What You’ll Learn

The purchase stage is just the beginning of the customer relationship. It can also be the end of the relationship if service providers fail to engage and connect with the customer after the purchase. Implementing a retention strategy isn’t easy, but it can be the difference between losing an at-risk customer or gaining a long-term loyal customer. Listen to our guests’ stories on this episode of “Journey — Exploring the Customer Experience.”

Show Notes

Transcripts are lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Andy Johns: This is “Journey — Exploring the Customer Experience.” A special six-part StoryConnect miniseries hosted by Carrie Huckeby. Journey is a production of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. And in partnership with our presenting sponsor, Calix, whose mission is to enable broadband service providers of all sizes to simplify, excite and grow. Email us at hello@WordSouth.com to continue this customer experience conversation.

Carrie Huckeby: You’ve been sharing parts of your story all along the customer journey. A new chapter at every stop: awareness, evaluation and purchase. You’ve got to keep the story going, keep them interested, informed, engaged, connected and satisfied. It’s called retention. What do you know about your customers? What story do they want to hear? Do you track the average time a customer is your customer? Have you noticed if they become restless with a story or less satisfied at a particular point in the storyline, the relationship? If they stay long term, do you know why they stay? If they go, what drives them away? Acquisitions, the introduction, are thrilling for a marketer, but it’s this long term relationship that makes the difference in the bottom line. It’s the return of your investment. What are my guests doing to retain customers? I start with Dee Dee Longenecker from Eastex. She says her company retention story begins by having the right team and consistent training.

Dee Dee Longenecker: I think they absolutely know that the customer experience is important, and that’s one of the ways I feel Eastex is very special. You know, our CSRs are fantastic. They certainly know that. And I think they lead the charge every day because they’re that constant phone conversation or in person at the business drive throughs and dealing with those customers. But all of our plant technicians as well, you know, they’re going out — the installers and the trouble repairmen — they’re going out and interacting with customers, too. And we get a lot of feedback about what a great job they’re doing, how personal they are and how good they are with customers. So I think they absolutely by virtue of how well that they’re doing their jobs and interacting with those customers, I think that’s a testament to the fact that they do understand. And we do all company training. I do annual training across the whole company every year. And we talk about customer service. We talk about the dos and don’ts and the ways that we can assist customers to give them a better experience. We don’t leave anybody out. Everybody who works for the company, it’s all hands on deck because we know we’re community partners. Most of our staff, other than me and one or two other people, we live in these communities, and we know these folks. You know, we work on boards with them on school boards. And we see them at church, and we see them at restaurants. We support their small businesses, and we have kids together on soccer teams and stuff. So, you know, that makes it easy to prioritize the customer and their experiences when they’re really your friends and neighbors. And that’s really what I sense at Eastex.

Carrie Huckeby: As Dee Dee said, the right team and training is a must. Shannon Sears at WCTEL told me about the internal training program that they launched to ensure a consistent customer experience.

Shannon Sears: We’ve been preparing for a long time through our call center or we use something called Customer Care Expectations, and that is something that every customer service person signs at the beginning of every year. And it talks about this is how we’re going to treat our customers. This is how we’re going to talk to our customers. This is how we’re going to talk to each other. This is how we’re going to support one another, and this is how we’re going to meet customers’ needs. And it’s a three of four page document about things like that, about our group, how we’re going to do things. And that has been great because it sets us at the beginning of the year the tone for everybody. And we don’t change it much every year, but we ask everybody to read it and sign it. The other thing that we do is we do our own call coaching program for them. And basically what that is is we record every call. We randomly pull calls, and we review those calls with the CSRs, and basically their supervisor evaluates it. They evaluate it, then they come together and talk about it. We look at it as an opportunity to learn together. We never use that as a disciplinary tool. We use this as an opportunity to say, “hey, maybe we could have said this like that, or what do you think this person, how do you think they perceived what you said there?” And that has been great because they appreciate the feedback. Sometimes we’ll let them listen to other people’s calls with that other person’s permission and see how they did things. And so it gives us a great continuity and the way we talk to customers, but it helps us along the path as well to keep us very consistent in how we deal with customers. Our CEO says this all the time. “It’s not that we won’t have problems, but it’s how we react when we do have them.”

Carrie Huckeby: There’s probably nothing more important to retention than the right team and training. I mean, it’s the foundation. Are there other tools or initiatives helping my guests retain customers? I asked if retention offers and loyalty programs are part of their retention strategy. Gregg Hunter from Nemont kicks off this part of the discussion.

Gregg Hunter: It’s kind of funny that you mention that, Carrie, because I just actually spent some time — I don’t know if you’re familiar with Calix Circles of Success. They get a bunch of people to sign up for these things, and you go over different things. And one of the ones I went to is running an effective loyalty program just this last month. I had a lot of ideas. Unfortunately, nobody on the call that we were on had actually put one in place. And I’ve actually been trying to do this for well over five years. I keep getting a lot of kickback internally, and I think it’s because everybody is so busy. If I can find a way to do it without having a bunch of manpower in it and having something built through either our software company or have something that actually is somewhat seamless, I think if we looked at it, we would do it. I think the problem that I keep running into, and I hear this from several other telcos that I’ve talked to about it, is finding something that works with their software and finding somebody that actually is going to own it. That’s going to walk through the whole thing. I would own it if I could answer all the questions that I need to answer, but I can’t. And I’ve even actually talked to NISC, and that’s been probably five or six years ago about what if we did this? What if we did that? And like anything else with software, I think you have to have more than just one person on board. Otherwise, it’s not cost effective to actually look at that, how it’s going to work.

Carrie Huckeby: Greg faces the same challenge that many companies do when it comes to launching a loyalty program: time, manpower and an easy to track system. But I’m convinced he’s going to figure it out. WCVT’s Kurt Gruendling says his company doesn’t have a loyalty program. They simply try to build loyalty by doing the right thing each and every time. They do use some retention and win back offers, but their main focus is to find out why a customer is thinking about leaving.

Kurt Gruendling: One of the other challenges, you look at a lot of the big national telecommunications providers and cable companies. They’re all about these short term promotional offers. And I believe in trials and lowering the risk for people to try doing business with us. But that doesn’t always sit well for those customers who might be customers of ours for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 or more years. Why is the new guy getting this big special promotional price, and I’m not? That’s why we try to stay away from some of those just because I don’t think they do anything for long term loyalty. But it is important to make it easy for somebody to try our services and do business with us. And our hope is that we do everything right. We hit all those touch points. And the customer then obviously becomes that longer loyal customer to us. There’s a whole process that we start. Some of the challenge, especially like if it’s a number of port, right? Those customers are pretty much gone. Because that port comes in from the carrier and per FCC rules, we can’t contact or do anything at that point. So, you know, that presents some challenges.

Kurt Gruendling: If it’s a customer who is unhappy, obviously, with a service that says I’m going to disconnect, the first thing we do is put the billing on hold. Mr. Customer, let me get you to a tech support technician to help work through the problem with you. They’re not always willing, but we do try all those attempts. At the same time, we do have some retention and win back offers. But again, we’re not going to compete with Comcast on short term promotional offers. And oftentimes it’s not even financially viable to try. But if it’s a service related issue, we’re going to put that billing on hold and get them to a technician and do everything we can to make that customer happy. We don’t want somebody who’s unhappy with our services. We need to either, A, get those services working up to the standard that they require or there certainly is some times where it’s too challenging and maybe it’s just not a good fit.

Carrie Huckeby: Kurt makes a great point. Know when a customer is not your customer. We’ve heard the challenges of a retention or loyalty program. So what else are my guests doing outside the daily interactions with customers, outside those phone calls and those office visits? How do they position their company brand out in front of everyone else? Derek Barr is the assistant manager at Hardy Communications. His company has a big presence in the community, and his company’s employees take part in the events to help maintain their brand. They do some really fun stuff because, well, that’s just who they are.

Derek Barr: Everybody in the community for being a small company, there’s probably no other business in our area who does as much as far as promoting, sponsoring local events, local teams, all those types of things. We do a lot of that. We encourage our employees actually to participate in different civic groups, to get out there. And just a small thing that I’ll tell you actually makes a big difference. Whenever our inter-county football game happens, there are two high schools in our county. Obviously, they’re big rivals when they play. We actually joined with another company to promote that. We call it the Hardee Bowl. And we actually pay for every student K through 12 to attend that game for free. I mean, it’s not like I can put a monetary value on it. I guess we’ve been doing that for about 3-4 years now. And the response we get back from something like that is just amazing. So the schools love it, obviously, because it gets more people out to the games. We also make sure that on that game that we sponsor, that we have some employees in there working the concession stand as well. So we encourage them to do that. And then we just get to hear everybody saying, “this is wonderful. We appreciate you doing this.” So we do a lot of things like that in the community. To be honest, I’m not going to say that’s a strategy per se, that is something that we just feel is part of our mission as a co-op in this area. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. But it’s the type of thing that resonates with your customers.

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Carrie Huckeby: In earlier episodes of this podcast series, Deb Lucht, the GM and CEO at Minburn Communications, she told us about their hometown touch initiatives and company culture. She told me how they take those core values outside their company walls and into the community.

Deb Lucht: It really has allowed us to elevate our brand and also reinforce our core values within our organization. So we use a lot of times from the perspective, not just on a promotional side about what’s going on, but we do it for job recruitment. Because with our hometown touch, we’ve created what’s called a “Community Impact Team.” So as part of our core values and making a difference in our communities, we ask our staff to do a certain amount of volunteer time. And so when they’re in the communities doing their volunteer time, they’re wearing our special community impact team shirts. And so we’re able to promote on our social media the engagement that we have in our communities. It also allows us to promote our communities. So we assist them through our local channel, on TV and our Facebook, to promote events that are going on and elevating the awareness of the community itself. So we’re helping to support the community along with what the needs of our company are in making them aware of who we are and what we do.

Carrie Huckeby: Kurt believes that events are branding events and educational opportunities. Although WCVT has a long, long history, their brand wasn’t familiar in some of their newer properties. They launched a grassroots effort to tell their story and to show that their company and their employees are approachable and accessible.

Kurt Gruendling: One of the things early on that we realized is in 1996, when we did that first series of focus groups, we realized quickly that in the Champlain Valley area where we were at the local company for the last 90 years, that everybody knew us. If I had a question, I call the owner, or I stop at the office. It wasn’t so much the case on the Champlain Valley side of our service area. We had recently acquired those properties from GTE. And prior to that it was done by Continental Telephone. So they went through multiple companies in a short period of time, so three companies in six years. So one of the things that we realized is while we’ve been in business for 90 years and everybody knows us in these communities, it’s really an opportunity to do an educational campaign and just let these folks know who we are. So one of the things we realized is we need to start a grassroots public relations campaign to really get involved in all the communities that we serve over there. And we did. The local business organizations and local chambers of commerce where they exist, going out to the towns, the community fairs, the Addison County Fair field days. Ever since we’ve had a booth every year doing that. Obviously it didn’t happen this summer just because of Covid. First time in over 100 years that the fair didn’t happen. But, you know, everybody goes out to that. So it’s a great opportunity as a local business, we’re there. We have our products. But it’s a great opportunity to interact with our customer base and let them see our services, answer questions that they may have. Also you know how it is when you’re out there. I’ve been having a problem with this. Wow, it sounds like that might be Wi-Fi related. Let me take your information. I’m going to dispatch a technician to coordinate with you, and let’s take a look at that and get it resolved for you. So it’s a great opportunity.

Carrie Huckeby: Grassroot efforts and community impact teams — this is really good stuff. I love it. Speaking of events, we couldn’t talk about events without talking about 2020 and the pandemic. It changed the way everyone had to think about brand awareness. I heard a marketer describe 2020 as uneventful since everything was canceled. Greg told me about going from 70 events per year to seven.

Gregg Hunter: I’m kind of the guy behind the public relations events and a lot of the events — both sales and marketing events — that we put on during the year. And I can say that it has definitely been a huge change for me because I’m used to doing 70+ events a year. And last year we did seven. So a lot of stuff was canceled, a lot of stuff was out of our control that we couldn’t do. I think of the fairs that we do. We do a lot of stuff in the small community fairs. We go out into those small communities and do parades. I hope that we can go back to the events and stuff that we were doing. I think all of us miss a lot of that interaction that we had with our customers on a one-to-one basis when we were at a sales event. I think that I see in the future, just my opinion, that there’s going to be kind of a combination of both. The combination of where we were before and breaking new ground, coming up with different ways. We were doing smartphone classes here that we had a huge following with in our Glassco, that we had to quit doing that because it was primarily our older demographic that were attending those smartphone classes. And we had to pretty much just stop doing that. Well, I still see those ladies occasionally every day on the street, and they’re asking me, when are we going to do smartphone classes again? And it was such a great time because we got a chance to actually work with those people. We answered questions, and it was a fun time for everybody. We even had birthday celebrations, and sometimes they brought cookies. And I love cookies.

Carrie Huckeby: I love cookies too, Gregg. These events mentioned give the customer an opportunity to say you’re doing great, or you’re not doing so well. I’m not really happy. Listen to me. If you want to retain my business. As Kurt said, being approachable and accessible is the best way to get truthful feedback. Another way to get feedback? Surveys. Deb Lucht tells us about how they use surveys to build on their hometown touch.

Deb Lucht: Once we have a customer that maybe they’ve been with us for a long time, and they take our services and really don’t think twice about it. We reach out to them within a 12 month period and ask them how their services are. Ask if they want to have an account review and evaluate the services that they’re currently paying for and identify do you still need these services or are there additional services that you need? And so it’s just building on that constant hometown touch, the one-on-one business-to-business relationships that we’re building with our customer base. Two weeks after customers have taken our service or a new service with us, we follow-up with a phone call to see how they’re doing. We follow-up with thank you notes and making them feel appreciated that they’re doing business with us. And it’s that type of not just a blanket survey. We did those a number of years ago. And I think you get a fairly good response, but you really don’t have the opportunity to find out was there really something that maybe didn’t meet their expectations and then visit with them about it. And then once you’ve had that conversation, we can send a technician back out there to fix it or make it right, where you don’t get that in a a paper survey or electronic survey.

Carrie Huckeby: Kyle Randleman from Star Communications uses surveys too, but beware. He believes you can survey too often.

Kyle Randleman: We found that when we did it too often, our response rates would fall, and I wouldn’t really get, if you use statistical deviation tables and everything else, I wasn’t getting a good representation of my population. So, you know, I think I was over surveying at one point in my early career. And I think that’s a bit of advice. I would hand out to anyone listening. Don’t beat them. Don’t browbeat them to death. I got into that notion early in my career, and now I know better that it’s really hard to make a telephone cooperative look sexy. We’re just not. And that’s okay. But they care about their service. They care about what they get. They care that they’re getting a fair price or what they conceive is a fair price. So we try to do surveys, big ones maybe once every 5-7 years just to kind of get an idea of the market, how the market’s changed. And normally we really get good responses if we spread them out that far.

Carrie Huckeby: A survey that Kyle does on a regular basis is an installation survey. From that he developed the Three Touch Plan.

Kyle Randleman: The other surveys that we do on a constant basis are put into effect is after every installation. I did something called a Three Touch plan. And really it’s simple, but it was hard to put in service, Carrie. But something just hit me, and I’ve been working on it ever since. But the Three Touch Plan really consisted of, if anybody goes to our website within three clicks, I want them to have the data at their fingertips. I want our website to be very flat and wide, so they’re not having to go through menu after menu after menu to get to something that they want. That was a frustrating point that I wanted to fix. So Three Touch. The first part of that is three clicks. The second part of that is after we finished the installation within three days, I want to send them a postcard. Three weeks after that, we actually have the CSR that did the order to call out, and I ask how did we do? And it’s just really simple. It’s very casual, very quick. Would you suggest us to your neighbors? It’s not in-depth. I don’t want them overthinking this thing. So that’s the three touches that we kind of have put into place there. And it’s really worked out well.

Carrie Huckeby: I loved hearing about Kyle’s Three Touch Plan. The customer experience and the journey is about making it as effortless as possible. A website that’s easy to use, installation that’s done when expected, follow through. Well done, Kyle. We’re here at the end of this retention episode, and I want to wrap up with Deb Lucht. In the “Power of Moments,” Chip and Dan Heath tell us about the four ways to engineer customer experience moments. And one way is through insight. And this is when the customer realizes why they do business with your company. They become forever loyal. They become a super fan.

Deb Lucht: I’ll give you a kind of an example of a situation that happened here. Not only did our company have to deal with Covid in 2020, our exchange area was also impacted by the derecho storm. I’m not sure if you heard about that, but we had 120 mile an hour winds that went through our exchange area and services. Electricity was down for multiple days in some areas. It was a couple of weeks in Iowa, but we were fortunate that the maximum time was about a week. But during that whole storm, our services never went down. The fact of customers not being able to use their service had to do with the lack of electricity or power at their location, but not the fact that our service was not available. In the exchanges where we have a competitor, that was not the case. So customers who were on a competitor’s service, they were without service in some cases for multiple weeks because they were not able to get back and restore their Internet service. And we received a number of new customers during that event. And they were all very thankful, very appreciative and recognized the value of what we bring. In getting them service in a short period of time, if not 24 hours, it was with and at least two days to get them new service, where their current provider was telling them it would be a week, if not longer. So I think it does, in some ways, when you are able to provide that level of service, it does elevate what your expectations are from someone else.

Carrie Huckeby: My guests covered a lot of information sharing their strategies for retaining customers and turning them into fans. The key takeaways being the right team, consistent training, monitoring, community events and finding ways to get honest feedback. I hope you’ve heard something that sparks some new ideas to help you retain customers. Our next episode will be about advocacy. Are you doing anything special when the customer is doing more than just hanging around, when they tout your service and promote your brand? How are you thanking them? And honestly, advocacy probably gets the least attention than any stop on the customer journey. But watch for our last episode. My experts will share how they think they’re doing at the advocacy stop.

Andy Johns: We hope that you have enjoyed this episode of “Journey — Exploring the Customer Experience.” A six-part StoryConnect miniseries hosted by Carrie Huckeby. A special thanks goes to our guests and to our presenting sponsor, Calix. Visit calix.com to learn how their cloud and software solutions can help you simplify your business, excite your subscribers and grow your value. Journey and StoryConnect are productions of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources.