Retail heaven or Dell Hell: Before you expect a blog to solve your customer service woes, try some basics first

Considering the serious amount of blogjuice generated by Jeff Jarvis’ 520-part Dell Hell series is generating in (and out!) of the blogosphere, I thought it only fair to relate two extremely positive customer service experiences I’ve had lately, starting with most recent and going back through earlier this summer. Then, I’ll talk a bit about some ideas that can be gleaned from the experiences.

Positive experience #1: CafePress and being flexible in special circumstances

Date: August, 2005
Company: CafePress
Rating: 5 stars

At nearly the last minute, I decided to order a custom-made BBQ apron for my son’s 2nd birthday party. I jumped on to CafePress, created the apron effortlessly and with much help thanks to their excellent online creation and ordering tools. Prepping my image was equally as easy thanks to their superb templates and image-creating documentation. To get the apron in time, I opted to pay $18 for next day shipping.

Unfortunately, the apron did not arrive “next day” as ordered (and paid quite a premium for, considering the apron weighed next to nothing). Logging on CafePress to register my complaint and request a refund, I discovered they do not offer refunds for shipping costs. A bit of a bummer in this case, since I would rather keep the customized apron and instead have the failed shipping costs refunded.

There’s a silver lining though: After just one email to CafePress, they promtly (within 16 hours) replied to my email and refunded my full shipping charges, no questions asked, and in defiance of their stated policy.

Bravo, CafePress, for a far-above-average ordering experience from beginning to end. A quick postscript: I wouldn’t recommend trying to “game” CafePress and their stated “no shipping costs refund” policy, since I’m guessing they made a special exception in this case. Hey, look, a company was flexible due to a special circumstance! Mighty cool, and worth another public congrats to the entire team at CafePress.

Positive experience #2: Pier 1 and taking easy steps to close the deal

Date: July 2005
Company: Pier 1
Rating: 5 stars

Earlier this summer, my wife and I trucked down to our nearest Pier 1 to pick up a comfy chair for the living room of our new house. Having done a bit of research online prior to our jaunt (when you live in as rural an area as we do, visiting your “local” National Chain Retailer can often amount to more than an hour’s drive), we knew pretty much the chair we wanted, so we were expecting to get in and out fairly quickly.

Immediately upon walking in the doors at Pier 1, we were greeted by the nearest sales associate. She didn’t run over to us, ask us what she could do, etc., she just stopped what she was doing, greeted us genuinely, and then went back to her work.

After locating the chair we wanted, we proceeded to check out, only to discover that the chair was in stock but the ottoman wasn’t. At this point in the story, most retail outlets would’ve offered a polite frown and apology and we would’ve been on our way, off to spend our money elswhere.

But we had better luck: The sales associate assisting us didn’t send us off into the summer heat with no chair and ottoman combo. Instead, he proceeded to call around to more than 10 other Pier 1 stores, finally locating our ottoman in Buffalo, New York. A quick phone call with an associate in the Buffalo store, and our ottoman was paid for and ready to be packed and FedExed to our apartment. We got it less than a week later.

As for the chair, Pier 1 offered to store it in their warehouse area for us for over a month (in my limited furniture-buying experience, most stores accept holds for 48 hours or less). When we corralled the use of my Dad’s truck for the day and went down to pick up the chair, the same sales associate that made all of the calls for us (over 40 minutes spent on the phone!) even came out to greet us as we loaded the chair onto the truck.

Maybe people up here are just nicer; maybe Pier 1 places a premium on training its employees; maybe there’s more to it. But whatever the cause, the point is that we went from knowing zero about the company to being almost instant brand loyalists thanks to Pier 1’s willingness to go the distance for us.

I think there are a couple important lessons in these stories for companies who may be wondering why customers don’t give a crap about their products. I hate to say it, but in 2005 a corporation’s PR woes (or crises, in Dell’s case) are not going to be answered solely by a blog or- gasp!- even a podcast. Before you reach out intto those wilds (where your customers are, like Jarvis and the many who linked to his saga, both prickly and likely to talk about it), you might want to take a few steps back and keep these two rules in mind:

1) Be flexible: So your company policy doesn’t allow for refunding shipping costs. If the crisis is a big deal(!), then the policy shouldn’t be. Policies, like records, were made to be broken. So set a policy for 99% of all normal cases, but always be willing to bend, or even break, that policy when extenuating circumstances arise. It will demonstrate that your company is not run by a rulebook, but rather by a person. Think about it: People typically prefer to do business with other people, not with manuals, rulebooks, or corporate bylaws.

CafePress has a stated “no refunds” policy for shipping costs. But in my case, I didn’t drop the normal $5-7 bucks for shipping. I spent a relatively high amount, $18 (more than double average shipping costs), and what’s more my order was custom-built (has zero value to CafePress if returned). So instead of sticking to their rulebook and taking back a worthless (to them) unit, they bent their rules and are now rewared with a happy customer. Now, they get any future money I will spend, and I get to continue using a service I love.

2) Help your customer do what they came to do: Funny thing about people who walk into retail spaces: They want to buy things! That’s what’s so frustrating about watching companies do nothing about the lamest possible barriers that have cropped up in front of their customers who are dying to make a purchase. Let’s say a customer walks into your store (a big step in inself), then walks up to the counter and asks for Widget A, which you happen to be out of. You can say “sorry, we’re out of Widget A right now” and move onto the next customer in line, but why? You just threw away what telemarketers spend billions per year chasing: an “easy” sale; a sale that came directly to you.

In our case, my wife and I walked into Pier 1 fully prepared to make a mid-size furniture purchase. The item not being instock is an easy, nearly non-existant obstacle for Pier 1, especially considering their national reach. So instead of turning us away and hoping the person behind us requested something in the store, a Pier 1 sales associate took a few quick, easy steps to convert us into customers. And why not? The cost of bringing us in was little or nothing. The cost of “closing” us by removing a minor obstacle was little or nothing. But in this highly competitve marketplace, the reward of winning the brand loyalty of two die-hard comparison shoppers like us can be far more valuable than the effort it requires.

A final note: When you focus on your customer, you very rarely ever win over just those one or two wallets. So don’t think of bending your rules for one person as risky- think of it as necessary. Often, a simple willingness to be flexible, and to go the extra step, can be far more beneficial than looking for that magical PR fix out here in the blogosphere.

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