Company have poor customer service? Take a hard look at the CEO

Often we associate poor customer service with the people who actually service us. The waiters in the restaurant or the phone operator on the other end of the line. Getting upset with them for failing to do their duties or perform their service. No one ever faults the owner or CEO for poor customer service.

Well it’s time you think again.

There is in fact a deep correlation to the top. A large part of this statement comes from the numerous companies I had observed over the years and an experience which inspired this article.

Starhub is a telecommunications company in Singapore with mobile, cable TV and broadband services. When it was first launched in 1998, it had to go up against the island’s dominant telecom provider, SingTel. It’s an uphill battle as every single mobile subscribers and broadband subscriber is a SingTel customer. Then CEO Terry Clontz took an unprecedented step. He started listening to the problems that existing SingTel customers face and come up with competing products to draw them over. As a result, Starhub was the first telecom company in Singapore to offer free internet service and free unlimited incoming mobile calls. It was an unprecedented move and customers rushed to sign up.

The early subscribers of Starhub faced poor connectivity and frequent drop calls but no one felt they had a poorer service experience. Through the problems, subscribers stood by Starhub as the company listened and grew. In 2009, when Terry Clontz retired, Starhub was the fastest growing telecom company in Singapore. Neil Montefiore took over as CEO and continued to grow the company the same way Terry did.

In 2013, Neil Montefiore retired, replaced by Tan Tong Hai, former CEO of NCS (National Computer Services). I was surprised and not in a good way. I remember thinking, WHY? I say this because NCS is a terrible company with overpriced charges and poor consultancy service. It had leeched on lucrative government IT contracts for years. In a former role, I even discontinued the contract my company had with them due to their exorbitant billing and poor IT service. This is not a company known for anyform of customer service.

Truth be told, Starhub started changing under Tan Tong Hai. Customer service operation hours were cut & customer loyalty vouchers were discontinued. Front line customer service executives no longer have any liberty to wow their customers. Every irate customer is turned away with, “I am sorry, I feel your pain but there is nothing we can do”.

Today, I called Starhub because I realized that the internet plan I was subscribed to cost nearly the same as their new plan (albeit cheaper by $3) but was 8 times slower! Apparently, the plan contracted 15 months ago was scrapped. But for the past 15 months, I have been given the poorer service paying almost the same price as the new service. I called Starhub and requested for an upgrade but was denied, even though technically I will be paying $5 more per month (plus GST) to get on the new plan.

I cannot fathom the logic behind this.

If Starhub was sincere about customer service, they would have allowed me to upgrade but instead chose to deny the extra money and tell me to wait till November 2014 to sign up for the new plan when my contract expires. I was not happy and I didn’t mince my words. I think it’s ridiculous. Why would they turn down an upgrade from a customer of 13 years?

I asked the customer service operator if anything could be done about this? He told me, in an apologetic tone, “I wish I could help but there’s nothing I can do.” I asked to complain to higher management (mind you, this is Singapore, where we all complain to higher authority if anything displeases us) and he told me sadly, “Many have (complained) but nothing could be done about it”. I could tell from his tone that he is a Starhub customer like me.

Starhub seems to have forgotten that placing emphasis on customer service was how it became successful.

So Starhub has inspired me to write this article and my follow up actions. Discontinue my Cable TV, Cable Broadband Plan, Digital Voice Home plan and my entire family mobile subscriptions.

Congratulations Starhub, you have saved some bandwidth by denying my upgrade but you have lost a loyal customer and my $400 per month subscription. What a great way to run the business, Mr CEO.

Update (Mar 8, 2014)

Ever since I tweeted this story to Starhub, the customer service team reached out to us and offered us an upgrade to the new plan that is 8x faster on a new 24 month contract. While this was not the intent purpose of me writing this article, I was nevertheless happy with the end result. They made an effort to listen. Now I can only hope that they remember and take stride in making customer service a priority and not an afterthought.

For those curious, we chose to take up the offer and signed up a new 24 months contract with Starhub. A sign of faith from a loyal customer.

This article first appeared on Medium (www.medium.com) on Mar 6, 2014.