Palm responds, Part 1

Readers of this blog have recently heard about my amusing experience with the tech support at Palm, where I was told by an offshore tech support lady that she was the CEO of Palm. Before posting the entry, I had called the public relations group at Palm to try to get a few things answered. At the time, unfortunately, they were unable to provide me with any answers since most of the people at Palm were on holiday break for Christmas.

At the time, I figured that this was a nice and convenient answer that really acted as more of a way to stonewall me. So it was with great surprise that I was contacted with a follow-up by John Moses, the VP of customer relations worldwide for Palm.

Not only did John apologize for my own experience but he was considerate enough to provide me with a lot of answers to questions I asked (and, in a closing to my encounter with Palm, he also provided me with a replacement unit for my Treo 680). While my faith in Palm hasn’t been restored yet, I think there is a lot to ponder in the questions and answers John provided me. Because there is a lot to digest, I am breaking this Q&A into two parts: The first one, which follows, addresses general issues around customer support and around my own experience. The second part talks about the unit replacement program and some of the decisions made there.

So without further ado, here is the Q&A, which is not edited in any way, save for light formatting to increase readability .

Q: First of all, thanks for taking the time to do this interview and alleviate some of the fears people may have after I posted my experience with Palm. The Treo 680 has been out for about a year now. As the head of Customer Relations, have you seen particularly high levels of calls relating to it as opposed to other palm devices?

A: Because of a special program we implemented and highly marketed this past year called 1-800 Free Setup Help, we have had a higher volume of calls related to the Treo 680. This Palm sponsored program — where we have also gained the support of our major carrier partners — encourages customers to call us at no charge within the first 90 days of purchase for dedicated device setup assistance. The results have been highly encouraging and we are continuing to evaluate additional programs that increase the number of interactions we have with customers so they get more out of their device.

We also strongly recommend that customers take advantage of the Treo 680 software updaters, as they do make a noticeable improvement to the performance of our devices. Customers can find these
on our website.

Q: It is my understanding that Palm works largely on second line of support for mobile phone companies they have partnerships with and works as first line of support for unlocked devices they sell. As a result, I would suspect that the number of calls for unlocked devices is probably higher. Is that the case?

A: You are right that for the majority of our phones — all of those sold through the carrier channel — we are the second level of support. Our carrier partners have extensive support capabilities and are interested in maintaining a connection with their subscriber customers — and we respect that. As a general rule, these customers are encouraged to begin support with their wireless service provider, and they will in turn escalate to us at Palm if the issue warrants additional device expertise.

There are exceptions to this, however, and customers frequently contact us directly; this most often is because they are taking advantage of our special programs including our Free Setup Help, which I mentioned before, or our MyPalm Membership, where customers can receive special benefits including a dedicated member assistance line.

For those customers who have bought unlocked devices directly from us on our website or in our stores, we certainly are committed to be their first line of support. In terms of call volume, we receive more for carrier-locked devices than unlocked ones, partly because there are just more sold, but equally so because we have a close relationship with our carrier partners which involves regular collaboration and warm transfers.

Q: Are calls for unlocked devices routed to different call centers than calls for locked (or carrier specific) devices? If that’s the case, could you explain some of the logic behind it?

A: No, support for both types of devices is provided by the same call centers, and with the same agents. Our support agents are trained on all Palm products and all customers are treated the same.

Q: Palm recently started to move phone support to a pay model (I believe it’s $19.95 per call unless it results in an exchange). Does Palm look to its phone support as a potential profit center?

A: First, customers transferred from a wireless carrier or a call with a basic inquiry will not be charged. Also, if a call results in a repair or if an agent cannot solve the issue, we would waive the fee.

Palm has always charged for phone-based technical support beyond 90 days of purchase, based on our standard support policy and warranty — this is standard industry practice for many consumer electronics manufacturers. We have just reduced (in December) the cost of post 90-day technical support (from $25 to $14.95), and when we do charge customers, the funds are used to subsidize the costs of the support infrastructure we provide.

Palm regards the relationship with its customers and support specifically, as an investment in the future, not as a profit center. We try to make Palm support valuable and affordable to customers by offering various options, including several options that are free of charge (e.g. Online Chat).

Q: Has reaction among customers to the move of phone support to a pay model been negative or positive?

A: As I mentioned before, Palm has always charged for certain phone-based support services. We have seen a positive response to our new “Expert” pay services, which certainly is evidence that customers don’t mind paying a fee for a service that they deem important and that is well executed.

Q: The level of expectations for a service one pays for is generally different than the level of expectation for something that is free. What has Palm done to ensure that the experience around paid calls is better than the previous (free) experience for customers?

A: Palm still provides many free service options, so a customer is never forced to pay for support. We also strive for and expect the best level of service for both types of calls — paid and free — as the same customer may experience both types of support options during the time they own their product and we want their interactions to always be consistent and of the highest quality.

Q: I am sure there are studies about user satisfaction across the industry as a whole. Do you have information about Palm’s standing, compared to its competitors, in terms of customer experience? Is it better? Worse? What are the main issues around it and what is Palm doing to address them?

A: I can tell you that our case satisfaction scores — those scores that rate the quality of the support given by an agent for a given service request — is either at the top or very close to the top of any comparative set you will find for true technical support on complex consumer electronics. Of course we always believe we can do better.

We have a number of teams that continually analyze everything from call center activity, to web searches, to satisfaction surveys in order to find ways we can support our customers more effectively. Thankfully, our customers take the time to give us feedback, and we take that very seriously, and we listen and apply it.

Q: Has Palm outsourced its call centers or are the overseas call center employees also Palm employees?

A: Yes, we have chosen to outsource and offshore a majority of our technical support. The technical aptitude and average tenure of the agent pools we use offshore are very high. We also supplement offshore service with onshore escalations (which should have been leveraged by the agents in your case). Interestingly, our customer and case satisfaction data over the past year show that the actual difference between our onshore and offshore agent service is marginal — a fraction of a point — so we believe that we are not compromising quality in any real way.

Q: What kind of training does a Palm call center employee customarily receive?

A: All of our agents get an average of three weeks of classroom training per year. This includes technical support training, operating system (Palm OS and WinMo) training, language and cultural skills training, customer service skills training, new product training, product refresher training, and Palm systems, procedure, and policy training. In addition, agents regularly receive intensive one-on-one coaching and mentoring using call recordings, quality monitoring and customer satisfaction surveys.

Q: In my own experience, as well as in other experiences documented online, it appears there have been many instances of Palm call center employees lying to customers. Just for the record, though I suspect the answer will be no, are Palm call center employees asked to lie to customers?

A: We invest a lot of time and energy in providing official scripts, bulletins, knowledge bases, and training that help agents to respond swiftly, professionally, and accurately to the myriad of consumer inquiries that they face each day. They are also encouraged to use our hierarchy of support to escalate calls and questions when they are not informed or positioned to answer — so there is no reason an agent should provide inaccurate information at any time.

In your case, the agent lost control of the conversation, and things were said that shouldn’t have been. These types of cases result in an investigation, and oftentimes interviews with those agents or managers involved.

Q: What would happen to an employee that is found to have lied to a customer?

A: We conduct an investigation — perhaps reading call notes, listening to calls if they’ve been recorded, interviewing agents, and so forth — to get a better idea of what really transpired. We would then follow our established guidelines for discipline, performance improvement, or dismissal.

Q: Also for the record, though I also suspect the answer will be no, does Palm CEO Ed Colligan take call center calls?

A: Ed is one of the most passionate and participatory executives you will ever come across. While I don’t believe he has ever taken a technical support call per se, he certainly will contact a customer directly, and does so all the time. He has a dedicated voicemail box where he receives customer messages that I don’t even have access to. He routinely is responding to not just voicemails but emails, faxes, and letters that come across his desk. And Ed knows the names of these customers, and he looks to me for status updates on how we have handled these cases and whether or not we have restored their trust in the Palm brand. He is zealous about this — and so am I.

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