Why do some brands still have poor customer service during a recession?

March 2009

Or, arguably, at anytime and including in boom years, but in the current economic climate it has to be plain commercial suicide.

So for this month’s comment three stories: Two about great customer service and, thankfully, just one about a level which can only be described as rubbish. Which at two-to-one is probably not a fair reflection of what’s currently happening in the business world – the vast majority of owners, directors, managers and employees do seem to be jumping through hoops to stay afloat – but that does leave the odd one to really stand out, and sadly for all the wrong reasons.

My tale of woe first then. In the Hughes household we buy our wine from three sources: Tesco online for the day-to-day stuff (and certainly no complaints about their customer service – even though I can occasionally find myself on the currently-trendy Tesco-bashing bandwagon…), Waitrose for anything I particularly fancy as part of the weekly grocery shop (well, discovering apparently rare Argentinean Malbec on the shelf does somewhat help break the drudgery of buying essentials such as loo rolls and Shredded Wheat ), and our own ‘special’, personal, ‘order over the phone in cases’ wine merchant.

The latter we discovered at the BBC Good Food show some 18 months back, and it’s a relationship that, up until recently, I’ve very much enjoyed. The wine isn’t cheap, but then it’s generally, especially good, and not what you’d typically see on the supermarket shelf or their online facility. The bottles are what you save for weekends, or to put-one-over on your clever wine expert neighbour (we have one).

Like all good things in life though it can go wrong, and it did about eight weeks back when I ordered half a case of vintage South African Shiraz. The wine arrived okay and the retro label certainly promised of great things inside. Problem was it tasted awful, truly awful. Well actually, and if I was a wine expert, I’d no doubt find some slightly pretentious way to describe it such as “exceptionally high in tannins and best laid down for a few more years in the cellar”. But: a.) we don’t have cellar, b.) it’s already 8 years old (which seems quite old enough to me), and c.) I’m impatient and would rather drink it now.

So an email ensued to the company in question to find out the score on returning the remaining 5 bottles. The answer? Well you could return them and get a refund, but you’d also have to return 6 bottles of perfectly good wine with the 5 you don’t like to make up the numbers. Why the hell would I do that? Because it’s our policy to only ship in minimum quantities of 12 (though 11 was apparently okay in this instance). Well I can understand that when shipping to me, but for returns that makes no sense at all? I agree but that’s our policy. Well your policy sucks…

I didn’t return the wine and now it’s time to name and shame (which I wouldn’t normally do, but everyone has their limits) – the company’s name is Catchpole and Frogitt.

Actually it was even worse than this, as I asked the very nice lady we deal with (it certainly wasn’t her fault) to forward my email of complaint on to her Director, which she did but he couldn’t, apparently, be bothered to contact me – not even a simple email back.

Next up and briefly for a rather happier tale: My good wife bought me a very smart leather briefcase about 18 months back online. End of last year the catch broke so I couldn’t close the case properly. We finally got around to contacting the supplier, explained the problem, he quickly got a replacement catch in the post and wouldn’t even accept payment for it. And unlike wine, it’s unlikely I’ll be coming back to him every month for another leather case. Clearly in his mind though that’s irrelevant; and great customer service is great customer service – regardless of market sector or product category.

So he deserves a mention too and this time for excellent customer service – the company is called Quindici Ltd and the website address is www.quindici.co.uk

My third story is simply about an individual’s inspiring attitude to both the recession and customer service. I don’t know the individual’s name, as he was a taxi driver who took me from Euston station to the Park Lane Hilton last Wednesday (and, to be clear, I don’t normally frequent such places, but a client had kindly given me a ticket for the National Sales Awards dinner).

Now in my experience London cab drivers either like to talk and be friendly, or they don’t. The latter are fine as they still get you to where you need to go, but don’t expect any added value. My driver for this trip across London was certainly the former and, once he’d noted my attire of DJ and black tie and the relevance of my destination, we were straight into debate about award dinners in the context of hard times.

Once past my happy story of being very busy currently and getting a decent and free night out at a posh hotel, I was keen to establish how business was for him. “It is quieter right now and not great” he told me “but that just means you have to work a bit harder and put a few more hours in, which I’m happy to do.” Bring it on, I thought, a man after my own heart. He continued “and it isn’t all bad anyway, as my mortgage has gone down a bit so that really helps.”

But it wasn’t just his positive words, but his tone, too. The fact was that he wasn’t going to let the recession beat him. As for what this all means to customer service, well he added value to my journey – because I really enjoyed talking to him – and, in my book, great customer service should always be recognised. So I did just that by giving him a decent tip.

Of course we can’t choose which taxi driver to pick from a long line waiting at the railway station (though I must say that the concept of a ‘happy/miserable rating based on a score of 1 to 10 and posted on the side of the cab is both novel and appealing), but the driver can decide which approach to take. And the point here is that the driver that decides the positive and friendly approach will earn more money – both because they inevitably work harder, but more notably get more and better tips from customers.

Back then to the question posted at the top of this piece. In truth it remains something of a mystery to me as great customer service isn’t, as the excessively over-used cliché goes ‘rocket science’, but I do know that it’s fundamentally driven by an instinctive mindset and not something you necessarily inherit or learn. Yes you can get better at it and my guess is that many are doing exactly that right now, but there has to be a spark in the person’s DNA in the first place.

If that’s true and putting cab drivers aside (as you can’t choose them, even the grumpy ones will survive), then those that weren’t born with it in their blood might find themselves out of a job, or without a business, by the time the recession comes to an end…

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