decide primarily based on price – ignoring the virtues of the last experience, while punishing any vendor with whom they had a bad experience.  And since there was no personal connection, the vendor never even knows they were eliminated.

But there is ONE opportunity that still exists where human interaction takes place and where a company can differentiate themselves from their competition – and given the opportunity to convert that customer into a fan. That opportunity is found in Customer Service and in how a situation is handled and resolved.

So, if your Customer is greeted and immediately put on “Kevorkian Hold”…

… then you might need a rethink of your Customer Service.

If your Customer is greeted by a decision tree that requires a genealogist to decipher…

… then you might need a rethink of your Customer Service.

If your people in Customer Service can’t do the smart business thing because of “the system”…

… then you might need a rethink of your Customer Service.

If your people in Customer Service don’t have a culture of problem-solving, the skills or the motivation…

… then you might need a rethink of your Customer Service.

If you are more concerned about how much Customer Service is costing and not what it’s generating…

… then you need to go find yourself another job – and rethink your Customer Service.

Remember, the customer has a choice – with those choices being just a click away.

Your single biggest challenge each and every day – the one thing that should keep you up at night and always on edge – is why should someone choose to buy from youtoday?!

While you’re at it, try to convert your customers into fans!

Writer’s Note:  The preceding are accounts of my actual experiences from my personal perspective.  I am happy to consider a rebuttal from an authorized representative of any of the companies mentioned in this article.

By Joseph F Paris Jr

Photo of Joseph Paris of XONITEKParis is the Founder and Chairman of the XONITEK Group of Companies; an international management consultancy firm specializing in all disciplines related to Operational Excellence, the continuous and deliberate improvement of company performance AND the circumstances of those who work there – to pursue “Operational Excellence by Design” and not by coincidence. 

He is also the Founder of the Operational Excellence Society, with hundreds of members and several Chapters located around the world, as well as the Owner of the Operational Excellence Group on Linked-In, with over 30,000 members.

For more information on Paris, please check his Linked-In Profile

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