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STREET SMARTS

You're Fired!

Tired of receiving poor service? Don't just sit there and whine about it. Do something!

Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur.

Recently I fired my insurance broker and my accounting firm. I came very close to firing my bank as well. The truth is, I've been fed up with the service we've been getting from all three of them for more than a year. What finally pushed me to take action was the experience of watching David Neeleman, the CEO of JetBlue Airways, spend a five-and-a-half-hour flight walking up and down the aisle of the plane, talking with and listening to his customers. (See "Learning From JetBlue," March 2004.) He made me realize that, in many cases, we have only ourselves to blame for the poor customer service we receive.

Why? Because we put up with it. We don't demand from our suppliers the kind of service we strive to provide to our own customers. We let inertia keep us from doing what we know is best for our business.

Let's start with the insurance agency. For years, we had a terrific agent who constantly reviewed our policies, making sure we had the proper coverage, looking for ways we could save money. He eventually sold his business but continued to handle our account until he received his final payment and retired. Shortly thereafter, we began soliciting bids from other agencies interested in our account, which was worth between $350,000 and $400,000 in annual premiums. In the end, we gave it to the guy who made the best sales pitch. His name was Bob, and he was the agency's principal. He said one of his employees would handle the account, but we should call him directly if any problems arose. In addition, he'd stop by a couple of times a year to check up on the relationship and make sure our needs were being met.

That was the last we saw of Bob for two years. As time went along, moreover, I began to get the feeling that the person he'd assigned to us wasn't doing his job. He rarely came to see us, and he appeared to have no interest in how our business--and our insurance needs--might be changing. Then, last year, he suddenly informed us that we were in danger of losing our insurance altogether. Our policies had been extended for two months because the insurance company employee who wrote them had gone on vacation. If we couldn't get new policies written before the end of the extension, we might find ourselves without any insurance at all.

I didn't get it. How was it possible that we could be in this situation just because one employee of a multibillion-dollar insurance company decided to go on vacation? I asked my partner Sam to call Bob and tell him we needed to see him. Bob said he was busy but he'd get back to us. Meanwhile, our new policies came through in the nick of time--on the last day of the extension. The insurance agent wanted us to believe he'd saved us from a terrible fate. Bob, for his part, never called back.

I decided I should do some investigating and asked the person who handles our health insurance and 401(k) program if he knew any good commercial brokers. He recommended one in particular, a woman he'd known for years. I called her, and the next day she came to see me. She explained how she worked. "I'll come here 90 days before the year ends to review your needs," she said. "That way we'll have plenty of time so the insurance company won't have any excuses for extending your policy."

In many cases, we have only ourselves to blame for the poor customer service we receive.

"Why would they do that?" I asked. "Because the agent is negligent and waits until the last minute?"

She just raised her eyebrows, shrugged her shoulders, and tilted her head. I got the message. "That's what I figured," I said.

"Why?" she asked. "Did that happen to you?"

"Yes, it just happened," I said.

"It wouldn't happen with me."

We talked a bit longer, and I had her meet with my partners, Sam and Louis, before she left. As I walked her to her car, I told her we'd be in touch.

The problem with the bank was different. We'd had a great relationship with the people who'd signed us up, but they'd all moved on. The people who replaced them paid no attention to us. They never called, never came to see us, never asked what we needed. At times, it seemed as if they'd forgotten who was working for whom. For example, whenever a question arose as to the interest rate we should be charged, they automatically went to the higher rate. My accounting people would then call and request the lower rate. The woman they spoke to would act as though they were requesting a huge favor. If they protested, she became nasty. I finally called her myself. "Listen to me," I said. "I am the customer. You are the provider. When my people call, you're supposed to help them, not lecture them." She became even more difficult.

To make matters worse, the bank began forcing us to pay for its mistakes. When it got burned by another customer, it changed the auditing rules, with the result that a typical audit now took 12 days instead of two. Of course, we were the ones who got charged for the accountants' extra time. I would never have done that to my customers.

Then there was the accounting firm, which had come strongly recommended by the bank. We had borrowed a substantial amount of money, and the bank wanted us to provide certified financial statements. That meant hiring a larger accounting firm than the one we'd been using. Sam and I interviewed four or five candidates and chose one, mainly because we liked the managing partner. I'll call him Edgar. He was a good salesman, and he treated us well. Once or twice a year, he'd come to see us, take us out to lunch, and ask what else we might need from his firm. We were satisfied.

Then, about three years ago, there was a palace coup at the firm, and Edgar was forced out. His successor--let's call him Bert--delivered the news to us in person. He said he'd be handling our account in the future. I told him I just wanted him to stay in touch, visit us now and then, and return my phone calls. He promised he would. But he didn't. Eighteen months went by, and we heard not a word from Bert. At one point, we ran into a problem with an audit. I called Bert, and he didn't call back. Sam eventually resolved the problem, but I was annoyed. Bert had promised to return my calls. Maybe he sensed my annoyance because a couple of months later, on a Monday morning, an envelope arrived containing four tickets to a Mets game scheduled for that Thursday at 1:30 p.m. There was also a note: "Have a good time at the game. Bert." The gesture aggravated me even more. I found it insulting. He obviously had tickets he couldn't get rid of, so he decided to pawn them off on me--as if I'd drop everything to spend a whole weekday afternoon watching the Mets try to stay out of last place. And the seats were terrible.

Sam called Bert and told him we had to see him--pronto. He finally showed up, and I let him know exactly how I felt about the tickets, the unreturned phone calls, and the lack of contact in general. We were a six-figure account, I reminded him; we deserved better. Bert apologized profusely. The previous 18 months had been tough, he said. I agreed to give him another shot.

But a year went by with no calls or visits from Bert. In the next audit, a dispute arose over a footnote the auditor wanted to include. I thought it unnecessary. Sam believed we could resolve the matter by changing the footnote's wording. I said I'd do whatever our lawyer advised. So we called the lawyer, who said the footnote was absolutely unnecessary. I said I wanted to see Bert. Sam called Bert, who said he'd just heard about the problem and agreed that we didn't need the footnote. As for coming to see us, Bert was busy and couldn't make it for a while. "Is he going to call?" I asked Sam.

"I'll let him know you want to hear from him," Sam said.

"He's got 30 days," I said.

The 30 days came and went without a call. Instead, we got a holiday greeting card from the firm. When I opened it, Bert's business card dropped out. I just shook my head. We had to be one of his largest clients. Didn't we deserve a personal note?

I was still stewing when I boarded the JetBlue flight from New York to Oakland, Calif. As I watched Neeleman patiently move from customer to customer--listening to their concerns, answering their questions, telling them how to get their problems solved--I couldn't help thinking about Bert and Bob and the woman at the bank. Here I was, getting first-class customer service from the CEO of an airline that had sold me a ticket for $154. Shouldn't I expect the same from suppliers to whom I was paying tens of thousands of dollars? Was it too much to ask that they return my phone calls?

As soon as I got home, I put the wheels in motion to replace all three suppliers. The bank won a reprieve by coming back to us with an offer we couldn't refuse. We'll be monitoring the service its people give us in the future. In the meantime, Bert and Bob are gone. If they want to know whom to blame, they need only look in the mirror--or take a trip on JetBlue.

Norm Brodsky (brodsky13@aol.com) is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include a three-time Inc. 500 company. His co-author is editor-at-large Bo Burlingham.

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Last updated: May 1, 2004

NORM BRODSKY | Columnist

Street Smarts columnist and senior contributing editor Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur who has founded and expanded six businesses.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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