Street Smarts: You’re Fired!

Tired of receiving poor service? Don’t just sit there
and whine about it. Do something!

From: Inc, May
| Page 51 By: Norm

Recently I fired my insurance broker and my accounting firm. I
came very close to firing my bank as well. The truth is, I’ve been fed up with
the service we’ve been getting from all three of them for more than a year. What
finally pushed me to take action was the experience of watching David Neeleman,
the CEO of JetBlue Airways, spend a five-and-a-half-hour flight walking up and
down the aisle of the plane, talking with and listening to his customers. (See
“Learning From JetBlue,” March 2004.) He made me realize that, in many cases, we
have only ourselves to blame for the poor customer service we

Why? Because we put up with it. We don’t demand from our
suppliers the kind of service we strive to provide to our own customers. We let
inertia keep us from doing what we know is best for our business.

Let’s start with the insurance agency. For years, we had a
terrific agent who constantly reviewed our policies, making sure we had the
proper coverage, looking for ways we could save money. He eventually sold his
business but continued to handle our account until he received his final payment
and retired. Shortly thereafter, we began soliciting bids from other agencies
interested in our account, which was worth between $350,000 and $400,000 in
annual premiums. In the end, we gave it to the guy who made the best sales
pitch. His name was Bob, and he was the agency’s principal. He said one of his
employees would handle the account, but we should call him directly if any
problems arose. In addition, he’d stop by a couple of times a year to check up
on the relationship and make sure our needs were being met.

That was the last we saw of Bob for two years. As time went
along, moreover, I began to get the feeling that the person he’d assigned to us
wasn’t doing his job. He rarely came to see us, and he appeared to have no
interest in how our business–and our insurance needs–might be changing. Then,
last year, he suddenly informed us that we were in danger of losing our
insurance altogether. Our policies had been extended for two months because the
insurance company employee who wrote them had gone on vacation. If we couldn’t
get new policies written before the end of the extension, we might find
ourselves without any insurance at all.

I didn’t get it. How was it possible that we could be in this
situation just because one employee of a multibillion-dollar insurance company
decided to go on vacation? I asked my partner Sam to call Bob and tell him we
needed to see him. Bob said he was busy but he’d get back to us. Meanwhile, our
new policies came through in the nick of time–on the last day of the extension.
The insurance agent wanted us to believe he’d saved us from a terrible fate.
Bob, for his part, never called back.

I decided I should do some investigating and asked the person
who handles our health insurance and 401(k) program if he knew any good
commercial brokers. He recommended one in particular, a woman he’d known for
years. I called her, and the next day she came to see me. She explained how she
worked. “I’ll come here 90 days before the year ends to review your needs,” she
said. “That way we’ll have plenty of time so the insurance company won’t have
any excuses for extending your policy.”

In many cases, we have only ourselves to blame for the poor
customer service we receive.

“Why would they do that?” I asked. “Because the agent is
negligent and waits until the last minute?”

She just raised her eyebrows, shrugged her shoulders, and
tilted her head. I got the message. “That’s what I figured,” I said.

“Why?” she asked. “Did that happen to you?”

“Yes, it just happened,” I said.

“It wouldn’t happen with me.”

We talked a bit longer, and I had her meet with my partners,
Sam and Louis, before she left. As I walked her to her car, I told her we’d be
in touch.

The problem with the bank was different. We’d had a great
relationship with the people who’d signed us up, but they’d all moved on. The
people who replaced them paid no attention to us. They never called, never came
to see us, never asked what we needed. At times, it seemed as if they’d
forgotten who was working for whom. For example, whenever a question arose as to
the interest rate we should be charged, they automatically went to the higher
rate. My accounting people would then call and request the lower rate. The woman
they spoke to would act as though they were requesting a huge favor. If they
protested, she became nasty. I finally called her myself. “Listen to me,” I
said. “I am the customer. You are the provider. When my people call, you’re
supposed to help them, not lecture them.” She became even more

To make matters worse, the bank began forcing us to pay for its
mistakes. When it got burned by another customer, it changed the auditing rules,
with the result that a typical audit now took 12 days instead of two. Of course,
we were the ones who got charged for the accountants’ extra time. I would never
have done that to my customers.

Then there was the accounting firm, which had come strongly
recommended by the bank. We had borrowed a substantial amount of money, and the
bank wanted us to provide certified financial statements. That meant hiring a
larger accounting firm than the one we’d been using. Sam and I interviewed four
or five candidates and chose one, mainly because we liked the managing partner.
I’ll call him Edgar. He was a good salesman, and he treated us well. Once or
twice a year, he’d come to see us, take us out to lunch, and ask what else we
might need from his firm. We were satisfied.

Then, about three years ago, there was a palace coup at the
firm, and Edgar was forced out. His successor–let’s call him Bert–delivered
the news to us in person. He said he’d be handling our account in the future. I
told him I just wanted him to stay in touch, visit us now and then, and return
my phone calls. He promised he would. But he didn’t. Eighteen months went by,
and we heard not a word from Bert. At one point, we ran into a problem with an
audit. I called Bert, and he didn’t call back. Sam eventually resolved the
problem, but I was annoyed. Bert had promised to return my calls. Maybe he
sensed my annoyance because a couple of months later, on a Monday morning, an
envelope arrived containing four tickets to a Mets game scheduled for that
Thursday at 1:30 p.m. There was also a note: “Have a good time at the game.
Bert.” The gesture aggravated me even more. I found it insulting. He obviously
had tickets he couldn’t get rid of, so he decided to pawn them off on me–as if
I’d drop everything to spend a whole weekday afternoon watching the Mets try to
stay out of last place. And the seats were terrible.

Sam called Bert and told him we had to see him–pronto. He
finally showed up, and I let him know exactly how I felt about the tickets, the
unreturned phone calls, and the lack of contact in general. We were a six-figure
account, I reminded him; we deserved better. Bert apologized profusely. The
previous 18 months had been tough, he said. I agreed to give him another

But a year went by with no calls or visits from Bert. In the
next audit, a dispute arose over a footnote the auditor wanted to include. I
thought it unnecessary. Sam believed we could resolve the matter by changing the
footnote’s wording. I said I’d do whatever our lawyer advised. So we called the
lawyer, who said the footnote was absolutely unnecessary. I said I wanted to see
Bert. Sam called Bert, who said he’d just heard about the problem and agreed
that we didn’t need the footnote. As for coming to see us, Bert was busy and
couldn’t make it for a while. “Is he going to call?” I asked Sam.

“I’ll let him know you want to hear from him,” Sam

“He’s got 30 days,” I said.

The 30 days came and went without a call. Instead, we got a
holiday greeting card from the firm. When I opened it, Bert’s business card
dropped out. I just shook my head. We had to be one of his largest clients.
Didn’t we deserve a personal note?

I was still stewing when I boarded the JetBlue flight from New
York to Oakland, Calif. As I watched Neeleman patiently move from customer to
customer–listening to their concerns, answering their questions, telling them
how to get their problems solved–I couldn’t help thinking about Bert and Bob
and the woman at the bank. Here I was, getting first-class customer service from
the CEO of an airline that had sold me a ticket for $154. Shouldn’t I expect the
same from suppliers to whom I was paying tens of thousands of dollars? Was it
too much to ask that they return my phone calls?

As soon as I got home, I put the wheels in motion to replace
all three suppliers. The bank won a reprieve by coming back to us with an offer
we couldn’t refuse. We’ll be monitoring the service its people give us in the
future. In the meantime, Bert and Bob are gone. If they want to know whom to
blame, they need only look in the mirror–or take a trip on JetBlue.

Norm Brodsky ( ) is a veteran entrepreneur whose
six businesses include a three-time Inc. 500 company. His co-author is
editor-at-large Bo Burlingham.