Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Laughing with European carriers

I spent some time in Europe around Christmas, joining our team in Pavia and visiting family.

With the need of being always connected (my BlackBerry not being enough, apparently), I decided to buy a USB Modem Stick for 3G Mobile Broadband. They are very popular in Europe (in Italy, in particular, I have to say). You plug it in the USB port of your laptop and you have Internet access up to 7.2Mb (which is way more than my DSL at home...).

I did some comparative shopping online and, as usual, I ended up choosing a Wind one. They have the best pricing for someone which lives abroad. The box said "39 euros with 40 euros of traffic". Nice, they are giving me one euro!! Plus, they have a data plan for 12.5 euro cents every 15 minutes, unlimited traffic, on a prepaid card. What not to like?

I spent the 39 euros happily to get the box. The price was tax included: I am so used to paying 9.25% more than the listed price, that I look like an idiot when I buy stuff in Europe. Plus, I can't recognize Euro coins because I left Italy when we had Lira, so I look like a total idiot when I am carefully looking the coins. They do not get it I am a foreigner because my Italian is still pretty current ;-) They just think I am dumb, which fits with what came later.

I got to my hotel, opened up the box, followed the instructions to put the SIM card in the stick (not easy, a bit of geekness needed) and plugged it in my Mac. The installation program came up on screen (very nice, no CD needed, read directly from the stick: optimal because I do not have a CD reader...), two clicks and a "Connect" button showed up. I got excited and clicked. A few seconds and booom, I was on, HSDPA: everything superfast. My Mac started downloading emails, I opened a few web site, then everything stopped.

Oopss, what happened?

I decided to read the fine print (I told you, I am an idiot, that is what you are supposed to do first). It said I had 10 euros of traffic on the card, plus they were going to give me 5 euros every month for six months (for a total of 40 euros). Got it. Then I started wondering what kind of data plan was I using a few seconds before, while connected... I read a bit more and it said the standard plan was 0.3 euro cent per KB. And that I needed to send an SMS to activate the 12.5 euro cent per 15 minutes plan.

Ouch, I thought. A quick look at the log and it said I downloaded 3MB in 85 seconds. Quick math: at 0.3 cent per KB, 3MB... 10 euros gone. I was out of luck, not even money to send the SMS and request the activation of the time-based billing.

What???? You sell me a stick for ultra-fast download with a laptop and it comes with a per-kilobyte billing?? And I have to send an SMS with a card inside a stick (how do I do it?), with text "EASY SI" and wait 24 hours? Easy what? You took 10 euros out of my pocket in 85 seconds!!

What does a raged customer do in the US? S/he calls customer service. So did I, using my cellphone. American ingenuity.

A nice lady answered, Aurelia. I asked a few questions about my balance being zero euros. She checked and told me she had no idea where my 10 euros went, but she confirmed my balance was 0. I told her I was connected for a moment and she told me she had no idea, because they do not get traffic data until the next day (ooops, so much for real-time traffic inspection and billing). I mentioned my theory, that in 85 seconds I went through 10 euros.

She started laughing. I mean, not smiling. She could not stop. While she was laughing, she tried to apologize about it. But she could not stop.

I asked her if I was the first one. She said, the first one to do it in 85 seconds.

She was cracking up. I broke the Italian record for blowing 10 euros on a stick. I guess most of other users do it in a few minutes. I was quicker. The Usain Bolt of USB modem sticks.

I asked Aurelia if I won anything for breaking the record, like getting my 10 euros back. She became serious all of a sudden. "Nope, there is nothing I can do about it". She did not add "you idiot" because she was really nice. I told her "in the US, the customer service representative would apologize to me, give me back the 10 euros, then add another 10 euros as an apology". She was puzzled and did not know what to say. I thanked her for being nice and told her goodbye.

I was 10 euros lighter but it was worth it. I would pay 10 euros for a good laugh any day. Going to the movies is more expensive.

I have my card in my laptop right now. I have 27 euros on it because I had to top it with 25 euros to be able to use it (at zero euros, you can't do anything. Nice trick, with the 10 euros I would have gone by forever), plus they gave me the first 5 euros free for the first month (after sending another SMS). I spent 3 euros using it every single day for two weeks to check email, browse and Skype with people around the world (in Italy as well, since it is cheaper than calling from my Wind cell phone ;-) I am a truly happy user. No monthly bill, and I will be back in Italy a few times this year. The money will last me the full year for sure, probably even a couple of years...

Still, I have that nagging feeling that someone in marketing at Wind tried to rob me of 10 euros. And managed to do it. With a smile. Demonstrating I am an idiot.

Call me stupid, but I feel customer service comes first. If you are in a competitive market, with everyone around you trying to make you a pipe, you have to be extra-careful in managing your customers. You have to make them happy (not laugh). You have to convince them you are the best, that they really care about you. You have to make them love your brand, your logo, your customer service people.

If you don't, people will leave you for someone else as soon as there is a better offer. It is business 101. Carriers must learn it fast. There is no walled garden anymore.

In the new world of wireless, customers have the last laugh...