Sales and Sales Management Blog

January 27, 2009

How to Sell–and Not Sell–a Consumer Commodity

Filed under: Customer Service,sales,selling — Paul McCord @ 6:58 pm
Tags: , ,

My wife and I moved over the weekend.  Like every move, some parts went very smoothly; others, well, not so much.

One of my primary jobs in regards to the move was acquiring all of the various utilities.  I had expected this to be a relatively quick job once I had worked my way through the automated receptionist with each company.  It was.

Then came the day when the various utility service providers were to install or turn on their services.  We arranged for Debbie, my wife, to spend the entire day at the house, waiting for the two companies that had to come into the house, the cable company and the gas company, and doing preparations for our move the next day.

How these two companies performed during the initial request for service phone call and the actual instillation is a demonstration in how one company can thrive through superior service while another’s success is tied to lack of competition.

The cable company we chose (we have a choice of two) is SuddenLink Cable.  Suddenlink is a fairly small cable provider when compared with the really big boys, but unlike their big competitors, they don’t rely on size to sell.  Instead, they rely on service.  And that’s exactly what I received when I called to order cable and internet service.  I had heard nothing but good things from my friends who had the service.

The Suddenlink rep seemed genuinely concerned that I get the best, most cost effective package.  He also went out of his way to schedule instillation at my convenience, not Suddenlink’s.   The rep informed me that the installer would be at the house between 12:30 and 2:30 on Friday and that he’d call prior to arriving.  I figured that like most service providers, that meant he’d show up sometime before 5 and might even call before he came-or he might not.

At 12:30 sharp Debbie received a call from the installer who said he’d be at the house at 1:30.  He showed up 5 minutes early, was finished within 45 minutes, cleaned up his mess, and gave Debbie a detailed presentation on how to use Suddenlink’s recording feature.

The only hitch we experienced was with the internet service.  When I hooked up my laptop on Sunday-no internet.  I called Suddenlink’s customer service, worked my way through the automated receptionist (makes one wonder if these companies have any idea how angry these systems make their customers), was put on hold, and reached a technician within 3 minutes.  Unlike with my previous service providers, this technician was more than willing to spend as much time on the line with me as needed to both fix the issue and to make sure there were no other issues that might cause an issue.  Rather than getting me off the phone as quickly as possible, he was interested in making sure my system was working as it should.

The company lived up to its reputation and insured itself of another customer who will gladly recommend the company to anyone in their service area needing cable or internet service.

The gas company was a totally different story.  We have several choices of gas providers.  When I asked friends about their experiences with their supplier, not one person recommended the company they used.  Complaints ranged from pricing to lack of service to billing errors.

For gas service, I was on my own.  I chose Atmos Energy.  I don’t know what the others are like since I have only used one of the available choices in the past, but I believe Atmos is a strong candidate for worst company in existence.

Rather than call to establish service as I had done with Suddenlink, I applied for gas service on-line.  I should have known then it might be a rocky road as it took them 3 days to process the order.

But process it they did.  They sent me an email confirming my instillation date as Friday, Jan 23rd.  They said a technician would call prior to going to the house-and that a $23.50 hook-up charge would be added to my first bill.

Since I didn’t want the installation charge added to the bill, I called Atmos to pay the fee with a credit card.  Of course, when I called I had to wade through the automatic receptionist and was then put on hold for the next available customer service rep.  Within 60 seconds I was connected with a representative who gladly took my payment and then very courteously asked if I’d like to be put on the automatic payment plan.  When I told her ‘no’ she thanked me for my payment and reminded me that the technician would be calling on Friday prior to coming to the house.

Friday afternoon at around 3, my wife called me and asked if I’d heard from the gas company.  Not a good sign.  I immediately called Atmos’ customer service and was given a number of options by the automated system.  I chose to speak with a customer service rep regarding a scheduled instillation.  I was put on hold-for an hour and fifteen minutes.  While on hold I heard a continuous loop of messages from Atmos.  Four rotating messages played over and over-one on tips to reduce heating costs and three on the easiest way to make payments-the Atmos automatic payment plan.  They didn’t seem too interested in helping their customers, but seemed very interested in getting paid.

When I finally had the opportunity to speak to a customer service rep, I was told that the technician had called and no one answered, he then went by the house, no one was home, and he left a tag on the door stating he had been by.  I responded that I had my cell phone with me all day and had not received a phone call from Atmos and that Debbie had been at the house all day and although the electric and cable companies had come by, no one from Atmos had been by.  The customer service rep told me that the technician had noted that he had been by the house at 10:33 and had left a note and that both Debbie and I were either mistaken or misrepresenting what happened.

I asked to speak to a supervisor.

Upon explaining the situation to the supervisor, he told me that I had to be mistaken because the technician had noted in his log that he had been by the house at 12:30 and left a tag informing us that he had been by and could not turn on the gas because no one was home.

When I asked what had happened to the notation in his log that he had been by at 10:33, not 12:30, the supervisor simply said that he had been by and we had missed our appointment, but that he would personally arrange to have someone there the next day, Saturday, to turn on the gas and since the house was empty to just leave the door unlocked and the technician would take care of everything without having to have one of us at the house.

Saturday came and went.  Atmos Energy didn’t.

I called the Atmos customer service department Sunday morning.  It must have been a slow day as I only had to wait on hold for about 40 minutes.  The customer service rep informed me that no one had been by the house the day before, but we were scheduled to be hooked up Monday morning and someone had to be at the house since it was now occupied.

Monday, 11:40 PM.  I call Atmos customer service once again to find out where the technician was.  For almost an hour and half I listen to the loop of four Atmos messages-the one about how to save on heating bills and three telling me that I need to sign up for their automatic payment plan.

While on hold I receive a phone call from the Atmos technician asking if I am supposed to have my gas turned on.  When I answer ‘yes,’ he tells me he’s about 10 minutes away from the house and if no one is home he’ll have to leave and I’ll not get service turned on that day.  Fortunately, I’m at the house.  He shows up about four minutes later.  He turns on the gas, checks the water heater and furnace and is gone in less than 10 minutes.

In four days I’ve spent almost three hours on hold for an Atmos customer service rep, have been told that I either don’t know what I’m talking about or am a liar, and have been advised maybe 150 to 200 times to sign up for their automatic payment plan.  But I have found out that if I’m calling to make a payment I can reach a human willing to take my money in less than a minute.

I’ve had Atmos Energy as my gas provider for less than 24 hours.  I’m looking for a new provider.

One move.  Two very different experiences with service providers.  One I’ll let everyone who asks know how great they are.  They other I’ll let everyone I know know how lousy they are.

Both have limited competition.  One is a necessity, the other a ‘necessary’ luxury.  One company is growing due to its great service; the other is growing as their website indicates, because they are buying other natural gas providers and assets.

One earns their success, the other buys their success.

If, like Suddenlink, you don’t have the resources to buy your way to success, you’ll have to take the Suddenlink route and earn it by providing exceptional service.  And since, like Suddenlink’s, most of your competitors are probably little better than Atmos Energy at customer service, you’ll quickly stand out from the crowd.


1 Comment »

  1. I’m with Suddenlink, at Corporate HQ. Thanks for sharing your initial positive experiences with our company. We will continue to do everything we can to keep your trust. Additionally, should you ever encounter issues that you can’t resolve through normal channels, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly at More on who I am here:

    Thanks again.

    Comment by SFYI Editor — January 30, 2009 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

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