Alexa in your car: Sirius XM needs some Amazon Prime

The satellite radio service serves up great content. But Sirius XM is one of the most frustrating companies to deal with for customers. Could Amazon improve the experience?

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(Image: ZDNet)

I love a new car. The smell, the joy of driving it, and learning its nuances.

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I also love the first-year honeymoon with Sirius XM satellite radio that you get for free with many new car purchases.

Last November, I bought two new cars: a Chevy and an Infiniti. Both came with one year of free satellite radio.

In the car, I love all kinds of music and talk programming, but I don't have a music collection. I prefer to have my tunes curated by people who know what they are doing, and Sirius XM is great for that.

Do I want to listen to classic rock? I have my choice of decade channels. Do I want newer, globalized Miami sound? There's the Pitbull channel, which is quickly becoming one of my favorites.

There are themed channels for every genre of music; there's sports talk, and there's stand up comedy for every kind of audience, although Raw Dog, which is definitely NSFW, is my favorite.

Sirius XM's awful customer experience

Sirius XM's content is great. But it utterly sucks to deal with the company. If you read the multitude of reviews by customers recounting their recent experiences, they are uniformly awful.

In terms of the actual customer experience, I would rank the company just above Comcast or DirecTV in terms of retention and subscription renewal. That isn't saying a whole lot.

Both of my cars' satellite radio subscriptions are up for renewal. You'd think it would try to make this an easy, no-brainer process, but it isn't.

If you have multiple cars, one would think Sirius XM would follow the practice of mobile phone carriers, with discounts for multiple radios and longer-term service commitments. But it doesn't.

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Instead, it has this trick of offering six-month "Select" subscriptions at a vastly reduced rate (one-third of the regular cost of the Select plan at $15.99 a month per device), which "locks you in" to the regular yearly rate of $192 a year per radio when that trial subscription ends.

You can't negotiate, say, a two-year family plan with two cars at a reduced rate on the Select plan or even the more expensive All-Access plan, which includes streaming from cell phones and PCs.

Its excuse for a family plan requires a full-price subscription on at least one radio, and the additional radios are about $120 a year. What a bargain.

Customer service workaround

At the end of six months, you automatically get renewed at the more expensive rate and your credit card gets dinged unless you decide to pay by check.

All this forces you into a workaround of remembering to call before the end of that six-month period to threaten to cancel in order to get a better rate -- for every satellite radio that you have, on a rolling basis, and not giving the company your credit card.

And if you want to receive an invoice to pay by check to avoid giving the company your credit card? That costs $2 extra.

I learned of this Sirius XM customer service hack from a friend who jumps through these hoops twice a year in order to get the best price.

It's bad enough when you have to deal with this on your wireless service contract and subscription television accounts every two years or even yearly. Now, I have to expend this extra energy dealing with Sirius XM and its convoluted cable TV-style, nickel-and-dime offerings matrix twice a year for each of my cars.

You know who I think would be a much better steward of Sirius XM? Amazon.

Could Amazon do better?

Whether Amazon would/could buy Sirius XM outright or enter a long-term partnership agreement is not so much as important as the fact that Amazon actually knows how to handle customers.

The company is an expert at fostering goodwill and continued loyalty. And it understands retention and subscriptions.

Imagine if a Sirius XM subscription was linked to Prime, and your car radio had Alexa. There's a lot both companies can do with this integration.

If Amazon owned the company outright, it could make the basic Sirius XM plan a Prime perk, and it could have the pricier plans (such as with the expensively licensed sports content and Howard Stern radio) be supplemental.

There would certainly be some overlap with Amazon Music/Amazon Radio (it would make sense for the two streaming apps to be consolidated) and the inevitable music licensing it would have to figure out, for sure.

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But the net is that I think the overall experience would be much better, especially in future generations of Sirius XM radios, which would have all this stuff integrated. Particularly, if a Sirius XM radio became a true IoT device with two-way communication with Alexa and AWS -- through a car's LTE Wi-Fi integrated access point or Bluetooth connection to the phone.

Amazon Prime satellite radio

While many people are accustomed to Sirius XM being commercial-free, I think some commercial intrusion of Amazon and Whole Foods deals wouldn't be so bad if it brings the overall cost of the service down.

And because Sirius XM has different themed channels for different demographics, Amazon can actually target different kinds of ads and promotions for related products on those channels.

It could also replicate the model it has on Kindle, which is a "Special Offers" version of the subscription versus a more expensive ad-free version.

Frankly, a car is a captive audience and would be a perfect vehicle for Amazon to generate more sales. Given the huge breadth of Amazon's offerings, this would increase the company's visibility significantly.

Would you listen to an Amazon Prime satellite radio in your car? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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