Customer Experience – When the Tail wags the Dog.

It has been an interesting couple of months, interesting in terms of ‘What’s one of the worst customer experiences you’ve ever had ‘

Our experienced involved two businesses, both big dogs in their fields, leading global and national brands. One trying to break into a sector dominated by a strong competitor and the other with a reputation built on customer service. Not unreasonable to expect that these might be the sort of businesses who would be switched on to learning from customers’ experiences, good and bad.

However, in the same way that they treated us to an appalling example of how to not to manage a  customer  complaint, they then firmly confirmed the ‘don’t care’ message by having no interest in understanding why things had gone so significantly wrong.  

I came away with the feeling that they had built so much process into their customer complaint handling system, they had also successfully managed to remove any sense of ownership from their employees.  Remember …customers like to be heard and understood.

It got me wondering what on earth was going on? Were these businesses just too big for it to matter or was their customer service structure isolating their management from the damage being done to their businesses? 

Whichever, it became a sharp reminder that no matter how great your product or service, if the customer care end of your business essentially says ‘now that we’ve got your money we no longer care’ then you are trashing your brand and reputation. Dumb and expensive.

Certainly in the case of the retailer they are publicly struggling with profitability. Their past strategy has been primarily to differentiate themselves through providing exceptional customer service. Our experience almost completely burst that bubble. Almost but not quite, because what ultimately resolved our complaint was one employee who either hadn’t read the memo or had enough capacity for independent thought to recognise their system had failed and he needed to do more.

What was the main lesson?

He was the first person we had encountered who genuinely seemed interested in our problem. His colleagues had been through the motions – logged details in their system etc. ad nauseam. However when you have had to deal with the ‘customer service’ several times, each time having to repeat supposedly logged details, your trust in the company and the individuals involved starts to disappear.

What did this person do differently?

He listened. He asked some sensible questions. Unlike his colleagues, he uncovered the reasons why we had bought from his company in the first place – we had been assured by their reputation for excellent customer service  and he recognised that so far, his company hadn’t delivered on that.

He took ownership of our problem and action. He made commitments to investigate and communicate back, which he did.  It wasn’t good news – the store to which we had returned the product for repair had failed to send it back to the manufacturer. By this point 24 days of a 28 day repair ‘guarantee’ had expired. 

As customers we had been bounced between the retailer and the manufacturers customer service teams because neither of them could work out what had gone wrong. It revealed a clear weakness in their over- reliance on their IT systems and his intervention reminded me of one of the Toyota production system principles- ‘Go and See’.   He probably circumvented the ‘system’ by making a few direct phone calls, asking colleagues to follow the returned item through the process and in doing so uncovered the problem.

A good example of an engaged person who felt empowered to do what he did. 

To cut a long story short -the retailer acknowledged it was their fault and resolved the issue with a full refund but could they have done better? Indeed they could. Having almost redeemed themselves they instead slipped back into the ‘don’t really care’ mode.

The issue had required over 15 hours of telephone and chat conversations to both the retailer and the manufacturer. The refund involved making a trip back to a store. Right when they could have made sure they had at least retained us as a customer in the future (anyone can have a problem it’s your response determines how your customer remembers it) by recognising the inconvenience and cost we had incurred they decided to quibble over an amount of token compensation.

They could have ensured we re-spent the money in store and in doing so minimised the financial impact on them, but no.  From a customer experience perspective, an unfathomable attitude and one which immediately undid all of the good work of their colleague.

It removed any remaining feeling of loyalty we had for the retailer, we took the cash refund and went directly to the nearest store (selling not the cheapest laptops in the world), explained what had happened and asked what would you have done had that been you? 

The reply confirmed that they would have saved us a great deal of inconvenience by simply replacing the entire product, something the manufacturer and retailer of our original product had declined to do. What’s more they were happy to price match against the original retailer for the alternative laptop. We switched, manufacturer and retailer.

I say ‘us and our’ in this because it involved a purchase made by my son.  Ironically the ‘technology leading‘ manufacturer squandered the opportunity to create an advocate for their products, someone with future spending power and effectively sent him back to their competition whose market domination they are trying to challenge. Make sense? Not to me.

The retailer likewise managed to show that they actually add no value to these products and that their customer service reputation is virtually worthless. Make any business sense?

In a highly competitive business environment it highlighted a few things to me that these companies seem to have forgotten;

  • It’s the lifetime value of a customer that’s important.
  • Ensure your employees are engaged with your business purpose and understand why your customers buy from you.
  • Have capable people in key customer service positions and empower them to take decisions – they may not always take the decision you would, but see it as a lesson to develop them-  better value than any training course.
  • As management ensure you are not isolated from the front line. In our case I believe the retailer has outsourced customer service. Maybe they saved some money on paper – but are they simply squandering goodwill and repeat business?

There was some further communication to tie up lose ends in which I offered to feed back to their respective management our experiences – including, on the part of the retailer the positives, but seemingly there was no interest in that.

What was the tail end of our dealings with these companies – post purchase support – was so bad that they effectively undermined their reputations to such an extent  they are unlikely to receive any more business.  

I suspect somewhere in their management structure someone has taken a cost minimisation approach to customer service – the bill for which will be paid for by a reduction in sales further down the line. 

Given that the market is beginning to mutter about product problems on the part of the manufacturer and the retailer is facing the same high street problems others are, throwing poor customer service into the mix seems a foolish strategy.

My sense is that as large companies start to dominate their market place there is a trend to cut back on quality customer service – in some cases placing an over-reliance on system solutions and cutting back on people resources – cue the …we are experiencing an unusually high volume of calls currently, your estimated wait time is ……’

Is this a view you share? Are we being forced to accept increasingly inferior levels of customer care, or do you have some shining examples?

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