Three hours with Videotron
Monopolies, oligopolies don't have to worry as much about Marketing

During slow periods I have been watching CNBC on my office television. Technically, Videotron requires that you pay extra to access the 24-hour business news station. But even the scrambled signal is pretty good. You can hear the commentators, though you can't make out their faces too well.

With NASDAQ's recent skid, my CNBC time has shot up, and last week I finally decided to spring for the de-scrambler. But when I called Videotron's customer service department, the line was busy.

A lot of companies have been subcontracting customer service departments to call centers and the result has been less than spectacular. So I waited a half-hour and tried again - still no answer. Frustrated, I put Videotron on my speed dial, and during the next two days made another half-dozen tries. Always busy.

Meanwhile, to speed up the process I typed a fax request. But what do you know, Videotron's fax line was also busy. Another half dozen attempts over the next two days got me nowhere.

Eventually I got through to the customer service line, and what do you know, it was an answering machine with all sorts "if you want this, punch this," options. After pushing several buttons I was finally greeted with "an operator will be available in 15 minutes."

I put on the speakerphone and after 20 minutes of listening to elevator music, interspersed with sunny voiceovers about Videotron, an operator said "hello." In the three seconds it took me to pick up the phone, she hung up on me.

I was no luckier with E-mail. One of the sunny messages on Videotron's answering machine tells users that many simple account modifications can be made at the company's Web-site. But in the half-hour I spent there, I could not figure out how to add CNBC to my cable contract.

So I typed up another letter and send it to the E-mail address of their customer service department. That was five days ago, and I have still not received a reply. In all I spent three hours trying to get a simple change made to my cable account.

When a customer calls, you answer the phone. It should be the number one rule of marketing. The fact that it's sop obvious is probably why no one has yet bothered to write it down. But a surprising number of Canadian companies don't bother to ensure that customer calls are properly deal with. When they are, staff is often rude, untrained, and in many cases won't identify themselves by name.

Videotron is not the only culprit. Bell, its direct competitor in a number of product lines has many similar practices. So do the major banks and many government departments. The big question is how they manage to get away with such god awful customer service?

In large part it's because Canadian consumers just don't have a heck of a lot of choice. Some many sectors of our economy are government regulated and thus protected from the tough competition that forces them to listen to their customers.

Government employees can afford to be high-handed in their customer service, because the fact they don't have to show a profit, means there are often no internal controls to measure how the public is being served.

But the Canadian private sector is in many cases not much different. Videotron has the lion's share of the cable market, and faces only limited competition from local satellite operators such as Bell. Both companies are well protected by the CRTC from U.S. satellite operators, and operate in a quasi-monopoly environment which economists call and oligopoly.

In an oligopoly, companies compete, but no too hard. They offer top level service to only the most lucrative customer niches, do not innovate, or spend no more money on marketing than they absolutely need to.

Far too many Canadian companies, in industries from banking and telecommunications to transportation are exempt from the kind of tough competition that forces them to listen to their customers. And to answer their phones from time-to-time.


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