The Six-Step Plan US Cellular Uses to Address Customer Frustrations

You know your industry is broken when 52 percent of customers would rather go to the dentist than your store. You know you have to make a major change when the customer experience ends when the customer leaves your store in handcuffs.  That was the incident that drove John Coyle, Senior Director of Innovation and Strategy at US Cellular,  to develop a revolutionary strategy.  He “opened the kimono” and took a long-hard look at the status quo in the cellular industry and then asked the question, “What rational strategy can we develop to deal with irrational customers?”  He believed that addressing the issues of the most frustrated and angry customers would improve the experience for all customers.

At the IE Group‘s Chief Strategy Officer Conference,  Coyle described the six step process used to develop USCellular’s new strategy, all of which required brutal honesty and a willingness to look at what really happens with customers, not what you want to happen.

Step 1: Understand the competitive realities of your industry

Ask what is going on in your industry.  Be honest and look at the good and the bad of the industry as it exists today.  In the cellular industry, Coyne looked at a variety of factors including the nature of the competitors in the market (large and getting larger or small and being bought), source of customers (too many from churn), and changes in pricing (plan pricing continues to drop).

Step 2: Understand the macro-economic realities of your operating environment

Ask what is going on in the larger environment outside of your industry, in the markets in which you operate.  What realities are your customer’s experiencing?  Today, in the United States, we are experiencing little to no economic growth, unemployment is high, household income is down.

Step 3: Understand the customer realities of your business

More important than what are your customers think about your product and company, is how they truly feel.  Marketing focus groups often only get cerebral answers to questions – what customers say they will do. You need to figure out how to get at the underlying feelings that drive that behavior.  Observation of actual customer actions is a better indicator of true customer behavior than answers to a customer satisfaction survey.

Step 4: Use data to create a metaphor and a strategy

Coyne started with a list of the top customer frustrations which had become the status quo in the industry, such as high cost replacements to cell phones and excessive overage costs.  His strategy was to develop innovative solutions to those frustrations.  From there he took the concepts and found a metaphor to describe the approach.  They used the human body as his metaphor – on top of a backdrop of an illustration of a spine, each of the frustrations was a painful, hurting vertebra.  The solutions were grouped and linked to an expanding heart.

Step 5: Create the irrational case for irrational behavior

Identify all the possible results of NOT changing.  For US Cellular, that meant going out of business, being purchased by one of the big providers, or having more customers throwing cell phones at their employees.  None of these were desired outcomes.

Step 6: Create the rational case for rational behavior

What are the positive outcomes of making a change?  What are the business benefits?  Make the business case for making the desired changes. The savings from reducing customer churn and reducing the costs of marketing to acquire new customers was enough to convince the C-suite to adopt a new business model based around customer rewards.

US Cellular has just rolled out their new strategy that involves breaking out of the cellular status quo with lower cost replacement phones, more frequent phone upgrades, capped minute overage charges, and no contract renewals.  The rollout is too recent to know if it will be as profitable as they would like.  But developing a process that embraces change, involves stakeholders,  and proactively improves the customer experience can only lead to continued success.  How different would the customer experience be if more companies embraced their “irrational customers?”

Jennifer is a CPA, CMA, CIA, CFF with a passion for how sustainability can improve a business. She is the owner and President of The Sustainable CFO, making the world better one business at a time. The Sustainable CFO provides consulting, on-demand CFO services, and business coaching to sustainably themed small business. Jennifer has 24 years of experience improving the business operations for a variety of companies in industries such as construction, legal services, and hi-tech. She also teaches finance in the Green MBA program at Antioch University New England. You can visit the website at or follow her on twitter @sustainablecfo.

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