It’s become axiomatic that companies with good customer service are winning at business. Good customer service is a double edged sword in retail, though. It creates a virtuous circle for the companies that practice it; but it also contributes to the vicious circle for those that aren’t hitting the benchmarks established by their competitors. Customers, after all, mostly don’t just decide in a vacuum how they think they should be treated. Expectations are accreted over time, based on all the interactions and micro-interactions with companies along the way. Occasionally, a company will be so blindingly good that the bar will jump higher; more likely, they’ll be so astoundingly bad that customers are left scratching their heads in bewilderment and saying ‘But I don’t understand. Surely they must have heard of John Lewis?’
I think there are basically two types of companies: (1) the ones that want you to buy stuff from them; and (2) the ones that want to sell you stuff. There is a subtle, but important difference here, and it’s defined by the perceived balance of power in the buying relationship. Companies in category (1) understand that the power lies with the customer, and so they have to woo you and be nice to you, and then you’ll buy stuff. Companies in category (2) think you’re there for their benefit, and, in some strange way, that they’re owed your business.
You can’t always tell the difference until things go wrong.
In the spirit of ‘bad things come in threes’, I’ve been suffering from a recent attack of customer service. Setting aside Vodafone, who are heavily invested in setting the bar at subterranean levels, I couldn’t have set up this comparison better if I’d actually planned it. Two separate purchases, from two separate companies. The common denominator is the courier, Hermes; the differentiator is how the companies have dealt with Hermes’ failure to deliver.
I’ll start with the good, but coincidentally what follows is the true order of events…
I order online and got all the usual confirmation and despatch emails from Boden. Then I got all the usual tracking emails, plus an email from Hermes saying that they’d delivered the parcel to my letterbox. I was at work at the time, and didn’t really believe this because my mailbox is a slim metal box on the wall and you can’t fit much in it. Still, enterprising deliverers have stuffed parcels through the catflap before now, so I returned home expecting to find something.
Ok, well, maybe Hermes had dropped it with my neighbours and I’d catch up with them at the weekend.
Nope. So I emailed Boden. Them being Boden, I’d had previous good experiences to go on, so went in with a reasonable degree of confidence that they would sort out this issue. No problem, no question, yes it looked as though the package had been delivered but obviously if I didn’t have it they would resend it. Via a different courier. Could I confirm that would be ok? I could. Package sent, Royal Mail stuffed it through the catflap a couple of days later.
Mild irritation with Hermes, but Boden sorted it. Overall win for them, ongoing good impression maintained. In the light of the Bad Experience below, I think this is because Boden’s basic assumption is that their customers aren’t out to rip them off. Boden started life online and they get it; presumably the percentage of customers who are ripping them off with fake claims for lost packages is minimal. Whereas, the gains from providing spot on customer service far outweigh any losses caused by them giving their customers the benefit of the doubt.
Now, let’s look at the bad experience.
House of Fraser
I got the usual confirmation email, and then an email saying that the package had been despatched, and that tracking emails would follow. They didn’t. Days passed. No further word, until I got a second email telling me my package had now been despatched. Eh? Nothing showed up.
I web chatted with House of Fraser. Now, because I’ve just had the exact same situation with Boden, and it’s been well resolved, my expectation is that this is going to be easy and painless. I started off pretty neutral about House of Fraser themselves. I haven’t shopped online with them before, so I didn’t have any past experience to go on. The website is pretty dated but they’re one of those older, slightly tired, high street stores, so that’s sort of what you expect.
House of Fraser, it turns out, operate to different, much lower standards. According to their records, Hermes had delivered the package about a week ago, and got a signature for it. This puts alleged delivery two days before the second despatch email. I said they hadn’t delivered here and what signature, and what about that second email? They’d have to go check with Hermes, they’d do that right now. Then the stupid satisfaction survey popped up and in clearing that I lost the chat window.
I chatted with someone else, who confirmed that her colleague was following up with Hermes and they’d get back to me in 48 hours. Eh? No, at this point I’m fed up, just cancel the order. Can’t do that, it’s been delivered. We have to investigate and then we’ll get back to you within 48 hours.
It is at this point it becomes clear that attitudes to the problem differ. In my view, House of Fraser, or their minions, have screwed up and need to sort out the situation, a la Boden. However, in their view, I’m likely to be lying so I can score myself a free bag to sell on Ebay. The risk of House of Fraser potentially losing out trumps the fact that I’m now down both £135 and a new bag.
Twenty-four hours later I receive a somewhat inarticulate email saying that they’ve checked with Hermes (no idea what the conclusion of that conversation was) and that, within a further 24 hours, they’ll be sending me a declaration form. Eh? I can print this out, sign it, scan it and email it back to them. Because that isn’t a shitload of unnecessary hassle. No clue whatsoever as to what the proposed resolution of this problem will be, or in which millennia. This is online shopping, people. In digital time, glaciers have been born and moved, species have evolved and died and my patience has long since expired with them.
This situation remains unresolved, but at this point it hardly matters. I’m sure that after jumping through further yet to be defined hoops, I’ll get my refund. I no longer care much about the bag I attempted to buy, because it’s shifted from being an ‘I just got my bonus’ treat to ‘Bloody hell, that was a right load of hassle’. Way to take the fun out of shopping, guys! So they’ve lost not only this sale, but the next one, because I had my eye on a suitcase as well. This experience just cost House of Fraser £300 more or less immediately, plus an undefined amount of future expenditure.
I will pause for thought with future online purchases from any company using Hermes as their courier. For a start, they can’t find my address (ask the postman); then, they apparently lie about it. Seems to me I’d be setting myself up for another load of hassle that I don’t have time for.
I wil have money to spend on a new bag, and guess where I’m looking? Boden.
OMFG. Hard though it is to believe, this situation is still dragging on. House of Fraser have now sent me the form to fill in, and then investigation takes 7-10 days. Or, to put that in digital terms, an epoch. There is a day of elapsed time between each email. When I reply, well within business hours, it’s the following day before I get a response, thus making email communication uncommonly slow and frustrating.
I’m trying to get them to get a manager to call me, so I told them some times when I’m available. I’m guessing by the fact that no one called me that this afternoon wasn’t convenient. Who knows if, or when, someone will call?
This is such a total car crash that I’m now rather intrigued. The overall impression is that of attempting to communicate with an organization that inhabits a different period in time (I’m thinking 80s?) and for whom solving a problem is simply not a priority. Or, in fact, on anyone’s to do list at all. Just how bad can it get? At this point, I expect that if a manager does call me, they’ll make farting noises down the phone for 3 minutes and then ring off, laughing.
I know. I thought, you thought, we all thought that the nadir had been reached. Not so, my friends. Not so. Grab a head torch and a long rope, because we’re going in…
This is the claim form I received:
Nice that we’ve moved on from me rather jokingly saying that House of Fraser assumed I was lying, to black and white proof that indeed, that is very much the case.
Then a manager called me. To my confusion, she did not just make farting noises down the phone and laugh. In retrospect, that would have been better than telling me that the investigation process involved them taking my signature and comparing it with the one Hermes have, to see if they match.
It’s not that they’re accusing me of lying, she was quick to clarify. Although I don’t know how else I’m supposed to interpret this. Fortunately, as it now seems, I was at work when this parcel was allegedly delivered and this signature allegedly captured. I’ve forewarned my colleagues that I may need alibis, and I’m sure our security guys will be happy to share the camera footage of me arriving at, and then leaving work.
On the other hand, I’ve had packages delivered by Hermes before. Somewhere on their systems they may have my signature.
I was unaware that it’s a modern retailing concept to make your customers feel that either they’re appearing in a TV detective show as the early suspect in the crime, or they’re the victim of a major fraud conspiracy on the part of the courier. I can’t wait for next week’s episode!
I had the realization that if House of Fraser replicated their online shopping experience in store, a couple of heavies would mug you as walked out after buying something, shut you out of the shop and then challenge you to prove you’d bought anything in the first place. You would only be allowed to plead your case using the medium of mime.
But lo! Is that… can it be… yes, it’s an email telling me I’m getting a refund. Was it that I’d asked for the MD’s email address? Was it that, shocker, the signatures didn’t match? We shall never know.
One of my sister’s mates has a company that specializes in helping organizations sort out their customer comms. I’ve offered this story up as a case study they can use in a training workshop, so some good may come out of it.
In an unexpected twist, both of the missing parcels have just turned up. Hermes had dumped them in a hedge at the other end of the village, and whoever found them there dropped them off with my neighbour today. Which goes to show that broadly, people are pretty honest. Tempting though it is just to chuck both packages in the pond and call that returning them, I will send them back properly.