Friday, August 8, 2008

I buy from you, service me

Companies have attempted a lot of marketing promotions in their efforts to differentiate themselves from competition: celebrity endorsements, eye-catching out-of-home advertising in unexpected places, and price slashing. But lo and behold, everyone else is doing this too.

The untapped fountain of customer retention? Customer service.

Cindy Chen and I both stumbled on this article describing the lack of value for customers in recent times. Ok, for a long time. But among the horror stories, there are still some shining examples of very good customer service that make some companies really stand out. Here are a few basic customer service lessons:


We've all called a customer care line and been greeted by CSR named John, who swears that he is in fact from INDIAna, despite his accent. “Alright, John, I believe you…after a 45 minute wait I'll believe anything. Just get me my luggage back please, Air Canada employee.

This is a telephone pole in a high traffic call centre country. A sigh of understanding? (Courtesy of Marcus Forrell.)

In fact, just last week I had to make a similar call to J. Crew’s customer care line. You see, I wanted to buy a jacket, the J. Crew Mosaic Metallic Jacket in a size 6. It was online just days earlier and had sold out.

The jacket I don't own.

I would try my luck at getting their search team to find the coveted jacket in a store and they would ship it to me with the exact same pricing as if I was buying it online. Neat.

So I dialed the toll-free number and nestled myself up with a bag of snacks and began loading an episode of The Simpsons. The phone rang and I was waiting for the automated message telling me that I was put in queue behind the other customers. Instead, I hear "J. Crew Customer Care. My name is Mindy, how may I help you?"

I almost choked on my pretzel.

So unexpected, so cheerful, so polite. But what should I say? "Mindy I love you." ??? No, too honest. Instead I stumbled on my words, "Hi. I'm sorry. I didn't expect to get a person so soon." Mindy giggles and proceeds to ask me what I would like to find, with a smooth Southern accent.

This is how I picture Mindy.

(Wherever you are Mindy, I miss you.)

We never did find the jacket. But can you blame J. Crew for being sold out of the most beautiful thing ever? I never had to hold, I never wait to be told that my patience was appreciated, and the rep was polite. I got a real person who could give me advice and even offer suggestions (check the outlet mall in Buffalo) afterwards. It was such a rare experience that I’m telling people about it. It's not only Air Canada's fault that luggage gets lost - every airline loses luggage. It is just very comforting to know that someone with a heart beat on the other line promptly appears and is trying for you. Whoever started this person-picking-up-the-phone deal at J. Crew can give Air Canada and a few telco giants some pointers.


I know Starbucks is the caffeine monster and their coffees are $5 a pop. However, for those who take great pleasure from coffee, I'm sure it's well worth the price. If you've ever read the fine print on the back of a retailer's gift card it clearly states that the company is not responsible for lost or stolen cards. Which makes sense, I guess. If I were to lose the J. Crew Mosaic Metallic Jacket that I purchased with a gift card, is it J. Crew's fault that I'm irresponsible? Starbucks doesn't agree.

If your Starbucks card is registered online (a task which only takes five minutes) and you lose it or have it stolen, you can report it by phone or on the website and they will lock in the amount, cancel the card and send you a new one in the mail with the same amount on it. So unless whoever finds your card is a caffeine addict with a severe craving, you're pretty safe!

This is how I picture the guy who would steal your Starbucks card.

Starbucks could easily adopt the "not our fault" mentality but that has no stand out effect. And the amount that they are recovering me? Around $20. They could have kept the money and told me to buy another card, but it wouldn't set them apart and would definitely disappoint me. Everyone wins in the end: I get my money back and Starbucks gets to collect my precious information. For a big company like that, they can afford to help me out a little even if I am irresponsible.

…I wonder if caffeine intake is related to one's tendency to misplace things.

You've Screwed Up: FIX IT

No one is perfect and customers are human too - even if they are not treated that way sometimes. If you have screwed up at any point in the customer experience, there should be a way to redeem yourselves without having to call Montie Brewer. Some hotels, like the Delta Meadowvale in Mississauga as described in this article, have a great system of handling customer issues and fixing the issue. Most recently, Kinder Surprise did a great job at resolving a customer issue.

I want a case of these for my birthday.

You can read the whole article here but to sum it up, a woman with strong Native/First People connections found that her son had a KinderSurprise figurine that made native people look unpleasant, to say the least. She contacted the company and received an apology and a promise to withdraw the toy from future production. She was very pleased with the resolution and the case was closed, without any costly lawsuits and a positive article written about the company.

So you really want people to talk about your product and to ensure that you are not confused with your competition, customer service must really go above and beyond the call of duty. Customer service solidifies a customer’s relationship with the brand and intensifies their attitudes to that brand. Remember, a customer is only as loyal to your brand as the quality of their last interaction with you.

Celebrity endorsements may get a product noticed and low prices will have customers consider it, but word of mouth still stands head and shoulders above other drivers of product value.

Oh, and could you ask any friends if they own a J. Crew Mosaic Metallic Jacket that they would like to get rid of? The one on eBay is overpriced.

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