Customer service

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.

7 thoughts on “Customer service

  1. So, when I was in high school, I went on a canoeing trip with my class. My canoe-mate decided he could lean the canoe to steer it, resuting in us capsizing, my sunglasses getting swept from my head, then squished between the canoe floating downstream, and a rock. This left a huge scratch along the front of the lenses, and broke off one of the earpieces. I sent the remaining bits back to Oakley with a humorous note about my canoemate being a moron, and asking if there was anything that could be done – just a replacement earpiece would have been awesome, and to please send me the repair bill, so long as it’d be within a certain price range.

    Three days later, a brand-new pair of the next-year’s version of those glasses came in the mail – you couldn’t even get those particular shades in the store yet.

    I was totally blown away. I’d spent the extra scratch on a pair of Oakley’s because I was lifeguarding at the time, and having quality sunglasses made a huge difference in the level of eyestrain you’d experience during a full day in bright sunlight. Now, my current prescription glasses are Oakleys, and my only pair of sunglasses are also Oakleys. I know they’re expensive, but I trust in the quality, and know that if anything goes wrong, I can expect extraordinary customer service. I *gladly* pay the difference.

  2. This also reminds me of our discussion about videogame retailers – I think there’s definitely a retail space to be found for a game retailer that actually is staffed by knowledgeable, professional salespeople, who actually care about providing the right experience for someone. Walk out with a game that really genuinely matches your taste that you didn’t know about, and I’d bet you’d go back, even if the games are a few bucks more.

  3. I had a pretty good experience with Fujitsu that I blogged about: there were problems at first, but they got it right in the end, and in spades.

    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.

    Good, I now have a name for my experience at Home Depot. I tend to shop there, not expecting anything in the way of helpful service. Just keep things in stock, stay the hell out of my way, and keep the checkout line moving in a speedy and expedited manner. Or better yet, provide me with an automated checkout, so I don’t have to deal with any human beings who can’t enter a SKU lookup code.

    To use a term from my classes, such services are commodities where they can only compete based on price and efficiency.

    Heh.. that reminds me–did you end up watching a few more seasons of The Wire? This reminds me of the way the Stringer Bell (one of the head drug dealers, for those not familiar with the series) is taking economics classes at night. He then rips his dealers a new one talking about elastic and inelastic markets, and the reason they need to keep the quality of their “product” up.

  4. REI generally has excellent customer service, since most of their sales folk are hard-core addicts there for the discounts.

    I’ve also had extremely good experience with their customer service. When my rain jacket was leaking they examined and replaced it, demanded to check Uboat’s as well (he happened to be wearing it at the counter) and gave him a steep discount on a new one despite the fact the jacket was 5 years old and heavily used. When I had a zipper break they offered to either send it out for repair or let me get it repaired and hand them the bill- whatever I preferred.

    Good stuff.

  5. I just had awesome customer service at REI last week. I brought in a pair of hiking boots that I bought in 2001. The sole was failing on both shoes in a way that seemed less like wear and more like bad plastic (I thought I had bought them in 2003, and was definitely something they should cover under warrenty.) Once they found them in their computer (something that took a while), the customer service agent looked up at me and said, “Ok, go pick out a replacement.” I was kind of surprised, though a little sad. I had hoped they could be repaired, but wasn’t really expecting it.

    I went and found I preferred the Keen brand to the current REI brand (the old ones were REI/Raichle brand). I brought them down. I ended up getting $10 back because the new boots were cheaper than the old boots with a use discount. Crazy.

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