I’ve been thinking a lot these days about the local hardware store that ran Home Depot out of town in Brattleboro, Vermont a few years ago. It couldn’t compete in all of the areas where ‘big” dominates, so it competed in a way “little” dominates — friendly, customer service.
It’s the sort of lesson that American business should have learned going into a recession and, obviously, some have. But good customer service remains a vanishing experience.
Over the weekend, I received a package I’d ordered from a big chain — auger belts for the snowblower that bears the company’s name. But inside were two engine pulleys, not rubber belts.
If you’ve ever ordered anything online, you know that you search for a part number, get a listing with pictures and then click “add to cart.” It’s pretty hard to mess it up, especially if (a) the page doesn’t include engine pulleys and (b) you can spot the difference between an engine pulley and a rubber belt.
And yet, when the box was opened, there were the engine pulleys.
“There’s no place in our system where that mistake could have been made,” the customer service woman on the phone said when I called. “So you are responsible for the cost of sending them back.”
It wasn’t so much that she was so clearly wrong — I’ve coded a web page or two in my day and I can tell you eight different ways an online ordering system could introduce errors — it was the sweet voice that did little to mask the underlying derision. A sweet voice in customer serviceland acts like the word “alleged” in news stories about crime. It’s not meant to indicate that maybe the guy didn’t do it, it’s meant to keep the lawyers out of the newsroom. But that’s a story for another day.
I’m not much of a consumerist. I don’t argue with customer service people. But I had a hard time hearing this one because next to her cubicle, a group of her colleagues were laughing and carrying on, perhaps regaling each other with their phony sweet voices while actually saying, “You should die.”
“I can hardly hear you, could you please tell your colleagues to keep it down?” I said.
“No, sir,” she said sweetly. “I can’t do that.”
Message received: “Your business doesn’t mean anything near as much to me as me letting you know how much I dislike you and your engine pulley story.” Allegedly.
After telling me it would cost $7 to send the package back, she offered to send me the items I actually ordered. “It will be $32. $48 after the shipping charges,” she said.
I let it go. It would be pointless to ask why sending a package back to the company (a package of engine pulleys weighs more than a package of rubber belts) would be half the cost of sending a package to me. And, besides, by then I didn’t want to give this company any more business.
A consumer today has but one option during times like this. Shop elsewhere and tell Twitter. So I did, and yesterday a person in the company’s executive offices called and offered me a $40 gift certificate for my trouble.
So let’s add up the cost here. $40 for the gift certificate plus the $50,000 to $60,000 it probably costs to hire someone to undo the mess that another employee made and refused to fix, plus the amount of all the business I would have given the company before I die, and the cost of all the high-priced advertising intended to get me into your store in the first place … all of that to save $7 in postage.
There are thousands of people — job creators, you might say — who can’t figure out why that math doesn’t work. And because of that, they’re trying other ways to eventually keep the customer happy instead of initially keeping the customer happy.
Brian Solis, who writes about social media efforts has tackled this question in an intriguing assessment called, “Social media customer service doesn’t work.”
Many businesses run new media efforts through PR or marketing. I have even seen a few that run social media through their outside marketing agencies (talk about being close to the customer). Anyway, I have tried a few of these out over the years. My view is that these disconnected businesses are attempting to placate consumers, to minimize or eliminate the complaint. In order for social media service to scale, change MUST happen. Companies must care. New metrics must surface that place the customer back in customer service.
I do not get a sense however, that much has changed in the way businesses run, no matter how engaged in social media they are today. This is not because the scaling is not possible, because for the most part you can queue up a tweet just as easily as you queue up a call. The trouble is the efforts are not leading to wholesale change in the way companies interact with their customers. If you are simply placating loud customers, all you are really doing is encouraging others to focus on the channels where they believe resolution awaits.
What people failed to see regarding the Dell or Comcast success stories in the early social media days, is the amount of work that went on behind Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. The true transformation of these businesses what not in taking to social network, but instead building the back end to start fixing the problems that created negative experiences in the first place. In my list above, I mention the power of stories, and both Dell and Comcast utilized these online conversations or stories to help drive improvements. I am sure both companies will admit that this is an ongoing process and that wholesale change does take time.
When the (very nice) woman at the executive offices of the big company offered me $40, she wasn’t saying “what will it take to make you happy?” She was asking, “what will it take to shut you up?”
Somewhere in Vermont, there’s a very smart hardware store owner who shakes his head when he hears businesspeople described as “job creators.” Maybe he had a nice degree in business. Maybe he’s only a working stiff. But he’s in business today — and a big conglomerate store across town isn’t — because he understands that the real job creator is the person who walks through the front door and needs an auger belt.
(h/t: Caveat Emptor)
(Photo:Kate Andrews, via Flickr)