Archives for May 2009

Is Customer Service really empowered?

A recent experience got me thinking about, despite all the talk on the subject, how truly empowered customer service is to solve customer problems. Back in early December 2008, I ordered furniture from an on-line retailer.

The order was estimated for delivery in 8-10 weeks, putting delivery some where in the early February time frame. Without going into all the details, because there were so many failings in this process, let me focus on the retailer’s CS function after delivery. At the 12th week, my credit card was charged, so I assumed, per the purchase agreement, that the order was shipped. Late, but, I assumed it was on the way. I heard nothing. Another week. In week 14, I began calling and getting the run around and excuses as to the status of the order.

Jump ahead to week 17. The order finally arrives. The product was poorly constructed relative to the price point. And, the order was incomplete. Two days later, I got an email from the retailer’s customer service “hoping that my experience was a good one”. I replied that I was unsatisfied on all levels. At this point, even before this point, I would have expected some sort of remediation or offer from the company for my troubles. Nothing. So, after I expressed my dissatisfaction in a return email, the head of customer service apparently followed up internally to understand the whole story. However, all I got back as a remediation was an historical recount of the experience, complete with a ting of finger pointing towards the manufacturer.

This is how the email concluded from the retailer’s head of customer service. “…I just wanted to take this time , and let you know that your feedback is very important in helping us know when something is not right so we can get the issues resolved as fast as possible for our customer. Thanks again for the feedback it was very important to our company to hear this from our customers.” So that’s it? Thanks for the feedback? Is that all that this customer service head is empowered to do? Thank me for my feedback? Or, does he really think this is sufficient to wipe away 18 weeks of a poor experience?

This email exchange did nothing to satisfy me or overcome my negative experience. This CS head should be empowered to make economic, commercial or monetary decision that would, should such a situation occur in the future, actually show a desire to save a customer relationship. I don’t know what it would have taken to rectify this experience in my mind. But, I know this was not it.

While there are role model companies that understand the need for real economic empowerment at the front lines, all too often, this is as far as customer services is allowed to go. Apologies are free. And this company will realize, you get what you pay for.

A 911 for 411!

I had been a long time Cingular subscriber for my cell phone service at the time of the acquisition by AT&T.; Having been around many acquisitions, I expected to feel some merger pains as a customer. This, however, was one of those funny bone pains that made me laugh through my grimace.

On my cell, I called directory assistance, which I learned later through an unrelated business encounter is outsourced to a third party company I believe called KGB – a contact center outsourcer. Through the automated IVR, I requested the number for Joseph A. Bank, a men’s clothing store. The IVR didn’t recognize my request, so I was transfered to an agent. The agent asked for the business name again. I repeated. Because the company name is spelled “Jos A. Bank”, the agent had to ask for the name several more times….the handle time clock was ticking. She told me she had one listing, nowhere near the town where I had requested; in a different state, for that matter. Meanwhile, I knew there was a store in the location I had requested. I asked her if there were more listings. She said yes and gave me another location.

Again, not the one I needed. I asked “is that all fo them?”. She proclaimed, “Oh no. I have a whole list here but I’m only allowed to give you two listings.” Huh? As perplexed as I was, having knowledge of call center customer service operations, I could only imagin how the average joe would react to this comment. Either the agent was on the phone too long and threatening to surpass the call handle time target. Or, as an outsourcer, perhaps they get paid by Cingular per call. So, the policy is to offer limited information. Any further requests need to be made via a newly placed call.

Must be the shoes!

A friend of mine, George, purchased a pair of basketball shoes from Dick’s Sporting Goods a couple of months ago. He had played about 10 times in them and his feet usually were killing him after the first game. He went back to Dick’s to buy another pair yesterday and was talking to the sales person. What I would have expected from the sales rep is to adopt the company line and say “sorry we don’t refund them after you have worn them.” Especially in a down economy that would have been the easy thing to do. Instead the rep asked if he had the shoes with him. He had

George try them on, agreed that they were the right size and that there was a chance the shoe was defective. He gave him a full “store credit” and helped recommend a different pair to try. In the end, George bought a new pair of shoes and was so impressed he called to tell me about the story. Not only did that single act create a little more individual loyalty, but he also created additional halo effect in that he was so inspired to tell others. And in the world of blogging, might have created more.

The 800 lb Gorilla

I was chatting with a friend of mine who I had not seen in a long time. He happens to own a bar and we got on the topic of customer service. I was watching how he managed his customers (old habit) and it was quickly apparent this was a guy who knew his customers.

A couple of quick observations:
– A regular walked in, he chimed out the guys name (or the bar’s nickname for him) to me and said “he’s going to have 4-6 Rolling Rocks and will be here for an hour and a half.” I noticed the guy leave later and looked down at my watch noting he had been there for an hour and twenty minutes. I then asked the bartender how many he had, to which the answer was “3”.
-A couple walked in and had a couple of drinks two tables away. They left and came back 30 minutes later. As they walked by the bartender remembered them and said “another…” and paused as she was trying to think of their order. My friend, while acting like it was part of our discussion, answered “Bass and Sam Adam Light.”

So back to our discussion of customer service…The place was one of the larger Budweiser pub clients in the area. Budweiser had decided to cut back their shipments from Wednesday & Friday to just Wednesday. No problem in general, but it did put more pressure on ordering and inventory. He felt like he did a nice business with Budweiser and was often willing to bring in new Bud products. Sometime after the scheduling change, he forgot to order enough to cover for a live band for Friday night and called the sales rep to ask a favor for an additional shipment. To his amazement, the sales rep simply followed the company line “we only ship to you on Wednesdays.” He admitted it was a favor to which the sales rep simply said “sorry.”

The next morning (Friday) as he was pulling in the lot the Budweiser truck was delivering to another bar in the same parking lot. Their regular delivery day was Friday.
While I certainly don’t know the whole story, I do see this “company line” excuse happen all the time. I understand that we need to run numbers and that sometime Customer Service can be a costly endeavor. And that we do on occasion need to put our foot down, but do we need to abandon it all the time? Yes, it is true that the bar probably won’t throw out Budweiser as a supplier, but the company and the rep lost money that night.

And on another level, it made me think about the Wed/Fri delivery options. If you are dropping one day of delivery for cost constraints (which is completely understandable), why run the same route both days? Wouldn’t it make more sense to deliver to both bars on the same day?
While there are potentially legitimate reasons for all actions, I would venture a guess that a number of decisions were made in vacuums with partial bits of information to serve specific questions. I also believe that these decisions were based on “how do we minimize cost”, not “how do we maximize long term profits and brand leverage.”

I wonder how the 800lb industry giants fade into oblivion over time?
In this case, I would think that Budweiser would be better served focusing on customer service and leveraging that value to bring new things to markets, improve placement, and promotion.

The wheels came off

Six months after purchasing a new car with one of those on-board NASA super computers that monitors everything you never knew needed monitoring in a car; the flat tire sensor illuminated on the dashboard. Being of what I think is reasonable intelligence, I naturally assumed that meant I had some thing wrong with the tire…like it was flat. So, since I had recently moved over 100 miles away from the dealer from which I bought the car, I call my now local dealer for an appointment to have the sensor fixed and, or the tire changed. Mind you, this was one of those run-flat tires that can’t be patched but has to be replaced – at about four times the price of a regular tire. The diagnosis was that the tire was fine and the sensor just needed to be reset. So, I accepted that as the truth. About a month later, I’m driving and, in my peripheral field of view, I see “FTI” appear on my dash once again in flashing red letters. Apparently the engineers who designed this car had a flare for the dramatic. Because, along with “FTI” flashing in red, was a dire warning about the perils that await me if I don’t drop everything and immediately attend to this. So I call for an appointment the next day. This time I specifically asked that the tire be taken off the car, off the rim and examined from the inside out. Once again, the diagnosis? “The tire is fine. We replaced the FTI sensor”. I was assured that the tire was examined thoroughly. Two days later was Thanksgiving. So, my wife and I jumped in the car with the four perfectly fine tires and headed out to visit family over 300 miles away. Let’s bullet point what happened next:
“FTI” appears back flashing on the dashboard once we arrive at our destination
I call the car company’s roadside assistance number
It’s Thanksgiving. There’s not much they can do as all the local dealers are closed for the long weekend
They recommend I drive the car to the local dealer, leave the car in their parking lot, call them on Monday morning and ask them to look at the tire.
How do I get back home? Rent a car, was the answer. Great!
So, I do all that. What choice did I have at this point?
The following Monday, I call the dealer where I left the car as well as the dealer from whom I bought the car; railing to him about the issue.
Here’s where a bad situation turned good and my original dealer gained a customer for life. The service coordinator at my original dealer told me he would handle the entire situation from that point forward. He called the dealer where I left the car and told them to make any necessary repairs. As it turns out, the tire had a nail right in the middle of the tread. Shocker. My original dealer paid for the replacement tire, reimbursed me for the rental car and had one of his mechanics drive a flatbed over 600 miles round trip to pick up my car and deliver it back to me.
So, while I never thought where I bought a car was all that important. I was wrong. Apparently there is a huge difference even within a brand. Now, assume I buy a new car every 5 years for the next 30 years. My lifetime revenue to that car company, considering the type of cars they sell, is somewhere north of $200,000 in today’s dollars. That’s an exceptional return on that new tire, rental car and effort to pick up my car. Don’t you think?

The Dentist’s Office

I’m certain that we all have our fair share of stories in dealing with medical care providers – doctors office, dentists, labs, hospitals. And to those who are in the field and to whom this story does not pertain, my apologies in advance. My personal issue with the medical establishment is not the level of care I receive, but with the utter lack of ability the vast majority (again in my personal experience) of physicians, dentist and lab/testing offices have for developing and operating a scheduling system that considers the patient’s time as well as the doctor’s. Giving the benefit of the doubt to the physician/dentist, et al, I’m assuming the majority of these issues arise not due to the specific physician’s lack of interest in the value of our time, but in the lack of structured process associated with scheduling appointments. But here’s the issue. That appointment scheduled for 15 minutes is NEVER a 15 minute appointment. So, why does it exist. And how is that 15 minutes measured? A unit of time is a finite measure. It cannot be created. If I have the first appointment of the day at 8am and; lets assume I show up 2 minutes early; I have no forms to fill out in the waiting room; am a current patient and my name is called exactly at 8am, how is that 15 minutes consumed? By the time I walk down the hall from the waiting room to the exam room, put on the smock designed by someone with a twisted sense of humor, give a ‘sample’ and sit up on the exam table, at best, 6-7 minutes have elapsed. So, then lets say, again best case scenario, I only sit there for two minutes before the doctor comes in. That gives my physician and me 6-7 minutes to diagnose and treat whatever is ailing me. There goes the rest of the schedule. It snowballs from there and you know the rest of the story. The last patient of the day, who’s appointment is at 5pm, and who shows the doctor the courtesy of arriving at 4:50, will be lucky to see his doctor by 6pm. So, to my most recent personal experience. A couple of weeks ago I had my semi-annual routine dental visit at 9am on a Tuesday; my dentist’s first appointment of the day. Having a two week old baby and a 2 year old toddler at home; well for those of you that have been, or are there, you know how smooth mornings are at your house. Fortunately, my dentist’s office is less than 2 miles from my house. So, I headed out, climbed the stairs to the office and opened the door at 9:06. As I approached the reception desk, a finer reception I’ve never received. “Are you Dr. B’s 9am??”, she asked. Now, if I was going to change my name, “Dr. B’s 9am” would not be my first choice, but ok, I played along. “Yes, sorry I’m a few minutes late” as I surveyed the deserted waiting room (never has something been so appropriately named). Her reply came in the form of rolled eyes and a glace at the clock. After an uncomfortable silence, I finally asked if there was a problem. “Do I need to reschedule? It’s 9:07” Again, I got nothing in reply but a scowl. I turned. And as I took a step back towards the door, ready to leave, finally another assistant asked me to wait and went to find the dentist. After what was apparently very serious consideration for having me come back another time, I was told: “Ok, the doctor can still take you” OH HAIL! Thank you! How can I ever repay this kind gesture? I know. Next time, I’ll show up at 8:45 so they can take me at 9:15. If I’m lucky.

Regular coffee, please

Ok, so just today. It’s a beautiful, unseasonably warm day. My wife and I decide to load the kids in the car and head to the local zoo. En route, I need a coffee. So, I pull into the drive through line at the Dunkin Donuts on the way. As we were meeting a friend, my wife suggests I order a cup for our friend also. So, I speak into the box – “one medium coffee, milk and one sugar and one medium Dunkachino”. I pull up to the window. “$5.10” says my friend in the orange and yellow smock. I give him the exact change. He hands me two identical Styrofoam cups. Noticing that neither was labeled and not being a fan of the Dunkachino, I wanted to get them straight. Gesturing to present the two cups back to the fine fellow, I ask. “Do you know which is the regular coffee?” “Nope” Comes the reply. “You’ll have to open them”. Hey, thanks! Have a nice day!

Ahh, the joys of going the extra mile

While Christmas shopping for my son, I spotted a hockey jersey that I thought he would like. There was only one on the rack and it was not his size and I was concerned that they were out of stock. After waiting around for 10 minutes a store clerk finally passed by…
“Excuse me, any chance you have more of these in the back?” I asked.
Without looking, the curt answer I received was “No!”
Sadly, this is a chain that I have never been a big fan of and I did not expect much from them. Though this does perhaps explain why they were empty with 3 days left until Christmas.