Sunday, February 3, 2008

All-time favorite business stories - #3

Years ago, I ran a credit card portfolio for H&R Block (credit cards? H&R Block? Yup). At the time, Block owned CompuServe, one of the original online services (the others were Prodigy and the then upstartish AOL). The card was the CompuServe Visa – one of the first bank cards to allow consumers to go online, see their statement, email customer service – all stuff we take for granted today. It was awesome. And thanks to the CompuServe Visa, I caught the online bug.

We did traditional card marketing for customers – direct mail and telemarketing primarily. For $27/hour/representative, you could hire an Omaha-based firm (at the time, Omaha was THE capitol of telemarketing, which probably says something about Omaha, telemarketing or both) to make calls to the CompuServe customer base. We would take the customer list to a credit bureau, pre-screen them for credit-worthiness and throw the “passes” into the calling queue.

Interestingly, people who signed up for our card via telemarketing used the card far less than those who responded to the direct-mail solicitation, but there was enough interest in the card to guarantee a pretty high sign-up rate.

A colleague was in charge of monitoring these outbound telemarketing calls to insure we met CompuServe quality control standards (it wasn’t hard - as the service was growing so quickly, internal QC standards were pretty lax – as I recall, CompuServe at the time blocked almost 50% of the customer’s attempts to call its customer service number. That’s correct – 50% of the people who called CompuServe customer Service got the infamous ‘fast busy’ signal. Hey, keep trying!)

One day this person came to work after monitoring calls over the weekend, and reported the following exchange between our representative and a potential customer:

Potential Customer: “Hello?”

Credit Card Telemarketer: “Bill Thompson, please”

Potential Customer: “this is Billy…”

Credit Card Telemarketer: “Bill, congratulations! You have qualified for the CompuServe Visa. With up to a $20,000 line of credit and the ability to manage your account online, it is one great card! If you will answer just a few questions…”

Potential Customer: “Um, OK.”

Credit Card Telemarketer: “That’s terrific! If I could confirm your mailing address as 101 East Nowhere Drive…”

Potential Customer: “Yeah, it is 101 East Nowhere”

Credit Card Telemarketer: “And your phone number is 501-555-1212?”

Potential Customer: “Yeah – 555-1212”

Credit Card Telemarketer: “Terrific. And now [interruption]

Potential Customer: “This is Billy’s mom, Mrs. Thompson – who’s calling? What’s this all about?”

Credit Card Telemarketer [flustered – while interruptions and hang-ups were very common, not many moms interrupt]: “Hello Mrs. Thompson, this is Larry with CompuServe Visa. I’m calling to let Bill know he’s been pre-approved…”

Potential Customer [now very excited]: “What!? He can’t have a credit card?!?! He’s a minor!”

Credit Card Telemarketer [smooth as silk now, yelling is unfortunately part of the deal]: “Mrs. Thompson, we don’t care what Bill does for a living, he is pre-approved for our 2.9% rate, now if you can put him back on the phone….”

At this point our monitor pushes the panic button, calls a supervisor and explains the differences between a miner and a minor.

Supposedly Bill Sr. called later and took the card…

(side note – this was the classic Jr/Sr problem – the service was in Bill Thompson, Sr.’s name, credit check was run on him, fine, no problem, but Bill Thompson, Jr. (age 9) answered the phone. The rep should have asked for Bill Thompson, Sr.)