January 2012
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Cell Phones, Photo Frames … and BAS?
   AKA:  Customer Service Includes Honoring Commitments

Andy McMillanAndy McMillan
President and GM
Philips Teletrol
President
BACnet International
Contributing Editor  


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I came across a technology column the other day titled, “Samsung Screws its Galaxy S Customers.”  Samsung has become a powerhouse in consumer electronics over the past decade and companies rarely accomplish that by abusing their customers so I was intrigued to find out exactly what Samsung did.  It turns out that the article’s author was taking Samsung to task because the company announced it would not offer the latest Android operating system as an upgrade to its very popular Galaxy S phone … which struck me as kind of interesting.  Seamless upgrades and migration have apparently become customer expectations in the cell phone world.  They weren’t always.  In fact, that kind of thinking goes back only as far as the introduction of the iPhone and the subsequent flood of Android phones.  Before that, no one knew (or cared) what OS revision their phone was running.  So what changed?  I would suggest the fundamental change is that users no longer use phones for just calls and text.  Instead, phones have become “open platforms” for many applications, some of which didn’t even exist when the phone was designed.  What is most intriguing to me is that this phenomenon seems to parallel an evolution in user expectations in the Building Automation Systems (BAS) world.

New Expectations for BAS as an Application Platform

There was a time when users purchased a BAS solution with the expectation that it would just “do its thing” for a decade or two.  But nowadays, many customers are looking to use their BAS solution as an “open platform” for other applications, some of which did not even exist when the BAS was installed.  For example, many customers want to build energy reduction and cost avoidance applications on top of their BAS.  They want their BAS to support demand response, energy usage optimizations and a variety of alternative energy generation applications.  Other users want their BAS to integrate with enterprise applications like asset management and sustainability reporting.  As customers move down this path they suddenly have new expectations of their BAS systems (and suppliers).  They now expect their systems to be upgradeable, seamlessly and cost-effectively, to support these emerging application requirements.  In fact, customers now have little tolerance for suppliers who do not (or cannot) upgrade their systems.  Customers (rightly) expect their suppliers to understand where the world is going and to provide systems that can evolve in that direction over time.  In the current world, BAS suppliers who go to their customers with the message, “we will not support your current platform beyond its existing capabilities” are pretty much inviting their customers to look elsewhere for their next purchase.

A Picture Perfect Example of Customer Service Culture (NOT!)

Another interesting story I came across recently concerns a product called the Ceiva Digital Photo Frame.  This clever little product is an electronic photo frame that incorporates a mobile phone network connection so that users can update the photos on the frame anytime, from anywhere.  The business model includes charging for the photo frame itself plus charging a recurring fee for mobile network access and data transfer.  To kick start the business ten years ago, the Cevia was offered with a “lifetime” mobile network access option whereby users could pay a single fee (equivalent to three times the annual fee) and never have to pay for network access again.  Or at least, that’s what users thought they were getting.  Ceiva folks clarified that “lifetime” did not mean the lifetime of the user, but the lifetime of the device.  And they further clarified that repair services for those “lifetime enabled” devices would no longer be available (presumably to ensure their lifetime was finite).  And to make sure even the finite “lifetime” did not last too long, they defined “end of life” for a device as seven years … regardless of whether or not it still worked.  Not surprisingly, they created some very unhappy customers for themselves.  And, of course, those customers made themselves heard, and heard, and then heard some more.  In fact, they were so vocal and public about it that I stumbled across this controversy several years after the company “resolved” it (essentially by deciding to honor the common sense meaning of “lifetime” after all).

Reliable Controls An Inconvenient Truth

You might think something as simple as honoring explicit customer commitments would be easy to do.  But, the truth is that over time some commitments turn out to be inconvenient, even in the BAS world.  For suppliers where customer service is 100% embedded in the culture, they either deal with the inconvenience or work with customers to find a mutually satisfactory alternative.  But for suppliers without a strong culture of customer service, there is an irresistible urge to “find” ambiguities or excuses that allow them to opt out of their commitments.  And, of course, the list of potential ambiguities and excuses is endless.  Suppliers can (and do) point to technology issues, commercial considerations and industry norms.  But in the end, customers understand that such companies are breaking a trust and are understandably angry and reluctant to continue doing business with them.   

The Bottom Line

The Samsung and Ceiva stories are reminders that outstanding customer service is a lot harder to deliver than it is to proclaim.  A critical part of delighting customers is being very careful to ensure that all customer commitments are honored.  Whether the commitments are implicit and imposed by the marketplace (e.g. Samsung) or explicit but ambiguous (e.g. Ceiva) customers expect commitments to be met.  Customers may understand that policies can change but they firmly believe commitments can’t … or at least shouldn’t.  And you know what?  I think the customers are right.

[Note:  The original version of this column incorrectly substituted the Vizit Photo Frame  from Isabella Products for the Ceiva photo frame.  I offer my sincere apologies to the Isabella folks for that error.]

As always, the views expressed in this column are mine and do not necessarily reflect the position of BACnet International, Philips Teletrol, ASHRAE, or any other organization.  If you want to send comments to me directly, feel free to email me at andysview@arborcoast.com.

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