First published nationwide in the Business Journal Newspapers, August 2021
Earlier this year, my wife and I needed to replace our dual wall oven because the old one decided to run 100 degrees off the temperature we selected. We like to support local businesses, so we bought from a family-owned company in our area. Getting a new oven is like getting a new car, you take every precaution not to spill anything on or in it, but you eventually forget to put a sheet pan under the lasagna dish and end up with a gooey mess at the bottom.
We set the upper oven to self-clean (you can’t do both ovens at once), and headed to the living room. Twenty minutes later we heard a loud noise like shattering glass. My wife said, “That sounded like the oven door glass breaking.” Sure enough, the glass had shattered into a thousand pieces. We called the store, and they said they would order new glass panels and get them installed. A day later, my wife said, “You know, our oven could have been made from a whole batch of bad glass. We should check the lower oven.” Once again, she was right, and the now the lower oven was filled with shattered glass.
The problem is not that we got an oven with defective glass doors. A reasonable consumer knows that defects will arise, and it is not the retailer’s fault. It is annoying, but as long as the manufacturer and the retailer fix the problem, that is the best anyone can do. The problem came with communication from the retailer. For each stage of the process—reporting the issue, determining a resolution, setting repair dates, and follow-up—we had to contact the store instead of the store contacting us. Days would go by without us knowing whether a replacement part had been ordered, knowing when to expect delivery, or when the repair would be made. When a technician did arrive, he said the wrong part had been ordered, and it they would have to start over. He promised to let us know when to expect the replacement part (for the replacement part), but days went by with no word. Again, we had to initiate communication with the store.
For the final e-mail, I did an internet search and found the president of the company. I included him in the e-mail to the store manager and the repair department, describing the break-down communication within his company. We eventually heard from a customer service rep, who apologized and said they were working to find a resolution. She promised to call back with any new information. It has been a few days, with still no word. I checked online reviews of this company and every complaint echoed the same sentiment; a lack of communication. On the review website, the company responded to each complaint with “We are so sorry…”
If the customer has to track you down to get the information they need, you have already failed. Most customers understand that things break and that issues will take time to resolve. They just don’t want to feel like they have been forgotten. Even if there is nothing to report, check in and let them know that you are still working on it.
Apologies Are Worthless
The old adage, it is easier to be forgiven than to be given permission is a lie. Family members appreciate apologies, customers do not. There are a number of great research articles on this phenomenon, check them out. And, if you find that your staff is having to apologize repeatedly for the same problem, the issues lies with management.
Who Does the Customer Hear From?
If I send a complaint to Amazon, I don’t expect a call from Jeff Bezos. But the customer only hears from a nameless, faceless, customer service rep, don’t expect to gain a loyal customer. I included the president of this retailer on the final e-mail for two reasons, 1) as a fellow business owner, I wanted him to know about an issue in his operation, 2) I wanted to see if he would step up or hide behind his staff. He chose the latter. The bigger the problem is, the higher up the ladder the customer expects to hear from.
Initiate the conversation so you can control it, and don’t let your staff be your shield.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.