Don’t give your customers reasons to ask for apologies

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By Leo Valiquette

This is a story about a dining room set and organically grown frozen meat products, but it could just as easily be a story about a B2B technology product or service.

A couple of months ago, Francis wrote that customer service must be a deliberate strategy. How you approach customer service ought to be a strategic decision that is carefully and deliberately made. Retaining good customers, after all, is far less costly than acquiring new ones.

But customer service, no matter how warm and fuzzy, will not overcome issues of quality. When something doesn’t perform or operate as advertised, it is only reasonable that customers should want it fixed, replaced, or refunded. Doing so in a timely manner and with a smile builds goodwill and gives your brand a positive image. But if a problem is reoccurring, the nuisance factor for the customer may overwhelm even the best service strategy, drive that customer away and tarnish your reputation in the marketplace.

A leg to stand on

Two years ago I purchased a dining room set for my new house from a national furniture chain. Given the fact that this set would see a lot of traffic, I opted for the additional warranty against surface damage. I consider the majority of extended warranty plans to be nothing more than money grabs, but my gut feeling on this one proved to be right. Within a year of purchase, wood veneer started to bubble. After attempting to deal with the customer-service department at head office and getting largely ignored, I contacted the local sales guy with whom I had dealt originally. He got a replacement to me in no time and the old table was taken away.

But now, less than a year after getting the replacement again, I have not only suffered from the same problem, but now the legs, which are solid wood, have cracked like spring ice on the Ottawa River. I didn’t need my cabinet-making father to tell me it’s because the wood was cut wrong against the grain for a table leg – a novice mistake, or a mistake made by a cheap offshore manufacturer that doesn’t care.

I am still covered by that extended warranty, but now I have to wonder if it’s worthwhile to have the table replaced a second time, or will the same issues just pop up again. Even if another replacement doesn’t suffer from the same flaws, I am now forever suspicious of the quality of this retailer’s furniture and will be reluctant to purchase from there again.

Something doesn’t taste right

Product quality was the chief subject of conversation for my wife and I when we recently sat down with a sales rep for a company that fills your freezer with premium organically-grown meat products from local producers. We ran the numbers on what we typically spend on meat, we listened to him go on about the quality of the product, how lean it is and how quick the company will be to take back product and give replacements if we are unsatisfied.

We decided to go for it. And then we talked to my brother-in-law who is an existing customer and learned how he and his wife had found the chicken products (which would constitute the bulk of our order) to be too fatty.

We reconsidered our purchase decision. That led to an earnest phone call from the regional manager. And this where it became a cautionary customer service tale:

First, my brother-in-law had never complained to the company and had the product replaced. Why? He figured that, since the replacement would come from the same supplier, he would have the same issue, so why bother? Instead, he will likely not renew his order.

Second, the regional manager, in his haste to allay our concerns, told me how my brother-in-law had never complained about the product and that I should encourage him to call the company and have his issue addressed. Oh, and by the way, the company made an error on my brother-in-law’s order that left him with $450 worth of free steaks, but being the great customer-service organization that it is, the company freely gave him the extra rather than renege on an agreement that it had already signed.

The real issue

There’s an obvious lesson here about the power of word of mouth. There’s also a big red flag about telling one customer too much about your dealings with another customer. My conversation with the regional manager must have represented some kind of breach of my brother-in-law’s confidentiality.

But like my example with the table, the real issue is that customer service, no matter how diligent and accommodating to the customer, will not save you if personal experience has led that customer to believe your product is inherently of poor quality or is unsatisfactory because it’s not what they were led to expect.

If you think there’s a sales and service equivalent to that old cliché about how it’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission, you’re setting your business up for trouble. Not only must your product perform as advertised, it must do so reliably over a time horizon that is considered reasonable for your price point and market space. Don’t give your customers a reason to come asking for an apology, because when dollars and cents are concerned, forgiveness doesn’t come easily.

Image: Up Your Service

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