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 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.

Customer Service: It Matters More Than You Think was originally published on Random Thoughts from the Passenger Seat

On Being an Individual… Or Not

A man stands on a mountain.It’s hard to tell people to quit letting other people tell them what to think. I mean, if they listen to you, aren’t they then allowing you to tell them what to think?

Tough question.

We all have people telling us what to think. The media, our friends, religious leaders, politicians — and all these people influence so much about us. What we wear, what we watch, what kind of music we listen to.

Rare is the individual who makes up their own mind, who refuses to go along with the crowd. Society tells us to be individuals, but if we individually choose a path that our peers don’t like, what then? We’re ostracized, we’re ridiculed, we’re pressured to conform. 

Depending on where you live, the pressure may look like this: Go to college. Get a job. Get married. Go to church. Have kids. Retire. Die. Or maybe it’s different, maybe there’s pressure to not go to church. Maybe you’d be looked down on if you did. Who knows. The point is, we’re supposed to do what everybody else does. That’s how society works.

Some people dream of bigger things. Just because you dream doesn’t mean your dreams will come true.

Some people dream and try and fail. Society loves it when people fail. Have you ever noticed that? That’s why every time a celebrity marriage falls apart, it’s all over the news. Every time a celebrity is arrested, their mugshot is plastered all over Facebook.

It works that way in everyday people’s lives, too. People love to gossip about someone who tried and failed. They never stop to praise the effort at trying, only he lack of results.

It takes a lot of guts to try.

It takes a lot of guts to actually attempt things other people only ever talk about.

It takes a lot of guts to risk failure, because not everyone will succeed.

If you’ve tried and failed, you’ve done something most people won’t ever do. Try. Does that help with people are laughing at you? Does that help when people look down their nose at you? Does that help when you hear what other people are saying behind your back?

Not really.

But it’s okay. Because by trying, you’ve lived. You’ve stood up for your individuality. And just because you fail once, doesn’t mean you can’t try again.

That’s the beautiful thing about trying. You just keep trying until you succeed. The more often you try, the more likely you are to succeed.

If you’re starting a business and it’s not profitable almost immediately, people will tell you to just go get a job somewhere instead. Nevermind that you could make more money in an afternoon than you could at a year at your old job. Nevermind that it often takes the same amount of effort to earn tens of thousands of dollars as it does to earn a few hundred dollars. Nevermind that the upside of owning a profitable business means that you never have to answer to anyone except the IRS and God.

People don’t see the upside. They don’t want to see it, especially if it doesn’t come easy.

If you’re struggling to find success by doing your own thing, here’s three things to remember when things are at their worst:

Success comes with the right combination of talent, timing, and work. You can’t control timing. You might not be able to control talent. You can take classes and learn skills, but talent — real talent — that’s hard to come by and you never know when somebody around the corner has more talent than you. The only thing you can control with any degree of certainty is the work you put in.

Success and failure are temporary states that most people measure in terms of money. There are many ways to make money. Some people buy distressed houses and repair them to sell at a profit. Some people invest in stock markets or currency exchanges. Some people beg others for money like it’s their job. Seriously, I once saw a story about a panhandler who made 6-figures begging for money at an interstate off-ramp.

Is money the only thing that matters? To a point, maybe. But only to a point. Your happiness, health, and mental well-being is worth more than money.

It’s time to stop measuring success or failure in terms of money. Does anyone look at lottery winners and think, “Wow, what a success story, everyone should be like them?” Honestly, no. They lucked into a financial windfall. Deep inside, most of us want more control of our financial destiny than that.

If you’re an entrepreneur or even just a dreamer, this is the best advice I have for you: Be smart. Don’t risk everything you’ve got. But find some way to pursue your dream. Find some little way every day to get you closer to the place you dream of being. Don’t let fear of failure stop you from going after the life you want.

Be you. Be 100%, fully you. You’re the only person on earth who can be you.

On Being an Individual… Or Not was originally published on Random Thoughts from the Passenger Seat

Americana is Dying: Sears Sells off Craftsman Tools

A hand holding an end wrench.

A couple of days ago, I saw the shocking news that Sears was selling its Craftsman brand to Stanley Black & Decker. To anyone with even a vague interest in working on cars during the last half of the 20th century, Craftsman is a legendary brand, the tool with a lifetime guarantee. At one time, Craftsman tools were a standard bearer in the world of tools, rivaled only by Snap-On and Mac among my gearhead friends in the ’90s.

For many who remember life before the internet, Craftsman is synonymous with Sears; the brand was only available at Sears stores until Sears acquired K-Mart and began limited Craftsman tools sales through K-Mart’s retail stores.

The good news is, Craftsman is going to be around for at least 15 more years, or so the sales agreement stipulates; Sears was granted exclusive royalty-free retail rights to Stanley’s new Craftsman line of tools for the next next decade and a half. Stanley Black & Decker itself is optimistic about Craftsman’s future, seeing a potential for an expansion of the brand as it brings its products to a wider market.

More recently, Craftsman was the longstanding title sponsor of NASCAR’s Truck Series, a form of motorsports itself caught in a rapid decline that mirrors Craftsman’s.

What happened? The world simply evolved without it. Let that be a lesson to us all.

Americana is Dying: Sears Sells off Craftsman Tools was originally published on Random Thoughts from the Passenger Seat

Can 2017 Really Be Different?

A ring of light around the moon.2016 was an awful year.

I’m being political. I ended 2015 in a major medical crisis. I spent most of 2016 trying to get well. I will forever remember 2016 as a year spent taking muscle relaxers, doing physical therapy, and learning how to cook the foods I love because I couldn’t leave the house to eat.

Many people I know had an awful 2016 as well. Sickness, financial loss, career setbacks.

It left me wondering if 2017 could really be different?

Every year, people all over America make New Year’s resolutions. Every year, people join gyms with every intention of losing weight or open investment accounts with every intention of growing a retirement fund. By February 1st, a staggering percentage give out. Will I become a statistic? I hope not. The only person

Yes, 2017 can be different. Here’s how:

  1. Set several realistic goals rather than one big goal.
  2. Dedicate a portion of each day to achieve your goals.
  3. Silence the critics who say you can’t do it.

Sound too simple? It’s not.

Let’s face it, it’s easier to knock out several small, realistic goals than it is one big goal. Instead of saying you’re going to drop 50 pounds this year, it’s easier to set several related goals: exercise every day, cut out sugar, eat smaller portions.

It’s been described to eating an elephant one bite at a time. In other words, your throat isn’t big enough to swallow an entire elephant (without choking), but if you cut that elephant up into little bites, then it’s no different than any other food.

If you can break your big goals into a series of small goals, then you can devote a few minutes each day to accomplishing those small goals. The key is, you have to spend time every day. After all, if you write a page every day, you’ll have a 365 page book at the end of the year. This is much easier (and less exhausting) than trying to write 365 pages over the course of a few days or a couple of weeks.

Last, but perhaps most importantly, you have to silence everyone who is telling you that you can’t do it. This includes YOU. If you’re critical of yourself, then the odds are stacked against you. It would be like chaining a concrete block to your ankles and then trying to swim.

Intentionally change the voice in your own head to something positive and nurturing. Surround yourself with positive people who can help cheer you on. Join online groups where people with similar goals can share and celebrate successes. Most importantly, if people in your life are negative toward you and your goals, then spend less time around them.

Remember, if you dwell on the criticisms  of people who don’t like you, you’re given them rent-free space in your head. Find other things to think about. Better yet, throw yourself into achieving your goals. Silence your critics by achieving your goals — whatever those are.

A year from now, you can either be celebrating the goals you achieved in 2017, or you can be wondering if 2018 will be any different than 2017 was.

Can 2017 Really Be Different? was originally published on Random Thoughts from the Passenger Seat

Cultural Christianity and the Gospel

This morning, I read a blog post penned as a break-up letter to American Cultural Christianity. It resonated with me in a way nothing has in a while. Maybe, in part, because the author left the country in 1999; the late ’90s was a time when I was most deeply immersed in Cultural Christianity.

It was also one of the darkest times of my life.

Those years were filled with anger and depression, with broken relationships and poor life choices. Yet, for almost twenty years, I tried to make myself fit what Cultural Christianity informed me that I should be. Browse my iTunes library, and much of what you’ll find is Christian music. I have boxes of Christian books and Christian movies. My Kindle library is full of Christian books, too. Scattered across several computers and mobile devices, I have gigs upon gigs of sermons downloaded through podcasts. Even audiobooks.

Over the last two decades, I went through ebbs and flows of chasing that elusive ideal; time of unrelenting fervor and times of absolute apathy. I would throw myself at anything I thought was real and recoil in horror whenever I was confronted with a reality that didn’t match expectation

Five years ago, I couldn’t have a conversation about Cultural Christianity. I simply didn’t understand what the term meant. I was doing what I was told God wanted, spending money on things that held promise of making me a better Christian. I thought I was pursuing my walk with God.

It is only now, with more of my life lived than yet to live, that I’m starting to understand what Cultural Christianity is. It is only after pursuing the Bible, studying the teachings of Christ, and being forced under fire to decide what I believe that I’ve been able to begin separating myself from Cultural Christianity. It is only within the last four years that I’ve even begun to understand what the Gospel means.

It’s not that Cultural Christianity is a bad thing. There are untold numbers of souls who have found support and peace and encouragement in Cultural Christianity, which has led them closer to God. But Cultural Christianity cannot replace the Gospel.

Cultural Christianity is something altogether different than the Gospel. So much of what’s written in Christian books, sung in Christian songs, portrayed in Christian movies, and even much of what is preached from Christian pulpits speaks of our culture rather than the Gospel.

There is a difference. It’s a difference few Christians in America are willing to admit.

Rejecting Cultural Christianity — refusing to allow your faith to be defined by a series of other people’s opinions — is as radical today as Jesus rebuking the religious leadership of His time.

Each of us are called to our own relationship with God, to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. For many of us, that journey was nurtured and shaped by Cultural Christianity. Yet, the true test of any faith is not whether it can survive inside a bubble designed exclusively to support it. The true test is whether faith can survive in a hostile world, to be a light in dark places without becoming tarnished by sin of various kinds.

Cultural Christianity tells us that life will be perfect once we accept Jesus; it may not say this in words, but the implication is clearly felt. If life isn’t perfect, there’s a product to help — a book, an album, a conference, a mid-week revival service. All these things hold the promise that something can be fixed, and once it is, we’ll be back on track for that perfection we seek.

Rarely does Cultural Christianity admit that life often sucks and that’s part of the journey.

In many ways, Cultural Christianity encourages us to fake it ’til we make it, to smile when we’re sad, to pretend the pain doesn’t hurt anymore, to sing and dance because that’s what we think we’re supposed to do. Because no one wants to hear our problems. Because we’re supposed to suck it up and move on. Because pain makes people uncomfortable.

Cultural Christianity often convinces us that we know Jesus because we’ve seen so many portrayals of Him, whether we’ve read the gospels and sought to know Him or not. Cultural Christianity often convinces us that we know the Bible because we’ve heard so many people’s interpretations of it, whether we’ve actually read the Bible or not.

Cultural Christianity tells that we’re walking in the life Jesus called us to because the emotions we experience inside the culture feels so real. And when those emotions fade? There’s a new song on iTunes, a new album, a new book, a new sermon series, a new movie, a new class, a new cultural experience.

The Gospel isn’t so easy. The Gospel is about trusting Jesus, about following His teachings. The Gospel is about denying our own self interests, living a life that is truthful even if it’s ugly, of sacrificing earthly things and overcoming our own selfishness through obedience to Christ. Even when it feels bad. Even when it hurts. Even when it costs us.

Especially when it costs us.

In order to impact a culture for Christ, we must first be impacted by Christ. We must know what the Bible says. We must walk in the ways of Christ. We must live out His teachings. We must be surrendered to the Holy Spirit’s power to change us from the inside out. We must be willing to give up everything we know as life in order to follow Christ and be changed by Christ. We must be able to call out lies, to recognize truth — not in the lives of others, but in ourselves. We cannot hold to double standards, we cannot do one thing and say another. We cannot make excuses for the things God condemns. We must be honest and say that we are not perfect, and we must stop pretending to be perfect. We must be real, be willing to live in the light. We must stop being afraid that people will judge us.

We must stop being angry with people who don’t agree with us. The gospels never record Jesus being angry with sinners and pagans, only with the self-righteous religious elite who claimed to know God but didn’t.

The Gospel says we must stop isolating ourselves from to those who don’t look like us, don’t act like us, and don’t think like us. In other words, we have to go test our faith in the real world.

To know God, to walk in His ways and to know the Bible and to know that the Bible means what it says — that is a form of rebellion. It is a rebellion not only against a secular culture, but also against a Cultural Christianity that feels like the very definition of our faith even though it was never meant to be that way.

For me, Cultural Christianity led to selfishness. It led to arrogance. It led to pride. It made me think I was pleasing God even though I was living and acting and thinking in ways contrary to scripture.

Jesus said to the religious leaders of His time in John 5:39: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me…” And in exactly the same way, I studied a culture that I thought would lead me to a better life, if not eternal life. 

I’ve come to realize that the Gospel, the Bible itself, was missing in my Cultural Christianity experience. That’s not meant to indict Cultural Christianity, it’s meant to serve as a warning. The Gospel has been around for 1800 years or more. It will still be around long after the latest book, sermon, or song has been forgotten. It’s value is far greater to the Christian than any cultural experience. It is far better for any Christian to study the Gospel and seek to understand all the teachings of Christ rather than to measure their life and their faith according to the standards of Cultural Christianity.

Cultural Christianity and the Gospel was originally published on Random Thoughts from the Passenger Seat

PRODUCT REVIEW: Briefton’s Vertico Spiralizer

tl;dl version: Not great, Bob. But not terrible, either.
DISCLAIMER: Brieftons sent me this unit in exchange for an honest review.
This device has nearly 1000 reviews and a 4.5 star rating on Amazon. Most people love it. I didn’t. I didn’t hate it, either. I was perfectly ambivalent. And, currently priced at less than $25, maybe I don’t need to be impressed.
Don’t get me wrong, the spiralized veggies were great. They cooked up nice and it was really like having veggie pasta. The cleanup was a little harrowing. Maybe I made it harder than it needed to be, disassembling the unit. Really, though, even if it does take up less space than a traditional spiralizer, I don’t have room for it to stay out on my countertop or in my cabinets.
I’m perfectly willing to admit that my negative impressions may be mostly based on unfamiliarity with vegetable spiralizers in general. Maybe it’s not the Vertico’s fault, I’m just not equipped to appreciate it. Perhaps the Breifton’s Vertigo Spiralizer really is much better than other options on the market. It sure takes up very little space and it actually does create usable, spiraled veggies. However, I’m still giving it 3 stars, mainly because there were at least 3 manufacturing defects with the unit I received — which is indicative of some quality control issues at the factory that produced this units.
Other reviewers have noted that what I saw as “waste” was actually a safety measure to prevent the mechanism from getting caught in the blades. In fact, the “waste” was cut up and eaten, so it wasn’t really waste. However, there was ½ worth of uncut vegetables out of everything we spiraled — 2 inches total out of 2 zucchini. There was also a lot of seepage from the container that’s supposed to catch the spirals; simply designing the back of the tray so that it was a half inch taller than the other two sides would have stopped that.
At any rate, it’s not bad. I just wan’t impressed. I wanted to be. Maybe I had my expectations set too highly. Maybe the problem is me, not you.
You can read more of the positive 5-star reviews and buy your own Verico Spiralizer here:

PRODUCT REVIEW: Briefton’s Vertico Spiralizer was originally published on Random Thoughts from the Passenger Seat