For most humans, George Costanza, is not a source of inspiration. Although there may not be an intentional desire to imitate George, the self proclaimed lord of the idiots, there seems to be enough similarities when dealing with DirecTV customer service that I feel a little bit like one of the horde of George's mistreated girlfriends.
Trying to be "Neil"
While DirecTV and Viacom aired their dirty laundry, I went about investigating my options and discovered that despite DirecTV's relative youth compared to its competitors in telephony and cable TV it has picked up a few of the behaviors of the others. Just as George Costanza became obsessed with imitating Neil, in DirecTV's quest to become the Mr. Peanut of the media delivery business, they have forgotten that the love of customer is the prize to be focused on rather than the cane, the top hat or the monocle.
Communications companies of all types created a metric referred to across the industry as "churn". Churn in this context has nothing to do with the butter-making tools of the amish. Churn measures the amount of people who cancel their subscription to move to another provider. More than almost everything else, the communications companies focus on reducing churn. Fear of the churn metric causes all sorts of backwards behaviors that would do George Costanza proud.
The most prominent of the anti-churn measures is the "retention department". The retention department is the last resort approach to stop consumers from breaking up with them. When George planned to show off his tall, beautiful girlfriend Allison by making a "grand entrance" in a backless dress and then feared she was going to break up with him, George started screening his calls with the idea "if she can't find me, she can't break up with me". The communications companies go to even greater lengths to avoid communicating with their consumers with the idea "if they can't find us, they can't break up with us".
Put it in "the Vault"
When I called DirecTV to ask some questions related to their spat with Viacom I inquired about the status of my contract and none of the customer service reps, nor their managers could answer my question. Even when they promised to research it off-line and then email me, they could not do that. They could only give me a 1-800 number and PIN that lasts for 5 days to check the status of my contract. Just in case you did not catch that, let me repeat; DirecTV actually spent money to set up a custom system that generates and expires PIN codes and a specific 1-800 number to limit how customers could get access to information about the status of their contract.
Another interesting tidbit from the DirecTV/Viacom dispute was how much effort DirecTV went to in order to not make amends with their customers for choosing to not meet their obligations to consumers. DirecTV did not attempt to make amends at all and instead shifted the blame to Viacom with the narrative that they were standing up for consumers. While this perspective is up for debate, what is not is that DirecTV captured the same amount of revenue from their customers, did not deliver the services promised, and saved the costs by not providing the programming in question. DirecTV did not, to my knowledge, volunteer to reimburse their customers in any way for the services not delivered. Like any profit before mission corporation of our times, DirecTV did the "smart" thing and waited for customers to call them. After all, would George give money back to someone simply because he'd failed to deliver a promised service? George tries to skip out on every financial obligation he can rationalize himself out of whether it is a share of the massage chair for Joe Mayo, a share of a Taxi ride uptown, or even a tip at Monk's diner.
When I contacted DirecTV via email and asked for some discount on my monthly bill as a form of recompense, they instead tried to offer me programming I was already receiving! It took 4 separate emails to get any gesture at all and it came in the form of something they love to give away -- three months of a different premium channel that I am now obligated to call back to cancel if I don't want to pay for it in month four. That's right. In an effort to make amends, DirecTV has given me an obligation! Georgie boy would be so proud. DirecTV is so committed to the charade that they were doing me a favor that I'm the one who now owes them.
What is the Opposite of Tuna on Toast?
Herein lies the problem. Rather than actually focusing on making their customers love them. Communications companies focus on making it hard to leave them. Hiding the door doesn't make a room more inviting, it makes the room a prison. The only Costanza behavior the communications companies have not embraced, other than the aluminum pole of Festivus, is George's epiphany that his every instinct is wrong. DirecTV, the cable companies, and the phone companies could learn a lot by simply watching "the Opposite" episode of Seinfeld and embracing George's mantra of "do the opposite". Stop making it painful to leave and instead make it delightful to stay.
Editor's Note: Stephen has strong feelings on customer experience as you can see. Have a read of Building Customer Experiences Requires Building Bridges to see how he thinks you can create great experiences.