In my last two blog posts, I described how an unfortunate series of negative experiences in setting up a trial subscription to a digital newspaper overshadowed the high quality of the newspaper itself. It’s a good example of how value is defined by the sum of the experiences and is not exclusively related to the features of the product itself.
 
I thought I was ready to put this frustrating situation behind me. As I reported earlier, I decided not to renew the trial subscription. So I carefully counted the days of the trial period and made sure I cancelled prior to its conclusion so I wouldn’t be billed for any additional service. The trial ended on a Tuesday so I cancelle  on the day before, Monday.
 
Guess what. When my next credit card statement arrived, I had been charged for another month of service at the regular rate. This was frustrating for three reasons; first I had cancelled prior to the period for which they were trying to charge me; second, the charge was $35 for one month which is significantly more than the $0.99 I paid for my 90-day trial; and third I had received an email confirming I had cancelled the subscription so I was not reading the digital paper for which they were charging.
 
After I counted to 10 and took a couple of deep breaths to calm down, I called customer service to correct this obvious mistake. There I learned that the billing occurred on a Saturday, three days before my trial subscription ended and two days before I cancelled. I politely explained this was inconsistent with the terms of the trial and that I had cancelled prior to its conclusion. Although courteous in tone, the customer service rep did not seem at all sympathetic and explained that the billing cycle is on Saturdays and that’s when I was billed. After a couple of slow and detailed attempts to explain why this was not logical, I was told there was nothing he could do to remedy the situation.
 
So I resorted to my previous tactic of sending an email to the VP of Customer Service and carefully pleaded my case. To his credit, I received a response within12 hours which included an apology and a complete refund for erroneous charge.
 
Now I think this trying journey is finally over. It was infuriating but reinforced two valuable lessons. Value is the sum of the experiences you have and there is a strong emotional element in assessing the way you are treated. These can overshadow the benefits of an innovative and unique product.

 
In my blog post last week, I described the difficulties I had starting an 8-week trial digital subscription to a newspaper. I explained why I had to call customer support seven times for a total of close to two hours on the phone and write to a VP of Customer Service to correct an erroneous double billing. There are some lessons to be learned so I’ll offer my suggestions as to what would have made this a more positive customer experience.
 
Be clear. When giving customer choices, be very clear about what is included in each option so they can make an informed decision the first time and won’t have to try to change it later. In this case, it was not obvious they offered a free reader that would only work with some levels of access.
 
Speak with one voice. If possible, inform everyone that communicates with customers about all special offers and programs so they can speak knowledgably and confidently. It undermines the credibility of the company when one of its representatives is surprised by an offer they know nothing about. The customer expects the customer service agent to be representing the whole company and to know what offers are available.
 
Offer one-stop shopping. Empower customer service agents to offer all specials, not just some of them. As a potential subscriber, I expect the company to make it easy for me to do business with them. I shouldn’t have to search around the company for the best deal. 
 
Empower your representatives. Customer service agents should be given the authority to correct small and obvious problems on the spot. In my case, I had been double billed for a single subscription. Instead of hiding behind a feeble “it’s not our policy to offer refunds on trial subscriptions”, I would have been favorably impressed with an instant credit and an apology. The few pennies the company saves by maintaining tight control over what their agents are allowed to approve is minor compared to the loss of good from inflexibility.
 
Fix problems the first time. It took me four calls to four different customer service agents to uncover the fact that the shared subscription I tried to set up hadn’t been confirmed by the recipient. First, the computer system should have made this problem obvious and second, it should have been one of the first things the agent checked when troubleshooting a subscription that wasn’t working. On-going training and the sharing of the most common problems should be available to all customer service agents dealing with customers.
 
As a customer evaluating a potential relationship with a company, I expect clear information, well-informed and empowered representatives that can offer me all the options and when there’s a problem, diagnose and resolve the issues quickly. Of course, the quality of the product is a major factor but you can see from this example, the poor treatment overshadowed a good product.
 
Does your company put as much effort into ensuring a positive set of customer experiences as you do in developing a quality
product?
 
If you extend a short-term introductory offer to encourage prospects to become regular customers, both the product and the service should be exceptional. Here’s a personal experience where the product was great but the service left much to be desired. This week I’ll describe my treatment as a customer. Next week I’ll offer some recommendations on what would have made it a higher value set of experiences.
 
I received a promotional email from a well-known newspaper offering a huge discount on an 8-week trial digital subscription. Having a positive impression of the paper, I thought I’d try it. The trial price was the same for all three levels of access; computer + mobile, computer + tablet, or all access. Since I don’t have a tablet, I opted for the first choice. Later I learned a
specially formatted reader that runs on laptops requires one of the options that support the tablet. No problem I thought, I’ll just call Customer Support and have them change my trial subscription to the all access. This shouldn’t be a problem because the trial price was the same for all options.
 
This is when it became a little challenging. The Customer Service Rep listened to my situation and agreed to switch my trial subscription from computer + mobile to all access. This was quick and easy. Only when I reviewed the confirming e-mail did I notice that the trial period was now 4 weeks, not the previous 8 weeks. So I called Customer Support back.
 
After over half an hour explaining the circumstances and checking with her supervisor, I was told they were not aware of any 8-week trial offer and could only offer me the 4-week period. When I politely explained I didn’t want the trial period to be cut in half just because they weren’t aware of it, she suggested I cancel the current 4-week all access subscription and resubscribe
for the 8-week all access subscription using the link from the initial email. She assured me I would not get billed for two subscriptions. Guess what happened?
 
When I received my credit card statement, there were two charges; one for the 8-week all access trial and one for the 4-week all access trial. I called Customer Support for assistance in correcting the erroneous billing. I was politely informed it was against their policy to offer refunds on trial subscriptions so there was nothing they could do. My calm, logical explanation that this was not a refund but correcting a double-billing had no impact. So I wrote the VP of Customer Service politely explaining the situation. I received a prompt reply with an apology and a credit for the second charge that should have been cancelled.
 
A few days later, I learned I could share my all access subscription with a relative. I entered the necessary information on my account page and discovered after a reasonable amount of time the connection was not working. On my first call to Customer Service, I was told their computer system was down and they couldn’t help me. The next day, my second call was met with puzzlement as to why it wasn’t working but was told their computer system was down and they couldn’t help me again. My third call on the following day resulted in the suggestion to delete the connection and try to reestablish it. This didn’t work either.
 
On my fourth call on the fourth day, I was informed the person I was to share my subscription with hadn’t completed the confirmation procedure of which we were never notified. The Customer Service Rep volunteered to complete the confirmation so the connection could be completed.
 
To summarize, in order to change my subscription from one level of access to another and set up a shared subscription, I had to call customer support seven times for a total of close to two hours on the phone and write to a VP of Customer Service to correct an erroneous double billing.

Next week I’ll comment on how I’d like to be treated as a customer and make some recommendations to companies which will improve the experience they offer their customers.