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Reviews & Reflections

The InHuman Brand

An elderly widow, 89 years old, lives alone in a house that she and her husband purchased 42 years ago in suburban Detroit.  Her husband of 38 years died of cancer in 1994. Her daughter lives about 25 miles away. A 91 year old sister lives about 20 miles away. Two sons live out of state.  During her work years, she served as a very capable and respected leader of nurses, in Intensive Care, Coronary Care, and and in senior hospital administration. As she gets older, she is getting forgetful, so her daughter and a son take over paying her bills.  In August of 2017, her son had AT&T/DirectTV install internet service, satellite TV, and digital phone. A person of devout faith, she loves to watch the Catholic channel. On February 3, 2018 she had a debilitating stroke. She spent the following seven weeks in rehab, and daughter and sons realized that there was no way she could go home again.  After an arduous process, the family successfully moved her into an assisted living facility in June. She repeatedly asks her children, “When can I go home?”

This is a too familiar story for many American families. The blessing is that we are with our parents as they enter into old age; the curse is watching our parents lose their capabilities and independence.  The woman in this story is my mother and we still miss our dad. I was the son paying the AT&T bill. My sister has truly been our rock in what has been a difficult process. During the last year, there have been moments where my mother received compassionate care, support, and prayers from neighbors and caregivers. A shout-out to neighbors Keith and Lee who took it upon themselves to look after Mom and her home.

And then there is AT&T.

I suspended the AT&T bundled service immediately after the stroke in February, and when I realized that Mom would not be able to go home, I ended the service in early August.  Because I closed the service ahead of the contract end date, AT&T charged me a penalty of $480. Given this situation, I thought AT&T might forgive this payment. After all, my mother had not used the service since February and there was no chance that she would ever again.  We sold her home in September. But, after repeated calls and about 6 hours with a dozen customer service agents, I finally got to a supervisor who told me “Our policy does not forgive the penalty fee in these situations.” When I asked why and to speak to his supervision, he immediately transferred me back to the front of the general customer service phone queue.  That sent a clear message, “Don’t waste my time."

I realized that I am experiencing AT&T as an Inhuman Brand.  

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In 2013-14, I came to know marketing executive Chris Malone.  With Susan Fiske, Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, Chris researched and created a new paradigm for the marketing profession: The Human Brand.   When I worked at Eli Lilly and Company, the Chief Marketing Officer of Lilly USA, John Bamforth, and my leadership development group brought Chris in on several occasions to present and consult about this version of marketing 2.0.  

In their book, Malone and Fiske show that people relate to brands the way that they relate to people.  At the core of these relationships is our primal and immediate perception of others along two dimensions: warmth and competence.  Warmth speaks to the perceived intent of the other: Will they help us or hurt us?  Right alongside this perception is our immediate response to the question of competency: Can they help or hurt us?  Their research also tells us that warmth comes first over competence.  If we first determine that others’ intent for our welfare is to be helpful, kind or generous, we might cut them some slack as to their competence. Brands that rate high on both warmth and competence include Johnson & Johnson, Zappos, and Ritz Carlton. The leaders in these companies engage and empower front line employees to do what’s right for the customer.  They combine quality products with responsive customer service. They seek to earn customers trust. This prompts customers to recommend them to friends making these customers Net Promoters of a company’s brand.

We’ve all experienced Human and InHuman brands. Back in 1997, my wife and I took our 4 young children to our first-ever trip to Walt Disney World. Immediately upon arrival at the parking lot of the Fort Wilderness front office, the cooling system in our Chevy Suburban literally exploded under the hood. The Disney staff sprang into action. “Mom, you go with Sarah to unload the family luggage from the car and take it to your cabin. Mary will take the kids to explore the playgrounds of Fort Wilderness and give them some refreshment.  Dad, you go with Juan to see about the car.” As I drove with Juan we soon discovered that all car repair places were closed on a Sunday evening. I was becoming resigned to the fact that I would be figuring out car repair for most of the week, but Juan told me, “Don’t worry about the car, just enjoy the parks with your family. I will take care of it from here and let you know.” We had a full and fun Monday at Epcot and returned to our Fort Wilderness cabin in the late afternoon. As we approached our cabin, there was Juan sitting on the porch waiting for us.  And there was the Chevy Suburban, sitting in the driveway of our cabin! Juan explained that he had the Disney maintenance shops replace the radiator and hoses. They inspected the water pump and it was fine. As I asked my wife to get the checkbook to pay Disney for the repair, Juan said “No, that’s quite alright, it’s on us.” Walt Disney World displayed warmth to the Fanelli family. They wanted to be sure that we enjoyed our first trip there. They even paid for the car repair. The way that they mobilized into action, and fixed our car in less than 24 hours showed a high degree of competence.  And the Fanelli family became loyal to the Walt Disney World brand. We had experienced a Human Brand.

And then there is AT&T.

They have a byzantine layer of customer service agents, who continually referred me to each other, causing me to repeat myself over and over  They misrepresented my comments in their records of past calls. The employees had no authority to make things right for a customer. They insist on being paid their penalty fee, even when an 89-year old widow must leave her home of 42 years after being disabled by a stroke. And when I tried to make my case, their customer service front line became a wall that prevented me from talking to anyone higher in the organization. My sister has sit in some some of these calls. Just days ago, she decided to plea our case. After 6 hours on the phone, being transferred amongst 13 agents, she finally got a promise from someone to call her back in 45 minutes. No call back. This happened to me on 3 prior occasions. And to pour salt into the wound, they are sending debt collectors after me.  From our experience, we place them very low on the scales of warmth and competence.

While the Human Brand does have a feel-good, Golden Rule appeal, the authors share research and examples that demonstrate that what’s good for customers is also good for business.  Thanks to Fiske and Malone for moving the science of marketing forward in the 21st century.

As I write this piece, I am watching an amazing Ken Burns documentary about Italian-Americans on Amazon Prime.  We get local TV channels for free with an antenna in the attic, and other content via SlingTV and Netflix.

And then there is AT&T.  Goodbye AT&T. It’s NOT been nice to have known you.