A Pretty Penny

A pennyI often have to remind myself that the U.S. economy is a service economy because let’s face it, even when only seeking the most mundane assistance…how often do any of us really feel like we’re being served?

Sometimes it’s subtle, like when a post office worker moves at the speed of Dutch elm disease, completely oblivious to those of us waiting in line on our lunch hours.  Or when a sales clerk answers my product questions monosyllabically, seemingly intent on being so unhelpful that I just give up, and go home empty-handed.

Occasionally, however, I encounter customer service that is so shockingly bad – intentional, and carefully calculated – that it deserves its own blog post.

Behold two stories of service so appalling, it was funny:

The first story comes from my friend Jenni, and I know it’s true because you can’t make this stuff up.  On Friday night she was perusing the Comcast website, and a chat window popped up.  Such proactive online chats are generally triggered under two conditions: a website visitor remains on a page long enough to indicate he/she might need help, and there is bandwidth in the customer service center.  It’s pointless for a company to offer chat, if there’s no representative available to be part of the conversation.

When invited to chat, Jenni typed a message, and waited for a response.  She waited, and waited.  After several minutes she sent another message. “Are you there?”  Again, no response.  At this point, she was vexed.  She wrote, “Comcast never fails to disappoint. You initiate the chat and disappear. One more chance.  Are you there?”

The service agent immediately responded “Nope”, and ended the session.

Comcast is notorious for shoddy service.  I’ve received the Comcast treatment myself many times, so I would have thought it impossible for that company to shock me.  But that was bad customer service on a whole new level.

Now, my story.  This morning I battled the holiday crowds in San Francisco’s Union Square.  I had an errand to run at Macy’s, and afterwards stopped at Stanley’s gourmet pretzel cart at the front entrance for a soda.  I was parched, and $1.50 seemed a small priced to pay for relief.

My wallet held a $20 bill, a single and a fist full of change. So that the young woman managing the cart wouldn’t have to break a twenty, I gave her a $1 bill and $.50 in change including five pennies.

Her response:  “Ooh, do you have anything other than pennies?”

I was completely stumped.  Often a cab driver or shopkeeper will be unable to break a twenty or something, because they are running short of change.  But I’ve never, ever had someone balk when I paid the correct amount for an item, no change required.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Well, we don’t take pennies.  We only take nickels, dimes and quarters.”  Or maybe she said, “We don’t work in pennies.”  I was so shocked, I think I lost consciousness for a second.

Was she prejudiced against Abraham Lincoln, and therefore anti-penny?  Unlikely, since I figure she had plenty of $5 bills with Abe’s face on them in her till.

No, she was just a garden-variety penny hater.

After considering, then rejecting, the idea of explaining the term legal tender to her, I did what any sane person would do; I burst out laughing, grabbed my soda and left her the money.

“Sorry about that,” I said.

I think that’s when she swore at me.

I love my hairdresser, Ray.  His salon was my next stop.  I plopped into his chair and immediately told him the story of the penny-hater.  He vowed to stop by her cart on the way home to buy a pretzel…. with pennies, of course.

Likewise, if any of you find yourselves in Union Square before the holidays, please pay a visit to Stanley’s gourmet pretzel cart and spread some cheer — one penny at a time.

And be sure to tell them Kimbo sent you!

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 Buzzfeed.com.  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!