Customer Service, Act III

Small businesses, take note!

In January, my son-in-law (unvaccinated) and daughter (vaccinated and boosted) contracted Covid-19. Amazingly, I did not come down with the disease; neither did my three-year-old granddaughter. Which is how I, at the age of not-quite-68, came to be quarantined with said three-year-old granddaughter for nearly a week.

And remained sane. Both of us. Imagine that.

It wasn’t easy. At one point, my darling grandchild glared at me, remarking pointedly, “Too many sleepovers!” I agreed, especially as she was the only one actually getting any sleep. I haven’t yet figured out how a child that small could expand to fill two-thirds of a queen-size bed. Add my cats, and make that three-quarters. At one point, I slid right off to hit the floor—hard. Then came the evening that I found myself holding her close to apologize when I’d snapped at her. She’d burst into tears. “You’re making me sad,” she told me between sobs. I tried to comfort her, apologizing over and over; telling her that I was mean and grumpy and she didn’t deserve to be snarled at. “What can I do to make it better?” I asked, and she responded, “We could kiss,” suiting action to her words before hopping off my lap, happy as pie.

What kept the two of us from total nuclear meltdown was her fascination with her newest toys, a dollhouse and an antique babydoll crib inherited from her mother’s own childhood. These, along with a package of dollar shop surprises left on our doorstep by a thoughtful relative, prevented implosion.

Happily (or not, as you will see), days before quarantine descended upon us I’d ordered numerous accessories from various sellers for the dollhouse. A few of them arrived while we were in seclusion, adding new interest to her toy and staving off boredom. Others were due soon, I assured her.

Or were they? I watched my e-mail almost hourly, searching for a shipping notice that did not appear.

Now, in the era of online shopping, we’re all pretty familiar with shipping notifications. Notification in one to two days, superb service. Three days, good. Four days, average. Five to six days, a little slow. Seven to eight days, worrisome. Is the item out of stock? Nine to ten days… Hmmm. The shipper should really provide reassurance: “We value your business. We’ll ship your order soon”. Eleven to twelve days, well, the buyer almost certainly believes that they’re about to be billed for an item that will never arrive.

Day 10 rolled around. I emailed the supplier, a shop specializing in dollhouse accoutrements, explaining that I hadn’t received a shipping notice and asking simply, “Is there a problem?”

Receiving no response to my query, on Day 12 I emailed again, noting that I’d received neither a shipping notice nor a reply to my question. My card had already been charged, I said; my bill was due soon. If it happened that I did not receive the items, I would have to dispute the charge on my credit card bill.

That earned me a reply! The supplier canceled my order.

Dismayed and irritated, I responded that I hadn’t asked that my order be canceled; I just wanted to know when/if my items would ship! The reply I received sent my head spinning off my shoulders. Referring to one of my recent blog posts (Same Argument, Different Decade), which the supplier had apparently read after seeing the link below my signature on my querying email, the seller now quoted me, repeating, “Words have power”, and sniping that I should not threaten a credit dispute for unshipped merchandise.

Say what?! This woman had managed to read my blog post, yet could not be bothered to respond to my email. She took the time to peruse an 900-word essay, but couldn’t press “Reply” to send a 12-word email: “Sorry for the shipping delay. We value your business. Please be patient.” Then, to plop the cherry on the cake of dreadful customer service, she had the consummate gall to fling my own words back at me, blaming me for cancellation of the order that I had not asked to have canceled.

The seller closed her correspondence with a hypocritical, “Have a blessed day.”

While it’s unlikely she genuinely intended those four final words, my grandchild and I were, nevertheless, blessed, as several friends located and sent us (from other sellers) almost every accessory from the canceled order. And though the items did not arrive in time to alleviate the stress and sadness of a three-year-old child quarantined from her parents, they came with the most important factor: love.

Only a few days later, I had reason to compare this customer service debacle to another failed purchase. I’d ordered a hard-to-find metal polish, which shipped quickly, but didn’t arrive. When I queried the supplier, I received a prompt, shamefaced and abject apology: He’d sent my product to the address of another customer. As a small seller needing the business, he told me, he’d like to replace my order, but the polish wasn’t in stock; he could not promise timely replacement. Would I like a refund?

Within two days, my money had been refunded. Although I was dismayed to not receive the product, I was pleased with the seller’s honesty and businesslike conduct. When the polish is available again, I’ll probably choose his small business when I place my order.

That’s how true customer service is done, les enfants.

Little dollhouse companies in a big Western state, take note!

If you enjoyed this post, there are several others you might like. Same Argument, Different Decade just appeared on January 19. Customer Service, or Not is from March 10, 2018, and We Look Forward to Your Apology was published April 14, 2021. All can be located using the Archives, below. Oh, and do be sure to send me a question through the Comments if you would like to know which dollhouse shop to NOT make a purchase from!

We Look Forward to Your Apology

It’s doubtful that I will do any further business with the “Green Fruit Bird” company, and I’ve warned everyone I know about the treatment I received.

Not long ago I sent an order to a company with which I’ve done business for several years. (I won’t actually name the company, but perhaps I can just say that its name is a fruit, a bird, and the population name of those who live in New Zealand.) I had a large credit due me owing to a previous miscommunication.  So it was with some apprehension that I entered my current order.  The credit was applied without a hitch, though. Pleased, I hit the checkout button.

Having the credit available meant that I decided to purchase double my usual order, but I didn’t anticipate any problems; in years past, I’d also sent in a double order.  I followed the shipment and tracking e-mails casually, simply glancing at the subject line and sliding them into a saved mail file.

Unfortunately, at no point in either the checkout process nor in the order acknowledgement e-mail was it mentioned that my order was being shipped in separate packages. Later, more closely examining the tracking numbers, I would find that, although each tracking number began with the same three digits, there were, in fact, two separate trackers. For one of those, I’d received nothing except the “It’s been shipped” e-mail. That notice had been sent seven days after the initial package shipped. There were no further updates. But I would learn those facts much later.

At any rate, I received my order, and was dismayed to find only half of what I’d paid for. I immediately sent a quick e-mail stating vital stats such as the order number and total price, noting the credit that had been applied, and explaining that I had received only half of my order. I requested that I receive the rest “ASAP, please”.  (Yes, I really did say “please”.)

In reply, I received a long-winded explanation, stating all the reasons for which my consignment had, unknown to me and never mentioned in the checkout process, been sent via two shipments. The e-mail concluded with the words, “We look forward to your apology.”

Ouch.

I replied, politely thanking them for their explanation, but remarking that, having worked 47 years under that precept that “The customer is always right”, they would not be receiving any apology from me for a straightforward and polite inquiry and request!

Later I was notified that my ticket was being escalated to a manager. Well, I hadn’t expected that, but decided it was a good thing; the individual who had sent the snotty response would, perhaps, be chided.

No such luck.

Instead, the manager replied with a long harangue, castigating me for my remarks, telling me that “The customer is always right” might go over at a pet store (A pet store? I wasn’t ordering a clownfish!), but not with regard to their company, nor any other well-run company these days. That precept might, I was informed, damage employee morale. The manager helpfully included links to articles written on that very topic, published from such sites of sterling journalism such as Huffington Post.

Wow.

Replying mildly, I said only that my remarks had been in response to being asked to apologize for my inquiry. A truly professional reply from their employee(s), I added, might have been to simply state, “Thank you for your inquiry. If you will look closely at your e-mail tracking information, you will see that your shipment was split; there are two shipments. Possibly the similarity of the tracking numbers confused you. We hope this clears up any question. We appreciate your business.”

Of course, I received no further response to my suggestion. Probably just as well, for I can’t imagine what such a reply might have said!

The whole exchange rankled, though, and was also bewildering. As I once explained in the blog post, “Customer Service…or Not”, the insolence which I endured clearly illustrates a problem about what passes for customer service in modern society: that is, that poor service and outright rudeness are acceptable behavior.

I thought it unlikely that the employees making these responses had been introduced to the true meaning of the concept that “The customer is always right”: that it denotes only that customers are to be treated respectfully and with appreciation. That even the most irritable and contrary of customers serves to keep a business afloat. That learning to maintain one’s temper is an obligatory aspect of customer service.

Seventeen days after this exchange of acrimonious e-mails, and five full weeks after my original order, I finally received my second shipment (for which there had been not a single further tracking e-mail).

Of course, it’s doubtful that I will do any further business with the Green Fruit Bird company.  And while I had lauded them in the past, I’ve now warned many people, customers or potential customers, about the treatment I received.

I’m truly tempted to contact GFB one last time, though, providing links to a pair of interesting articles published by a slightly more respectable mainstay of high-standard journalism, Forbes. These articles explain the genuine meaning of “The customer is always right” in a manner that should be understandable even to those employees possessing the most fragile of egos.

But I doubt that I could look forward to their apology.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakemorgan/2018/09/24/a-global-view-of-the-customer-is-always-right/#51993ba8236f

https://www.forbes.com/sites/micahsolomon/2013/12/27/is-the-customer-always-right/#72a991d770f1

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Customer Service…Or Not”, from March 10, 2018. Check for it in the Archives.

Dying to be Seen

I’m told by a friend’s adult son that I (a lot like my current computer) am now a veritable dinosaur, since I embarrassingly expect store clerks or salespeople to be knowledgeable about the products they sell and to attend me when I come to shop in their stores. He patiently explained that “good customers” are expected to do their research on-line first  and then come in knowing exactly what model and brand of merchandise they need, from computers to cars, as well as the price they should expect to pay.  The salespeople, he said, are only there to direct customers and ring up purchases; they aren’t required to have any knowledge of the merchandise.

I found his remarks both dismaying and shocking, yet I couldn’t quite argue. The dictum “the customer is always right” has swung like a pendulum to the far side of the metronome of commerce. And in recent years I’ve experienced exactly the scenario the young man so patiently explained.

Perhaps six years ago, I ventured into one of the big electronics stores to buy a new computer—the very laptop, in fact, on which I am typing this post. And, yes, I had done my research beforehand, and had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. Speed was not really a consideration for me, as I do not game.  I wanted a full-size keyboard.  My vision is poor, so I preferred a large screen.  But, as I use a computer only for word processing, spreadsheets, reading the news and watching an occasional fluffy-kitten-or-cute-dog video, I really didn’t need anything fancy. Still, I came to the world of computers via typewriters both manual and electric; my understanding of technology is limited. I preferred not to buy a laptop on-line, without first seeing the darned thing and then talking to a living, breathing, knowledgeable human being.

And so, the big box computer store. It was a Friday night, and extremely busy, but eventually I snagged an unoccupied clerk, a young man probably in his 20s, and explained the features I wanted in a new laptop.  He listened impatiently, and then, walking away from me, said, “We don’t have anything like that.”

I probably stood with my jaw hanging open for a full 30 seconds before intentionally closing my mouth and storming out of the store.

In essence, I understood what had just happened. I was obviously not a person highly knowledgeable about technology—not a nerd, a geek—and the young clerk would have been forced to take the time to provide explanations on the features of any computer he recommended.  I was a middle-aged woman, not a hot young chick, so there was no visual compensation for the time he would have to take with me.  I had not mentioned how much money I was prepared to spend, so if he was working on commission, that factor was uncertain.

I was simply not worth the young clerk’s time.

And yet…eventually that evening I landed at another store, where another clerk, just as young but far better trained (or perhaps just in need of that commission), took a great deal of time with me as together we chose just the right laptop for my needs—along with a lot of minor paraphernalia, including case, mouse, surge protector, and software. With an additional fee added for sparing me the trouble of loading programs onto the computer, I went far over my budget, but the young man even downloaded a free antivirus program and presented me with a fully-working, excellent computer.  And though it is now as venerable a dinosaur as myself, I continue to use it.

But I’ve encountered this same experience more times than I care to count in recent years, especially in one large chain hardware store–one which I now refuse to enter, even though it’s conveniently located to my home. As I complained to the manager there after an especially egregious event, I felt that I could have died in the aisle and not even been noticed until the janitors came in that night to sweep my cold, dead body out of the store. (Happily, I will note that I’ve become a customer of a different hardware chain, one where customers are still noticed as well as valued and appreciated.)

Attitudes change. Despite the once-popular slogan, the customer was not always right, not by a longshot.  But it is also true that the customer deserves to be treated with at least a modicum of attention, courtesy, and respect, and to be tended to by salespeople who are at least minimally knowledgeable about the products they are expected to vend.

And no one, middle-aged or otherwise, should have to die merely to be seen.

Customer Service…Or Not

Some time ago, I travelled into the city to a government building for what I believed to be a simple transaction, taking some paperwork to obtain a license. I’d already done all the initial preparation on-line, navigating my way through a frustrating website, trying to be sure I’d dotted every i and crossed every t.  I’d even fulfilled the requirement for fingerprinting and a background check which seemed rather ridiculous, since as a former government employee, I’d been fingerprinted and checked twice before; my information had to be on file somewhere.  But, so be it. I did it all once again.

Before starting out, I carefully divested myself of my usual weaponry (pocket knife, pepper spray, nail file, “keycat”, even my miniature flashlight that I knew from bitter experience would be confiscated due to its batteries). Having dealt with streets under construction and city center traffic and non-existent parking, after arriving downtown, I walked several blocks to finally arrive at my destination. I went through the charade of security, submitting my purse for scanning – twice — and then being asked to remove what they thought were tweezers (my reading glasses.  Deadly weapons, those).  After being questioned as to why I had so many sets of keys – uh, let’s see, my house, my daughter’s house, my father’s house, the home of one friend and the apartment of another — I was finally allowed into the building.  Thus it was that, already in a state of irritation, I wandered about looking desperately for a directory before finally, quite by accident, stumbling upon an information desk that was, of course, nowhere near the security entrance.

I waited patiently for the woman at the information desk to complete a phone call, and then asked for directions to the department I needed. I arrived there a few minutes later. Stepping inside, I waited for the desk clerk to look up and say something basic, such as, “May I help you?”  When not a word was forthcoming, I simply smiled, said hi, and began to explain my errand.

Checkmate. “They shouldn’t have sent you in here.  That unit is closed on Tuesdays,” she said.

I’m sure my face was a picture of consternation. “But…but it didn’t say that anywhere on the website,” I stuttered, dismayed.  She shrugged.  “They’re closed on Tuesdays.”

I shook my head and picked up my paperwork to leave and sighed,  “They really need to put that on the website.  They really do.”  But before I could even turn to leave, the clerk leaned forward belligerently and snapped at me, “Well, you can just march right down the hall there and tell them that!.”

I was flabbergasted. I’m sure I stood there staring at her for a full thirty seconds before I said quietly, “I’m quite sure my opinion wouldn’t matter to them any more than it does to you, ma’am.”  I turned and walked out the door.

Now, no doubt that young woman was weary of dealing every Tuesday with customers made unhappy by a situation beyond her control, a problem created solely due a failure of the IT department to properly update a website. But her insolence clearly illustrated a problem about what passes for customer service in modern society: that is, that poor service and outright rudeness are acceptable behavior.  The customer, once touted as “always right” is now never right and deserves not even a modicum of courtesy; the customer is merely an irritation to be swatted aside like an errant housefly.

In a government career that spanned 37 years, I spent much of my time dealing with complaints and trying to assist welfare recipients. (I even learned to call them clients, although in my viewpoint a client was someone who was paying for a service, not receiving payments and services for free.)  During those years, I was the target of many a customer’s frustration as they tried to navigate an unwieldly system with contradictory rules and overworked caseworkers. I dealt with men who mouthed obscenities and women who broke down in tears.  I was called filthy names and threatened.  I was shouted at and endured racist remarks.  Yet never once was I as rude to a those members of the public as that receptionist was to me.

There is simply no excuse for the mistreatment of customers by those entrusted with work on their behalf. Until and unless their own behavior makes it impossible to do so, one deals courteously with consumers who have just come smack up against a wall not of their own creation.

Had that receptionist sighed and said, “I know, I get that all the time, and I keep telling them, but no one will listen to me,” all my sympathies would have shifted on her behalf. I would have commiserated, understanding what she was up against.

Instead, when I returned a few days later, I asked for her name, and her supervisor’s name—both of which, shockingly,  she refused to provide me. Still, I went over her head and attempted the useless process of reporting the problems I’d encountered with the rude young woman.

That no one even bothered to respond to my report, I’ve thought many times since, just made the situation even sadder, since the effort to restore some measure of civility and courtesy to everyday interactions needs to begin somewhere. But it seems that, short of a viral video showing someone being dragged brutally down an aisle, no one truly even cares.