Qwest’s So-Called “Spirit of Service”

For the next several posts, I will share some of the case studies I have written for my upcoming book, Marketing From The Navel. I use these case studies in the courses and workshops I teach as they demonstrate the power of marketing from the inside out.

The first in the series is a case study about Qwest Communications. Although Qwest is now a part of CenturyLink, it was once a powerhouse among telecommunications giants. Qwest learned through sad experience that it could not advertise its way out of a crisis. It had to first become a company worth talking about.

Qwest’s So-Called “Spirit of Service”

Qwest Service Truck

Qwest Service Truck

In June, 2002, Dick Notebaert was appointed CEO of the floundering telecommunications giant, Qwest Communications International, Inc. Qwest was the main telephone service provider across a 14-state region, mostly in the Western United States. Amid the chaos of some of the biggest corporate scandals in history, Qwest announced plans to restate its revenue for both 2000 and 2001 as a result of an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department.

The post-restatement damage – Qwest had actually lost $2.5 billion more than it originally reported over the two-year span. Like most in the telecommunications industry, Qwest had suffered from over-capacity and over-investment and tried to “massage” things with some creative accounting practices.[1] To make matters worse, former CEO, Joseph Nacchio, was accused of fraud and insider trading for which, incidentally, he is now serving 6 years in prison.

This came on the tail of another battle faced by Qwest around the illegal practice of “slamming”, or switching local telephone customers to Qwest’s long distance service without their permission. In 2000 and 2001, Qwest paid a $1.5 million dollar fine to the FCC and a $350,000 fine to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Protection to settle claims of slamming and deceptive advertising.[2]

As a telecommunications marketing veteran,[3] Notebaert’s first instinct when he assumed the reins was to create an image for Qwest that would quickly drown out the memory of the scandals. He became famous (some would say to a fault) for his “we look through the windshield, not in the rear view mirror” mantra.[4] His “mission [was] to brand the company as one that puts service to customers and staff above all else.” According to a case study by PR Week, Notebaert felt, “Our world centers, starts, and ends around the customer. Everything we do is around the customer. And you must be able to communicate with your customers, and through a spirit of service, meet their needs. Every employee and every associate has to understand what page of the hymnal we are on – and what line of the hymn we are on – in order to have a consistent, articulate message.”[5]

As a result of this new mission, Qwest began to roll out an aggressive new advertising campaign. It went from a campaign slogan of “Ride the Light” (meant to emphasize its technological superiority) to the “Spirit of Service” (meant to emphasize a focus on the customer). To his credit, Notebaert knew that it would require more than a catchy tagline to pull Qwest out of its downward spiral. According to Notebaert, “Everything must truly reflect who we are. Who we are is our brand, and every employee has to live the brand. It goes beyond an ad company that gives you a nifty flavor of the month.”[6]

Despite the best of intentions, Notebaert ran into a few problems. Qwest not only  carried the image of those scandals on its back, but it had acquired the infamous US West in 1999 in order to add local phone service to its growing product lines. US West was nicknamed “US Worst” for a reason, and it wasn’t for its lack of features or technology. US West’s customer service, or complete lack thereof, was legendary (see also America “Worst” Airlines). Even an internal Qwest document noted that when Notebaert took over, “…The company’s technicians were so ashamed to be working for Qwest that they traveled to work in regular clothes, rather than in their Qwest uniforms.”[7]

Secondly, while Notebaert spent a chunk of his time meeting with employees trying to drive home his vision (he would even call in posing as a customer to make sure customer service reps were delivering good customer service), he was fighting an embedded culture with rewards systems that focused on quantity, not quality. In short, the employees and customers weren’t buying it. Notebaert’s time was largely spent reorganizing debt, negotiating with employees and unions to forgo raises, and convincing banks to provide cash infusions.[8] His cost cutting efforts salvaged Qwest from the wrecking yards, but didn’t come close to delivering on the “Spirit of Service” promise.

In reality, Qwest had never exhibited any history of extraordinary service and most days its service was only slightly above that of an IRS auditor or a used car salesman. What was the result of Qwest’s “Spirit of Service” campaign? Here are a few customer comments:

  • “Qwest’s Slogan is Ridiculous, Considering that Their Customer Service is Ridiculously Horrible…I do still have Qwest DSL service, but only because I don’t want to switch to cable internet and I don’t think I have any other options. If I knew of any other DSL provider in this area I would switch in a heartbeat.”[9]  01/2007
  • “I would like to share my recent experiences with Qwest “Spirit of Service” customer service…I am completely astounded by the poor customer service and complete lack of accountability met in these exchanges. It does not appear as though any department knows or has access to knowledge of what the other departments are doing…I would not recommend Qwest to anybody I know and do not plan to be a customer for long.”[10] 09/2006
  • “Spirit of Service? How about the Ghost of Service?”[11] 05/2008
  • “Their service for the past eight or more years, particularly as expressed by customer “service” people, has been terrible. I’ve personally experienced excessive hold times, inflexible policies, rude reps and unresolved problems. So do I believe Qwest’s Spirit of Service? No I don’t. In fact it is a reason to scoff at Qwest. It takes more than a new slogan and a memo to all employees to make a major change, and even then it might not be enough.”[12] 7/2005

Rather than a rallying cry that motivated employees and signaled a shift in the way the company did business, the slogan “Spirit of Service” became something Qwest’s customers used to beat it over the head with. Did it impress customers? No. Did it motivate employees? No. Did it benefit Qwest in any way? Quite the opposite.

The best analogy for this would be walking into your favorite fast food chain, looking up on the menu board, and seeing a picture of a luscious, juicy burger with crisp lettuce, gently melted cheese, and sliced tomatoes with small, shiny beads of dew cascading ever so slightly down the side. However, when you receive said burger, you have to peel it off some messy, crinkled wax paper and it looks more like a shrunken head or something your cat coughed up rather than the specimen you saw on the menu board.

In Qwest’s case, the burger didn’t look at all like the picture they painted and they were punished for it – or shall we say bludgeoned for it. Customer service is a difficult trait on which to differentiate anyway, but to say it and not deliver made the situation infinitely more difficult. What made matters even worse was that it launched the new campaign at the dawn of the social media age, so not only could frustrated customers share their outrage with the neighbor next door, they could share it with millions across the country and the world. No longer did the “unhappy customer tells ten people” rule apply. With the advent of powerful Internet search technologies, it became “unhappy customer tells everyone”.


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