COMMENTARY Verizon Wireless just took one of the fastest strategic U-turns in the history of customer relations. Last week, the company announced that it would add a $2 fee for one-time phone and online payments. People raised an immediate ruckus and Verizon rescinded the decision the next day. (Maybe the prospect of an FCC inquiry had something to do with the change of heart.)
Verizon Wireless, a joint venture of Verizon Communications (VZ) and Vodafone (VOD), wanted customers to set up automatic payments on a credit card or bank account. That's convenient for the company, of course, helping it to ensure prompt cash flow and collect interest before paying vendors, who all are on terms. It just happened to have been inconvenient for customers, who balked. The ensuing backlash and double-take were even faster than when Netflix (NFLX) tried to split its DVD and streaming video services, regardless of how it inconvenienced the very people that made the company an industry leader in the first place. Sadly, such dismissive attitudes toward customers are becoming too common in high tech. Unless executives start waking up to the issue, the way technology corporations handle customer relations will start spelling disaster.
Just say no
Callous attitudes towards consumers are not unique to Verizon Wireless and Netflix. Best Buy (BBY) told some customers they were out of luck and wouldn't get the holiday presents they purchased on Thanksgiving weekend and Cyber Monday in time for Christmas. The retailer had run out of stock. Unfortunately, customers didn't hear about the problem until weeks later, at which point it was too late to get similar deals from other retailers.
Internet domain registrar and website host GoDaddy.com faced a customer boycott in late December over the company's support for the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Tens of thousands of customers apparently pulled their business and GoDaddy ran large campaigns for discount registrations in an attempt to combat the effect. Twitter's attempt in 2011 to steer its smartphone app users to the company's advertising channels caused enough of a customer uproar to cause yet another corporate retreat.
We know you won't mind
Not that anyone -- or any business -- can please all the people all the time. But whether it is Facebook making big changes in user interfaces and privacy practices or Apple (AAPL) pretending that none of its devices overheat, many tech companies have treated consumers as though they didn't exist.
Perhaps the companies think that their customers will roll over and not complain. Companies become callous when they think that the public has no choice. After all, as people become dependent on technology, how can they do without it?
But they don't have to. There are always alternatives. There is no way to know how many Android phone owners would have chosen an iPhone except for the high profile antenna problems. How many devices, services and copies of software have gone unsold because consumers decided that good enough for vendors didn't mean good enough for users? As consumer incomes get stretched tighter, so will discretionary spending. And no tech company can afford to be on the wrong side of that sort of purchase decision.