Sunday, June 27, 2010

Customer Service: Weighing the Options

Knowledge of—and confidence in—a company's culture empowers employees to make decisions and to seek out creative solutions to problems.

After 5 years of delivering newspapers as a kid, I got myself  a "real job" in a high-volume supermarket. I worked for that chain through most of college, and for a couple of years later on as I was getting my music career started. By then, I was a department manager, and had responsibility for minding the store one night a week and a weekend or two a month. As a bagger, cashier, and service desk worker, I had learned the company culture with regard to Customer Service: Stick by the store's reputation, do what you can to please the Customer, don't be afraid to give refunds - but be reasonable. Sometimes Customers are not reasonable, and we cannot help them. Escalate as high as you need to, including the owner of the store, and know that we trust your judgment. Now as a manager I would sometimes be tested.

One evening I was in the front office of the store, making sure the front end staff took appropriate breaks, making sure the shopping carts were collected from the lot, that cashiers got their rolls of quarters, and so on. Suddenly, a couple came in and slammed a package down on the counter in front of the woman who was on the desk that evening. "This is what you sell here?" the woman in the couple roared. "I wouldn't feed this to my dog!" I scanned the security cameras and the front end to make sure this was not a diversion, and then stepped forward as the woman at the desk turned toward me.

I unwrapped the package as I said something like, "What seems to be the problem?" The customer repeated her invective as I got a look at the contents of the package - a few hunks of cooked beef fat. The woman told me how their dinner was ruined by the amount of unusable meat had been in their roast. I thought it was quite a lot of fat until I looked at the sticker on the used wrapper. They had bought a very large roast, and should not have been surprised by this amount of fat. So, I applied my cultural lessons.

  • Stick by the store's reputation - I knew we had one of the best meat departments in the chain of nearly 200 stores, and had huge respect for the master butcher who ran the department and bought the meat. We sold good meat.
  • Do what you can to please the Customer - I immediately grabbed a pad of our refund forms. There was little doubt I would give the customer a refund. But I did not want to do so at the expense of our reputation.
I had a flash of an idea: I picked up the store PA microphone and paged a bagger to the office. I handed him the "package" the people had returned, after removing the price sticker. While I was writing up the refund, I had the bagger go over to one of the produce scales and get me a printout of exactly how much fat had been returned. He quickly came back with a weight that indicated that the fat was less than 3% of the weight of the beef roast. I spoke this finding out loud to the customers has I asked them to sign the refund form, taking extra care not to be accusatory or condescending.

The message: I know you're pulling a stunt to get your money back. You'll get your money back, but I'm telling you that we're better (and smarter) than you think.

The customers wound up thanking me for the refund (of course they did—they got a free roast out of the deal), but left quickly and somewhat sheepishly. I had spent the store's money, but protected our reputation. Having an unhappy, vocal customer on a busy evening was not my idea of good PR.

I wrote up the incident for the store manager, and wound up getting a pat on the back for being imaginative from the store owner a few days later when he visited. We had a conversation about it, and I told him why I thought it would have been the wrong call to refund the people only the price of the fat—it would have been an insult from their point of view, even though they were "putting one over" on us. He agreed. And that, for me, was enough.

Knowledge of—and confidence in—a company's culture empowers employees to make decisions and to seek out creative solutions to problems.

Give it some thought.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Customer Service Stories Are Everywhere

Recently, I flew to Colorado Springs for a weekend of meetings. Going from Downeast Maine to just about anywhere is not especially straightforward, but I did manage to find economical airfare from Bangor. There were three hops, and on the longest of these (New York City to Dallas-Fort Worth), I found myself sitting next to a delightful woman—I'll call her "Sally"—who asked where I was from, where I was going, and what I did. When I told her that I write about Customer Service, she immediately said she had a couple of stories for me, one "good" one, and one "bad" one, and said I could use them here if I wanted to.

I'll start with the bad one. Sally is living in Vancouver Island, BC, now, but is from the US. She and her husband share a cell phone, and use a pay-as-you-go service. The last time she went to add minutes to the phone, the site would not allow her to complete the transaction without a Zip Code. Since the address is BC, there's a different postal code, and the site would not accept it, nor put in a placeholder zip like 99999. She called the Customer Service number listed on the site. She was connected to a representative who went through the fields on the site with her, but stopped at the Zip Code, saying, "We can't process this without a Zip Code. I'm sorry but I cannot help you." Sally again explained that she was not in the US, and that she had done this before, and that she did not understand what the problem was. Again, the response was, "I'm sorry, but I cannot help you." Sally asked for a supervisor, and, reluctantly, the representative agreed. A short time later, the issue was resolved, but Sally was left to wonder what hurdles she would have to get over next time she needed to add service to the phone. Bottom line? Sally will drop this company like a hot potato as soon as she can find a replacement service.

My comment: If they accept Canadian customers, why not provide a way for the to enter the appropriate information on their payment site? This is not only bad Customer Service but also just plain bad business.

Sally's second story was of an individual act of service "above and beyond" the norm when a Customer Service representative at an airline stayed on the line with her for an hour-and-a-half, walking through all the possibilities to resolve a serious travel issue involving a very sick pet, her husband's schedule, and necessity to change flight plans fast. The airline rep brought other people on the phone, asked questions, explored possibilities, and eventually brought everything to a happy conclusion, at least travel-wise. Again, Sally asked for the supervisor, this time to congratulate the company on a job well done, and to make sure that the representative's efforts did not go unnoticed. Bottom line? Sally will fly this airline whenever and wherever possible.

My comment: Loyalty is built on good experiences. Making the Customer feel valued goes a very long way to creating repeat customers and advocates for the company, both of which affect the bottom line.

Give it some thought. (Thanks, "Sally," for sharing your stories with me!)