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Online-TV Upstart Aereo Draws On Zappos-Inspired Customer Service

Chet Kanojia is applying his own exacting standards as a consumer to his scrappy, fast-growing online-TV company. Here's how.

Aereo, the company that streams network television to online viewers, is perhaps best known for being repeatedly challenged in court by major TV networks--and repeatedly winning.

But as Aereo plans its expansion nationally to 27 cities from nine in coming months, the company's founder has up his sleeve another secret weapon (you know, aside from a simple technological solution that could threaten $3 billion in network-broadcast fees). Namely, customer service that could rival that of Zappos. The online shoe retailer's particular brand of transparent service inspires Aereo founder and CEO Chet Kanojia.

Zappos As Inspiration

"I have a massive shoe collection. I love shoes. I would never buy them online, but I love Zappos, for the very simple reason of their customer care," he says. "They even will take your word that you intend to return a pair, and they preemptively ship you a different size."

Kanojia, 43, is a serial entrepreneur, but Aereo is his first direct-to-customer company. He says he learned fast that the first customers of his service were to be treated with the utmost importance. "You really have to work very hard on satisfying and nurturing your first customers, whether it's 10 or 10,000," he says. "Because after that they do all your marketing. And they care about you; they give you suggestions. They are vocal about their support--and they are vocal about their criticisms."

He says part of what helped Aereo earn early admiration and steadfast support from users was the company's image: a scrappy, friendly David drawing ire from Goliath television networks and broadcasting giants that in some areas have near-monopolies on cable-TV subscriptions

"The incredible advantage we have is people hate these incumbents, which as brands have destroyed their customer-relationships," Kanojia says. "We really set ourselves apart as this very simple, easy, conscientious company that cares about people."

Last year, the four major networks joined suit against Aereo last year, arguing that the start-up was threatening them with major losses. The U.S. District Court in New York ruled for Aereo, which operates by housing antennas for broadcast transmission in a warehouse, rather than individually in customers' homes. The networks have appealed. 

While Kanojia says he wouldn't wish legal trouble on any upstart, he get a gleam in his eye when talking about the cases. When asked whether the news of the District Court victory helped garner customers--a variation of, "hey, any news is good news, right?" he hedges.

"I think more people are beginning to pay attention to that as we are growing very rapidly, there are lots of people signing up, so I think that's having and will have an impact," he says.

For now, Kanojia and the New York City-based Aereo team is focusing on their first 10,000 customers--who are, as Kanojia tells it, both vocal about their complaints and lavish in their praise. How has the company handled those two extremes? Here, he explains his reaction to a recent extraordinarily positive customer email and a recent extremely negative one.

1. The Positive
"I shared this with staff recently; we sent it around and read it. We got this flowing, positive e-mail from a guy who was sick and tired of Comcast--this was in Texas. He wanted a service that fit his life. He wanted affordability; he wanted to have optionality; and he didn't want to disappoint his girlfriend. So when she wanted to go somewhere and he wanted to watch a football game, he wouldn't miss it. Now he's happy because he can sort of sneak the score on his mobile device."

2. The Negative
"I got an email from a customer who was able to use Aereo on his Wi-Fi- or 3-G-based devices in his home, but he was just at the border, so on his wired connections, he couldn't. Now, we know his address, so we knew he was inside our coverage area. He wrote saying 'Listen, I love the service, I love the product, but I'm disappointed in your customer care people because I've explained the situation and then I get canned responses.' And I hate canned responses! So we fixed it, and I called him. I called his cell phone--and he was not expecting that. He was like, 'Oh I can't believe you're calling me!' I explained what happened, and not just that, but also my logic for why our internal decision tree worked the way it did. He thought it was logical, and was really glad. The transparency has to be there in this day and age."

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Last updated: Nov 11, 2013

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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