Account.

“I-JUST-WANT-MY-ACCOUNT-NUMBER!”.

I recently changed from Vodafone Australia to another carrier for my mobile phone. To do so I needed the account number, so I called Vodafone and after being on hold and listening to a seemingly endless number of prompts, finally spoke to an operator.

“Can I ask why you want your account number?” she said. Even though I thought it was none of her business, I politely replied that the shop assistant needed it to port my number across to a new carrier (more fool me for not having a paper or electronic bill handy).

She asked why I was leaving Vodafone, informed me I was eligible for a phone upgrade and rattled off other useless information. I said no, no, no and no again to her questions and politely asked: “Can I have my account number now please?”

Amazingly, she could not access it and put me through to the billing department. Not for a moment do I believe that a call-centre operator who can call up information about your phone plan cannot access your account number.

The billing officer’s first question was: ‘Can I ask why you want your account number?’ He too said I could get a new phone and rattled off other information. Again, more time was wasted.

What started as a pleasant conversation ended up a bit heated. Unlike many, I never had a big problem with Vodafone, certainly not enough to swap carriers, and had used it for years. If anything, I thought they had improved noticably in the past year. I only swapped carriers because of poor coverage at my parent’s house in country Queensland. It’s fine everywhere else for me.

The experience was an interesting insight into how companies incinerate the remaining shreds of a customer’s goodwill when they leave. And why companies need to get much better at managing “exits”, to ensure a customer is not lost for life and the brand is not trashed in online forums such as this one.

What’s your view?

  • Do you think too many companies make it unfairly hard to move to a competitor?
  • Which companies are the worst at making it impossible to close an account?
  • What’s your worst experience when trying to switch between phone or utility companies?

I’m sure the two Vodafone people I spoke to were only doing their job and following a script, and I feel sorry for them having to deal with irate customers.

I also get why companies make it hard for customers to leave through “high switching costs”. They want “sticky” products and services: in my case, it took a few hours to change carriers and reconfigure the phone.

There has to be a point where a company realises that nothing it can do will change the customer’s mind and the next step should be to limit the damage.

In Vodafone’s case, it could have asked me to answer a questionnaire about why I chose to leave, and provided a small incentive. It could have thanked me for being a customer and asked if it could call in six months to see how I was getting on with my new carrier. Maybe it does do this with departing customers; I heard nothing.

Most of all, it could have tried to end the conversation on a positive note, for example: “We’re sorry to see you go and hope we can serve you again in the future”. But the conversation ended abruptly.

In the end, I had to raise my voice and say: “I-JUST-WANT-MY-ACCOUNT-NUMBER!”, after asking for it a few times already.

It’s a good lesson for other businesses. What does your business do when it knows a customer closes their account and joins a competitor? Do you have a procedure to deal with departing customers? Do you take steps to mitigate damage from bad reviews or comments via Twitter or other social media?

How do you manage over-zealous staff who go too far to keep customers? And how do you win back lapsed customers? Do you just send them an occasional e-newsletter and hope they will rejoin, or have a more sophisticated approach?

As customers increasingly have less loyalty towards service providers, and as more social media provides an avenue to vent instant frustration, managing customer exits and bad reviews will become an even bigger issue.

Business won’t only be about winning customers, but how you lose them too (when nothing else can be done to keep them), so a departing customer may one day use your service again and not trash the brand along the way.