Are You Being Served?

Angry baby on phoneUsually a call or letter to customer service is a 50/50 proposition.  I’m a customer – usually a disgruntled one — so the term is 50% accurate.  But the ‘service’ part of the equation can be elusive.

In early May, I bought two identical knit shirts (different colors) at an Ann Taylor Loft.  I laundered them that evening, and when folding them discovered several holes in each.  Cleary there was an issue with the quality of the fabric.

So I returned to the store two days later with the shirts, and my receipt with the date of purchase on it.  I explained the issue to the sales clerk and asked for a refund.  He gave a heavy sigh and said, “We don’t accept returns after the tags are removed”.   He did not make eye contact with me.

I pointed out that of course the tags were removed.  I had told him that from the start.  The problem was the items had begun to disintegrate after one washing.

He sighed again, and said he’d accept the return this time, but I should understand that it was against store policy.  (Read: I am doing you a really big favor.) When I began to object further, he shrugged and said “Hey, I’m just telling you our policy”.

I wrote a pretty scathing letter to the store’s headquarters at an address listed on the website.  Instructions on the site promised a response within five days.   Forty-two days later…

The (eventual) response was fine.  It included vague apologies for my disappointing experience at that specific store location and assurances that my feedback had been passed on to regional managers.  A 25% coupon was enclosed.  However, I was struck by the fact that nothing specific about my complaint – except the location of the store – was included in the response.  This was a form letter, albeit a well-written one.  Caution and efficiency trumped authenticity and sincerity.

Contrast this with a recent experience at the small jewelry store Mabel Chong, on Union Street in San Francisco.  There is no such person as Ann Taylor (or Ann Taylor Loft) as far as I know, but there is a Mabel Chong and she is awesome.

Mabel’s high-quality jewelry designs are beautiful and unique, but a pair of earrings I bought there had begun to discolor.  Strolling by on a sunny Sunday, I decided to stop inside and ask about it.  Since I had bought the earrings more than a year before, I didn’t have a receipt.   The clerk suggested that I come back with the earrings anytime, and she’d take a look.  Before I dropped them off later that week, I emailed Mabel Chong as well to give her a heads up, and I got a similar response;  Bring the earrings in, and she’d fix them.  And she did, in just a few days, without ever questioning my motives.

What a difference that made!  I wouldn’t hesitate to buy jewelry from Mabel Chong’s lovely little store in the future, because I trust her.  She understands that the satisfaction of people like me could make (or break) her reputation.

I was reminded of this today when I saw the photos below on  I chuckled at the kindness and creativity of the young man (age 27 and 1/3) who wrote a response to a toddler’s letter to a Sainsbury’s grocery store in London.

This exchange between a 3-year-old girl and a shopping center.

Of course it wasn’t necessary.  He could have sent a standard form letter – “Thank you for shopping at Sainsbury’s” – with a gift card enclosed, and the little girl and her mom still would have felt pretty good.  But instead he took time to congratulate her on her clever idea.  I’ll bet her family rarely buys groceries elsewhere because of his thoughtfulness, and now thanks to Twitter and Facebook more than 1 million people have seen the letter too.  All together now…Aw, that is soooo sweet!

Take heed, customer service centers everywhere.  Good things can happen when you worry less about efficiency and standardized responses, and let your customers know that a real person took the time to respond to a complaint or suggestion.

Power to the (small business) people!

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