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Corporate America Invoking Theft of Time

by Frank Strong

Corporate America Invoking Theft of Time

Dr. Seuss once asked, “How did it get late so soon?”

People invented the concept of time, and yet our perceptions vary by personality and culture.  For example, I can assure you firsthand, the notion of time in the Middle East is very different than on the streets of New York City.  One study of security cameras from a restaurant comparing customer interactions from today, to those of 10 years ago is a remarkable record of how our sense of time has changed.

The major end items that suck our time like black hole are easy to identify: Inefficient meetings, needless “reply all” emails and the fruitless endeavor of interruption marketing. This is partly why content marketing has earned a reputation beyond mere novelty:  Content is currency brands barter in exchange for a few moments of attention…of time.

For the most part, the interruptive corporate activities that slurp time from prospective customers occurs at the top of the funnel.  However, increasingly, corporations are gluttonously eating time from their existing customers because, as old business wisdom says, it’s far more profitable to upsell and existing customer than to find new ones.

It just costs a little bit of time. Yours and mine.

How corporate thieves steal time

Time Warner Cable is a noteworthy example. The company is a customer service disaster according to surveys and ratings that consistently show high levels of dissatisfaction:

In 2013, Business Insider reported that years of bad customer service from Time Warner were adding up to lost subscribers.  For example, Time Warner lost 140,000 customers in Q3 2012– an increase over the previous year, even as the paid TV market is in decline. Couple that with the fact that competitors like Google Fiber and AT&T’s U-verse take aim at the high speed internet connection business and the company is being enveloped on three sides and time is running out.

However, I’d suggest it’s not just poor customer service, but poor customer service combined with wasting customer’s time with promotions that are completely misaligned with the context.  For example, before even hitting that perennial endless automated phone maze, frustrated customers that call customer service are held hostage to listen to a message by pro-football player Victor Cruz.

Seriously? Who thought that was a good idea? What is the ROI of that little obnoxious program?  What would it cost the company Time Warner were forced to compensate all their customers – a little credit on their monthly bill – for giving them no choice but to listen to that message?

The seconds add up to minutes, which turn into hours, and days, and perhaps months and years over a lifetime – it is a theft of time.

Six months waiting at traffic lights

In customer service phone centers, Time Warner has an audience hostage and increasingly this is becoming a standard weapon at the point of transaction in other markets. It happens both online and offline – it’s not enough to close a sale anymore – the pressure is on to buy more, to join a rewards program, to donate to cause, to take a survey, and on and on it goes.

It also happens at points of automation – where businesses have used technology like kiosks to cut corporate man-hours and costs – but see fitting to take more from customers.  The common denominator is that they all require active user engagement – it’s not just an advertisement or a pitch to ignore – but a question that requires customers to affirmatively decline either verbally or by pushing a button:

  • Airlines aim to sell six more inches of legroom at the airport kiosk.
  • When you check-in to a flight online and print your own tickets, airlines  stuff them with ads
  • Gas stations universally try to sell you a carwash or a hotdog at the pump.
  • Toys R Us has an astounding five different offers at the checkout line.
  • Amazon never lets an opportunity slip to promote its shipping program.
  • Adobe would like you to update your software again.

Virtually everywhere you go these days, someone or some program, is stealing our time in an effort to bring in a little more revenue.  To place how these precious moments add up, consider George Will’s column – Six months waiting for traffic lights – published in the Washington Post in 1998:

“…over a lifetime the average American spends seven years in the bathroom, six years eating, five years waiting in lines, four years cleaning house, three years in meetings, one year searching for things, eight months opening junk mail, six months sitting at red lights.”

Time as a competitive advantage

Since the advent of computers, time savings have been a staple value propositions for technology companies. I believe there’s a far greater value proposition in how much corporate America shows it values its customers’ time.

I’m sure there’s a big pile of data pointing out these little time stealing tricks pad the margins, but what’s the threshold?  At what point will people get fed up? Is there an opportunity for businesses to do things differently – to keep customer calls and transactions, courteous, effective and short?

How did it get so late so soon?

Photo credit:  Flickr via Creative Commons; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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3 Responses

  1. Good Qs raised here Frank. One thought and one question for you…
    1) Since Millennials are the first digitally native generation, we’re inundated with more information, exponentially, than older generations realize. The “give them what they want” and “be relevant when and where it matters to them” set of mantras sounds great on the evangelist speaking circuit, but brands and content / ad serving co’s are mostly talking about this and not practicing it. To your point about Comcast, “don’t give them what they don’t want” is a better catchphrase….because time is more valuable for us than it was for older generations (not in a 1:1 comparison of course, just meant that it’s harder for us to slog through info than previous generations).
    2) I wonder what you think of push vs. pull – to me, a foundational problem with marketing / advertising from corporate America is that they arrived at web and social channels, looked around, and started treating everything like an opportunity for push, whether that’s social networks or content marketing. 
    I do not complain online, but I’m going to make an exception here to illustrate that point: when I call Comcast because I need to check on a problem with my bill, the last thing I want to hear is how I could upgrade my services. The best possible outcome that could happen is the offer for an automated callback as soon as a customer service rep is available to take care of my problem quickly and efficiently. Offering anything else makes me unspeakably angry, especially because I took the time to call them. Contrast to that the call I got yesterday from someone at Comcast trying to upgrade me, I politely declined and wished the rep a nice day. But if I’m on an inbound channel and being held hostage, that’s a whole different matter.
    To me, that’s a huge, unspoken problem on the web – that corporate America doesn’t know (or perhaps doesn’t care) about the difference between push and pull (I also wrote something about this last week: https://medium.com/@joecardillo/the-difference-between-push-pull-on-the-web-c3f2a171b0f1)

  2. JoeCardillo Hey, Joe, sorry for the delay, been on the go!  Completely agree with your sentiment and it’s perfectly fine to complain online occasionally. The cable companies especially have a reputation for this because they’ve had no motivation otherwise.  They’ve more or less had little competition, but that is beginning to change. Over the next five years we’ll see the strangle hold loosen, the media will report this as a dramatic fall, but the reality is, it will have been decades in the making because of stories just like the one you shared here.

  3. Frank_Strong JoeCardillo Oh no worries – yeah, that’s an apt way to look at it, most big co’s that crumble rarely do so in quick fashion, even lighting strikes build electricity over time. That may be why the smartest minds in business are the Andreessen’s of the world, who are trying to figure out how that sort of value is built and destroyed over time.

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