Train Wreck

customer service pixie dustOccasionally we’re all overcome by the need to go off on a good rant, and today is my day.  It’s a relevant rant, though, because the topic is of critical importance to every small business.  Today’s post is about product, or the lack thereof.  It’s also about excellent customer service. How does all of this relate to marketing?  There’s a simple connection, but a tale to be told first.  Here we go . . .

Last September:

Let’s turn the clock back in time to September of 2013.  Facing the imminent cancellation of the practically worthless health insurance policy that had been purchased from the health insurance oligopoly, an enterprising but self-employed consultant type (yours truly) turns to healthcare.gov in hopes of procuring an equally worthless, but less expensive insurance policy through the healthcare marketplace (trumpet fanfare, please).  Much to his dismay, he finds that the much heralded website is non-functional.

Three weeks later:

Along with the rest of his country, our hero learns that the non-functional website is likely to stay that way for some time. Apparently, development of online registration capability was underfunded by some $40 million or so, and the Canadian-Mongolian consortium of 13 different technology enterprises couldn’t get it to operate on the Microsoft Windows 2000 server that they had purchased on Ebay.  With desperate hopes and full confidence in the capabilities of his government, the intrepid entrepreneur calls a toll-free number where he has been told that it is possible to reap the benefits of the new program the old fashioned way – by completing an application over the phone.

2 hours later:

Exhausted but exuberant, our hero hangs up.  He has relinquished confidential information about all of his family members and has been rewarded with the assurance that communications from the great insurance Poobahs on the Potomac (or, as it turns out, Luminaries from London, KY) will be sent to his email address within three weeks.  Nigel, the representative who provided assistance, was ever so nice.  In fact, he was sparkling. His unbounded confidence in the system has comforted our hero. Dismissing slight concern that a Canadian-Mongolian cooperative that is unable to connect an old server to a T1 line might also not be able to manage email, the consultant rests content that the insurance needs of his family will be met. Even better, it looks as if the monthly premiums will only be slightly greater than the annual GDP of Nicaragua.

3 weeks later:

Matilda, the helpful and courteous customer service representative assures the consultant that everything is in order and that he should be receiving options for enrollment soon.  She references the conversation with Nigel, who happens to be her brother-in-law. There’s no further information required at present.  Only patience is needed and the consultant’s every need will be met.  Matilda is sparklingly nice. In fact, the consultant could  is amazed at the pixie dust coming from his iPhone as she talked.

2 weeks later:

The email communique from above-mentioned Kentucky-based Luminaries indicates non-specific trouble. It basically says, “Please call home. There is trouble.” With instructions to get in touch to complete an enrollment that had ostensibly already been finalized, our hero calls in to speak with Matilda’s cousin, Rafael. Rafael has sad news, “Matilda was sadly mistaken, comrade Consultant. There is information missing in your file. But I assure you that it won’t take long to fix the problem.”

message image from healthcare.gov

2 Hours Later:

Rafael has been exceedingly pleasant and polite throughout the conversation.  Now, he just can’t understand why the changes he has made to comrade Consultant’s file can’t be saved in the system.  After all, the Windows 2000 server is now up and running, and a backup unit has been acquired through Discount PC Online. “Comrade, I beg your forgiveness, but could you try to establish an account yourself and re-enter the record at a later date?”

The consultant, feeling charitable, accepts the apology and hangs up.  He is dismayed to find that his iPhone is no longer emitting pixie dust.

The Take-away:

I have always marveled at the courage of restauranteurs who open a new establishment. The first night of business is ever so critical. Everything must be perfect to impress the first customers, who, if they are pleased, will tell their friends. If the customers are displeased, they’ll also tell their friends, with predictably disastrous results. A little pixie dust, combined with a wonderful meal, is a good recipe for a successful start.

Our hero (me) is a political moderate and initially had high hopes for the ACA, despite some severe reservations regarding costs and the perpetuation of a healthcare oligopoly with gross revenues exponentially larger than the GDPs of Nicaragua and Papua New Guinea combined. The promise of the product was wonderful, especially for a self-employed hero in his fifties. Throughout the ordeal, the quality of customer service from healthcare.gov was nothing short of . . . ummmh . . . sparkling.  Nigel and his extended family were ever-so-pleasant, but follow-through and the actual product were missing.

I am not naive enough to expect government to run like business, and that’s not the point. Here’s the point and the connection between product, customer service, and marketing. Sparkling customer service and good marketing are the natural complements to excellent products, but all credibility is flushed when a company fails to deliver as promised. When this happens, any effort to communicate positive attributes of the business or it’s products are for nought. If the healthcare marketplace was a small business, it would have been pronounced dead by September 3.

The Moral of the Story?

Indeed, there is more to the story – unfortunately, more of the same. It’s now the end of 2013 and comrade Consultant did finally manage to procure an insurance policy – two, actually. After approximately 11 hours of time spent navigating the system by phone and online, our hero succeeded in obtaining a policy for himself and his wife through healthcare.gov. A dependent daughter was excluded from the policy because of system shortcomings that could not be unraveled and had to be insured under an additional policy. Now to the moral:

Sparkle is no replacement for substance. Pixie dust can’t deliver the goods.

 Also, sometimes a good rant just makes you feel better . . .

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