Sprinting Toward Disaster?
When an organization’s internal problems become public, how does that affect its customer service? And if those customers begin feeling expendable, what can the company do to keep the right ones? Dan Hesse, the chief executive officer of Sprint, the nation’s number-three provider of mobile-phone service, is trying to find out.
When Hesse took the reins last December, Sprint was already weathering a rough patch: Running a distant third to AT&T and Verizon Wireless in the United States mobile marketplace, Sprint was still trying to digest its 2005 merger with Nextel, a $35 billion deal that promised massive synergies, most of which never materialized. The company’s marketing was drowned out amid the hoopla surrounding AT&T’s exclusive deal to provide service for Apple’s wildly popular iPhone. And its reputation for customer service, already battered after a much-publicized effort to weed out “troublesome” customers, took another hit with recent headlines over illegal termination fees and a New York Times article in which an employee at Sprint headquarters in Kansas City, Mo., compared the work environment to the prison in the film The Shawshank Redemption.
Hesse has promised to turn things around, primarily with customer service. To start, Hesse told customers to email him directly, lending a human face to the company’s efforts. But with so many problems that the public is painfully aware of, is it possible to change the customer experience with little more than a new suggestion box?
Step One when customers are privy to a company’s internal dissonance is to rebuild their confidence. “With organizations that deliver really poor experiences and do it badly, as we’ve seen with Sprint, it takes quarters and years [to improve],” says Bruce Temkin, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research who focuses on the customer experience. “I don’t think anything changes in months. If we look out 18 months and beyond—and if Hesse really believes in the customer experience and is invested in transforming Sprint—it certainly can improve.” The changes need to be in the company’s culture, Temkin says—not just with its marketing.
Following the ads of Hesse committing to a complete turnaround, and asking customers to email him with complaints and to give Sprint another chance, the company says it received thousands of emails from customers happy to share their views. Despite Sprint’s earlier purchases of domains such as ihatesprint.com, Web sites dedicated to bashing the company and its flawed customer interactions continue to thrive. It’s going to take a lot more than emails to the CEO for Sprint to fully grasp—let alone improve—its situation.
“I want to see a CEO initiate much more focus on what they’re doing to employees than what they’re communicating to customers,” Temkin says. “Before you can hope to have customers believe that you’re delivering a great experience, your employees need to believe it.” At the end of the day, he says, Sprint’s issues are not primarily related to customer experience. They’re more a case of flawed management and internal disconnect. And that, he says. is something that even the best billboards can’t fix.
“You can’t advertise and market your way out of bad experiences,” he says.
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