I bought a new pair of boots last weekend. I’d been needing a new pair of shoes for a while, as my old sneakers were so worn down that it was actually painful to stand in them for any length of time. I decided to go see if I could find another pair of Ecco boots that I liked. I’d had a pair several years ago that I wore every day for four years until they were finally destroyed. After I wore that pair out, I went to look for another pair, but Ecco wasn’t offering nice boots that year, and I forgot about it for a while. But it’s getting colder here so I figured I would see if I could find a pair I liked.
I went to Ecco’s website and found the nearest Ecco retailers, which were Macy’s and a place called Benedetti Custom Shoes. I went to Macy’s first, as I hadn’t actually been there yet despite living a couple blocks away. It was chaotic. There was a one-day sale, there were shoppers everywhere, it took me 15 minutes to get a salesperson to fetch me a pair of shoes, but it was the wrong size, and I gave up.
I went to Benedetti next. It’s on 34th near 7th ave. I’ve walked by there dozens of times, and never even knew it was there. It was a totally different experience. I went straight to the Ecco section, looked at a few options and asked if I could try on the boots in my size. I chatted a bit with the salesperson (possibly owner) about them as I was trying them on. He was telling me about how durable they were, and I said that I’d had a pair for four years but then couldn’t find a good replacement pair. He said that he knew exactly when that was; he had actually not stocked the Ecco boots in 2003 and 2004 because the quality of the boots was too low and he didn’t want to sell them. It was only this past year that they were acceptable to him again, so he said my timing was excellent for looking at Eccos again.
What’s interesting to me is that he basically sold me right there. This was a person who clearly cared about the product that he was selling, to the point where he allegedly refused to stock something that he considered inferior. He made me feel good about my choice without condescending to me. It was a great customer experience, and I was more than happy to give him my money. And if I ever need another nice pair of shoes, I’ll be going back to his store because I trust him to have high quality stock.
It made me reflect a bit on how much of an impact customer service has on my buying experience. I bought a Saturn way back when because it was just such a pleasant experience to go into their dealership and not get hectored by sleazy salesmen. I looked at a couple other cars, and the salesmen there tried to pressure me into buying immediately so they could get credit for the commission. At Saturn, they didn’t care – it was all one price, all the time, so there was no pressure, and they just treated me like a person. And that continued through all my years of Saturn ownership – I always had a good experience with their service department as well.
I use Speakeasy as my DSL provider because of their customer service. They cost more than other providers, but the couple times I’ve needed service, their service has been outstanding. One time my DSL went out, and I called them up, and the tech support guy said “Oh, yeah, looks like your router table is misconfigured, let me fix that”. A guy on the tech support line who even knows what a router table is? Sold. Another time they made a bogus charge on my account. I called them up, expecting to have to argue and explain why it didn’t apply to me. Instead I said “You charged me for this and I don’t think it’s right”, and they said “Yup, you’re right, we’ll reverse that charge”. I was actually off-balance because I had expected to fight.
Then there’s the ultimate customer experience of the French Laundry. Like my Benedetti experience, we were given a quality experience without being condescended to. When we consulted the sommelier, he was able to recommend wines in our price range that were amazing and suited the meal wonderfully. And, of course, we all placed our fates in the hands of Thomas Keller by selecting the tasting menu, and we were delighted with the result. We trusted in him to provide us with a wonderful experience, and it was fantastic. I would go again in a heartbeat if the opportunity arose despite the ludicrous cost.
Contrast these examples with other experiences where the customer experience is less satisfactory. I don’t expect to get any help when I shop in a department store or a Wal-Mart – it’s a transactional experience where I give them money and they give me merchandise. The same for most restaurants – a lot of waitrons get confused when asked what they recommend off the menu. And we’ve all heard of the AOL cancellation story. We may still use such services when it is convenient and cheap, but there is absolutely no loyalty on our part if another service comes along. To use a term from my classes, such services are commodities where they can only compete based on price and efficiency. And lord help you if you’re a theoretically luxury brand that fails to get the experience right – my experience with Mercedes has turned me against them for life.
Contrast these to the other experiences I listed above, where I am willing to pay more money because I felt a personal connection, where I had trusted the service providers and they had not only redeemed, but exceeded, that trust. As Kathy Sierra or Seth Godin might say, businesses must delight their customers. Those that merely provide a service will engender no loyalty and no trust from their customers, and must therefore compete by being ever more efficient and cheap. Those that provide an experience can charge almost whatever they want, as Apple illustrates. Or any purveyor of luxury goods. Or even professional sports teams.
I’d be interested in hearing stories from other people where a fantastic customer experience earned a company your loyalty for life. It also makes me wonder about the role that service people should play in a company. Maybe they should be in charge. Of course, I might just be saying that because I’ve been doing customer service for several months now.