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William is an Assistant Professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in the Department of Business Administration and Tourism and Hospitality Management. He is fascinated by research around how individuals construct and create their social realities, intrigued with the powers of creativity and innovation, and an avid proponent of outstanding service experiences. When not teaching, writing, or researching, he tries to spend time with his family and occasionally paint. He is currently completing his PhD in Management at Saint Mary’s University.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

When policies are put ahead of people.

Whenever you travel around for a couple of weeks, whether on vacation or for business, you have the opportunity to experience many examples of customer service.

I’ve been on the road now for 12 days of a 19 day trip. In that time, I’ve collected some great experiences and examples of customer service. I’ve met the cashier at Wal-Mart who was exceedingly helpful and friendly, the trainee at Tim Hortons who had severe difficulty with the entire ‘pour coffee in cup’ concept, and the very serious salesperson at Brooks Brothers that ended up teaching my 4 year old to whimsically hide in amongst the clothing racks.

While moving around day to day, occasionally, there are moments that truly catch you by complete surprise. One of these happened to me in North Conway, New Hampshire.

Deciding to enjoy the benefits of tax-free shopping for our ever-growing boys, we stopped in at The Children’s Place. We’ve shopped at this retail brand before in Halifax. We knew that we’d find suitable clothes at some great prices in the outlet shop. We always had a reasonably good experience with them.

After picking out about six items, we headed over to pay. Waiting in line, I noticed the lady at the cash register having an odd conversation with both the cashier and the manager. After a few minutes, she promptly turned around, walked up to me as the next in line and handed me a coupon, saying “Well, someone should be able to use it. Enjoy.” Then, she then leaves the store. She doesn’t have a happy air about her.

Ok. Random. Generous. Unexpected.

Of course, now I want to know the whole story. As the cashier starts ringing up my items, I casually inquire about what just happened.

“That was nice of her - why couldn’t she use that coupon?” I ask.

“You have to present that coupon before you pay for your clothes. She had forgotten it in her pocket until after she paid. It’s no good after you pay.”

Apparently, this customer had honestly forgotten about the coupon until just after she paid. This happens sometimes; when you’re trying to herd kids through a shopping experience, you can sometimes even forget your own name. When she realized she’d forgotten about the coupon, she asked the clerk if she could still use it. The cashier promptly quoted the store policy.

Being clever, the customer happily asked to return her items, get a refund and then use her coupon. Simple enough, perhaps even something the cashier might have offered.

Nope. The cashier calls over the manager to explain this customer’s plan. What were the manager’s possible response options?

a)      “Of course. That was an honest oversight. Let me help you over here. We love you as a customer!”

b)      “That was your mistake. Sorry, but refunds are a bunch of paperwork. If we do it for you, we’ll need to do it for everyone.”
Yup, he went with option B. Actually refused the refund and request for help. The manager and the cashier rolled their eyes at that customer as she left, obviously thinking her request crazy and their response righteous. After all, they just protected $10 (or whatever amount it could have possibly have been) in revenue from an unprepared coupon user!

What a lost moment, one in which the staff could have showcased their customer dedication in front of a line up of other clients. Now, we all have a bad taste in our mouths. They might as well post a sign at the cash saying "Our policy is to make you feel wrong."

How many more times do you think that she’ll shop at The Children’s Place? How many people will she tell? How many blogs will her story show up in? Will she tell people on Facebook? Twitter? Yelp? Google+?

These once private events of service neglect are no longer private.

For anyone fanatical about creating awesome customer experiences, this was an opportunity to impress, to excel and to create another customer advocate. In today’s service economy, companies need to educate every single employee about the value of the customer experience.

How do you expect to be treated? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.