Customer Service: It Matters More Than You Think

Nobody becomes a successful salesperson by treating customers poorly, especially in a competitive sales environment. That’s why almost all entrepreneur training drills deep into the importance of providing an exceptional customer service experience.

So why is it that big, well-established companies think they can succeed and become market leaders when their customer service experience is horrible?

I’m going through a nightmarish drama with a too-big-to-fail retailer right now. It’s triggered my investor mind far beyond the $20 being held hostage by this retailer to a fundamental question of where executive priorities are and whether the customer service experience itself is a precurser to shifting market trends.

Here’s what happened.

On Black Friday, I did all my shopping online as I always do. I bought four small items from this retailer (approximately $9 each, after massive discounts) and selected in-store pickup as the delivery option. The website said it would take roughly a week for the order to arrive. A couple of hours later, I decided to cancel two of these items. The website let me request a cancel on the items, but when my card was charged and the items shipped, all four items were included in the order.

Here’s where things get messy. At the time, I was in severe pain because of my back and medicated to the point that I couldn’t drive. Val tried to return these two items and the in-store customer service personel were able to process a refund, but then realized they needed my phyical credit card. Upon realizing this, the refund was voided.

Val returned with my card and was told by a different customer service worker than the refund didn’t look like it went through. The store then informed Val that the online and on-site computers didn’t communicate with each other, so there was no way to check for sure. They gave Val these items back and said to “wait and see” if a refund hits my card. If it did, we were to bring the items back to the store. If it didn’t, we would at least have the items I paid for.

Attempt number three resulted in an hour-long ordeal in which an employee of the local store placed a call to a corporate. At the end of the hour-long ordeal, it was determined that the initial refund was showing up on the corporate computers, but not the fact it was immediately voided because there wasn’t a card present.

That’s a technical glitch. It’s not worth blogging about or getting upset about.

The problem is the way this retail giant’s corporate employees decided to handle it.

See, the first person Val talked to at corporate wasn’t authorized to do anything, so she got a supervisor on the phone who then accused Val of trying to return the same items multiple times. He told her she should “try being an honest customer”.

Let’s think about this for a second. When someone takes an item back to a store, one of two things happens. Either the store accepts the return and gives a refund, or the store keeps your money and you keep the items you tried to return.

The latter had already happened twice.

In order for Val (or, by extention, myself) to be a dishonest customer, the normal chain of events would have been distrupted. One scenerio might be that Val returned the product for a refund and the store let Val walk out with both the refund and the product, then Val decided to try to get a refund again using the same receipt. The other scenerio would be that Val and I are buying multiple items and trying to return them for a refund of heavily discounted Black Friday pricing rather than normal full-price, and again trying to return them on the same receipt.

Let’s think about that really hard.

Multiple attempts to attain a refund over the course of two months — including an initial attempt to cancel this order before it was processed — resulted in a corporate call center supervisor accusging a customer of theft by deception.

This whole episode is one gigantic case of incompetence. What it tells me is that this retail chain pays a chief technology officer a huge salary to do… what? Nothing, near as I can tell from this experience. If you can’t get the basics right, you don’t deserve a salary.

One of the company’s stated goals is to challenge Amazon.com in the online shopping space.

Should Amazon be worried? Hardly.

This retail giant uses its stores as customer service centers for online transactions, yet there is next to no interneccectivity between the information systems used in store and those used by the online branch of the company.

Basic, fundamental business processes that don’t work. That’s a top-down problem.

So again I ask, if this interconnectivity is such a basic concept that an idiot like me can figure it out without much trouble, why is this corporation paying someone who obviously can’t figure it out to sit on their executive staff?

This isn’t about technology, either. It never is. It’s about leadership and a lack thereof.

How important is customer service? Sears and J.C. Penny’s use to be huge in retail. When I was growing up, they were the anchor stores of my local mall. They were anchor stores at practically every mall around here. These days, at the end of every year, stories flood the press about store closings. A while back, Sears was even a bit of a national joke as stories broke about how run-down their stores were and how the demoralized sales staff didn’t care anymore. More recently, Sears sold off one of its two in-house brands, Craftsman tools, in order to buy time to fix its struggling retail operations.

What happened to Sears and J.C. Penney’s? Quite simply, their executives simply assumed that the money would always flow in the way it always had.

Just like the comapny I’m dealing with now does.

It reaks of a cancerous mindset at an executive level.

To every corporate execruvie out there, I want to scream: it starts and ends with the customer service process!

Every transaction is a promise. Every transaction is also an investment in trust. When honest customers are accused of dishonesty, what happens? They stop shopping there. When a customer is promised easy returns and it takes two months to process a return, what happens? They stop shopping there. And when — as the store staff informed us — this happens so frequently that the default store response is to call corporate because they know they can’t do anything, what happens? People stop shopping there.

It’s not rocket science. It’s also why I’ll be watching this company’s stock and executive structure very closely. Based on this experience, I have a sneaky feeling that in twenty years, we’ll be seeing the same kinds of stories about this company that we see about Sears and J.C. Penny’s now.

As for my refund, I still have the product. I’m told that I should see a refund on my credit card in 3-5 days, and that when I do, I can bring the product back to the store. That means Val and I will have made a total of five trips to the store to fix a problem on their end. I guarantee I won’t be shopping on their website again. I’ll find alternatives to their store as well.

And I won’t be the only one.


Also published on Medium.