During our recent office move, we experienced some pretty terrible customer service from some well-known online companies. In fact, in some cases the service was so bad that it led us to question whether they’ve focused so much on their online promotions that they’ve completely forgotten how to treat customers.

Step one: a shoddy product was just the start

Let’s start at the beginning: we ordered some desks from a reputable-looking retailer. Unfortunately, they turned up after two weeks looking nothing like the image and description on the website suggested. Most of the desks had cosmetic damage from shipping. They took forever to assemble, and were rickety at best once finished. Given that these were not cheap desks, we felt misled by the seller’s marketing.

So, we got in touch for a collection and refund. And this is where things went from bad to worse. The customer service number was buried on their website. We had to sit through 15 minutes of patronising hold messages. And then we got through to an advisor who, from her first “hello”, made it very clear that she simply could not be bothered to help. What was worse was that she also didn’t know how to arrange a refund for us. So much for the promises made on the company’s website.

Lessons learned: people make your brand succeed or fail.

We can forgive the occasional bad product; but only if our experience of the brand is rescued by good service. Good service is made from two simple ingredients: enthusiasm and knowledge. Enthusiasm means making sure your employees are positive about working for you. Give them incentives and praise where necessary so that they care about the company they work for and go the extra mile for the customers they serve. Knowledge means making sure all your employees are trained correctly. There is nothing more annoying for a customer than dealing with an advisor who clearly doesn’t have a clue what they are talking about. Give clear education to all your employees on your refund and exchange policies, and the systems they have to use to process customer requests.

Step two: poor communication leaves us in the lurch

The service agent finally told us they would send us a confirmation email of the collection date and refund. As you may have guessed, no such confirmation arrived and nobody turned up to collect the desks. After our second attempt, a courier did arrive but he said he couldn’t take the desks because they were bigger than he’d been told to expect. So we had to call up for a third time, by now over a month after we placed our order.

Lessons learned: communication is good for everyone involved.

Good communication is the foundation for customer service and a lack of it doesn’t just waste time for the customer, but is costly for the provider and their partners (such as couriers) too. Communication is a system, process and training issue but it’s also down to common sense. Simply tell everyone involved what’s going on.

Step three: losing a customer for life

I am pleased to say that the desks were finally collected, and after much chasing we also got our refund. Obviously we’ll never deal with this company ever again; they blew their chance to correct their mistake.

While losing one customer isn’t going to finish this particular company, if the poor service we experienced is standard practice, it has to be affecting their overall customer retention and profitability. When competition is stiff, it seems silly that companies are tripping up on something so fundamental as simple, good service and are undermining all the hard work they put into promotion.

Lessons learned: word of mouth is powerful stuff.

Consumers don’t just want the product, but a whole experience, including the service and after-sales care you provide them. If customers believe you care about them, then they will care about your company, forgive the occasional mistake, come back to use you again and recommend you to their friends. It’s a reminder that word of mouth is so much more powerful than a flashy website and it’s free, too.

Epilogue: desks!

In case you were wondering, we’re happy to report that we now have a full complement of furniture and settled into our new home. We had a swift and pleasurable experience purchasing our desks (and plenty else besides) from John Lewis, which did a superb job restoring our faith in customer service. Needless to say, we’re happy to recommend them.

Posted by John on 3 August 2012