Friday, 7 October 2011

By on October 7th, 2011 in business, dogs, science kits

10:37 – I’ve just had my first report of shipping damage on a kit, in this case a broken thermometer. The buyer wanted to know if there was anywhere local that she could buy another one. I apologized for the inconvenience, and told her I’d get a replacement in the mail this afternoon, which should arrive Monday. It surprised me that it would even occur to her that the breakage was her problem.

That is, perhaps, a commentary on the declining level of customer service among many American companies. Not all, by any means. Companies like LL Bean and Costco do well, in no small part because their policy is to treat their customers (and employees) as they themselves would want to be treated. That used to be the norm for American businesses: “The customer is always right.” That’s the type of business I patronize, and I’ve always known that when I started a business, that’s the way I’d treat my own customers.

Doing so is simple enlightened self-interest. Treat customers badly, and they’ll never buy from you again. They’ll also tell everyone they know of their experience. Treat customers right, and you’ve made a friend for life. They’ll continue buying from you, and they’ll recommend you to their friends.

Solving a problem for a customer at no expense to them often involves incurring a cost, so “results-oriented” short-term thinkers consider it foolish to take a loss rather than charge the customer again. In fact, that small short-term loss nearly always translates into a much greater long-term profit. For example, one person who bought one of our kits emailed me to say that she’d spilled one of the chemicals, and asked if she could buy another bottle. Sure, I could have charged her for the replacement bottle and shipping costs, and she wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But instead I just shipped her a replacement bottle without charge. Counting the item itself, as well as time, packaging, and shipping costs, that might’ve cost me $10 or $12. But that small loss translates into a very happy customer. She’ll tell her friends, and some of those friends may in turn become new customers.

13:37 – Colin is closely related to both Duncan and Malcolm, with several recent ancestors in common, so it’s no surprise that Colin shares many of Duncan’s and Malcolm’s personality traits. Colin is much nearer in personality to Duncan than Malcolm in most respects, and I was reminded of one of them a minute ago, when I gave Colin a dog treat.

Malcolm would eat anything we were eating, without hesitation. Pickles, celery, anything. In fact, Malcolm would eat anything we offered him. That made it very easy to give him pills. Hold down the pill to him, and he’d take it gently and swallow it without question. Duncan, on the other hand, was almost insulting. He’d beg when we were eating, but if we offered him some of what we were eating, he’d sniff it thoroughly before eating it, just to make sure. I actually had a conversation with Duncan about this, explaining that he was insulting us by implication, suggesting that something good enough for humans might not be good enough for him.

And Colin is much like Duncan in that respect. I just went into the kitchen to refill my Coke, and decided to give Colin a dog treat. He watched me take down the container from the shelf. He knows that container is full of dog treats. He sat on command, waiting for the treat. When I held it down to him, he spent two or three seconds sniffing it before he took it. Just like Duncan.

18 Comments and discussion on "Friday, 7 October 2011"

  1. BGrigg says:

    I’ve worked in customer service industries all my life. The mantra “The customer is always right” isn’t right. It was misquoted from a real event.

    Back in the late 1800s Woolworth was entering his main store in London, to find a crowd of customers watching an argument between a cashier and the client. The client wanted to return a product that he had broken, and the cashier was refusing to take it as it was the client’s fault for breaking it. Woolworth immediately refunded the money and said “Never argue with a customer, in front of other customers”, quite a different statement from the customer is always right. I have met many that were dead wrong. Luckily you aren’t dealing with multi-thousand dollar items, and can afford to be benevolent, and I quite agree that a small cost can insure you have a customer for life.

    I’ve seen it the other way around, where no matter what you do, the customer thinks it isn’t good enough. One client gave us the artwork for a printing job. We file checked the disk, provided a proof which she approved, printed the job and after it was delivered, she found a spelling mistake that was her fault (her artwork remember, we didn’t alter the file). She demanded that we reprint at our expense because we didn’t catch her mistake. We offered to reprint at our cost, which I thought was a rather nice thing to do, but no, she refused to pay her bill and we ended up having to sue for small claims, which we handily won, BTW.

    Traditionally printing companies are lucky these days to make 5-10% profit. A $2,000 loss will take $200,000 in sales to recoup the loss. It’s one reason we do so many proofs before putting ink to paper.

  2. brad says:

    Ah, customer service. There is a fun website, “NotAlwaysRight” that has tales from the customer service area. Some customers are pretty amazing.

    On the other hand, so are some businesses. A group of us went to a restaurant last week for a business lunch. We were in a bit of a hurry, so we had a reservation for 11:30 (when the kitchen opened). We arrived at 11:15, expecting to be seated, and be able to order by 11:30.

    We arrived, and walked into the empty restaurant – no one in sight. Eventually, we sat ourselves down at a table. Two staff come in from the kitchen and see us. They talk to each other about us (clearly gesturing in our direction), and then leave. A couple of minutes later, the whole wait staff comes in, and their boss is clearly giving them instructions for the day. This goes on for a good five minutes. Then they all disappear! It was another 2-3 minutes before someone finally came over to acknowledge our existence, and he came with too few menus.

    Sadly, I can’t even say “I’ll never go there again”, because this is absolutely typical of Swiss restaurants and hotels: with very few exceptions, the service is horrible. There is no reason I can imagine – this certainly isn’t true of other aspects of Swiss business, nor is it true of restaurants and hotels in Germany or Austria. It’s really strange…

  3. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    Oh, sure, there are a lot of unreasonable customers. But the saying, “The customer is always right”, could perhaps be better phrased, “The customer always wins”, because ultimately they do. The policy I described is win-win for the customer and the business. Unfortunately, many businesses treat problems as adversarial. When they do that, they may “win” short-term by causing the customer to lose, but in that situation the business always loses long-term.

    When a problem arises, it’s up to the business to make it right if that business intends to stay in business. That doesn’t mean the business is required to do business with customers that take advantage of that policy.

  4. BGrigg says:

    And here is an example of doing restaurant service right.

    I and a couple of business associates from Vancouver went for lunch in K-town. It’s a Brand Name Restaurant, at least in Canada and Australia called “Earl’s”. Decent enough place, what I call a MOR (middle of road) restaurant. They have good food, but not outrageously great food. We we seated and our drink order was taken. We spent a bunch of time chatting, not having seen each other for a year or two, and were playing catchup on the industry gossip. We ordered, chatted some more and the waitress brought our orders apologizing for the time. We shrug and eat, and then the manager walks up and apologizes again, and tears up the order. The rule is that a customer is served within 25 minutes or it was free. I really don’t know how long it took, we weren’t watching the clock, nor did we think it was an extraordinary amount of time, and actually argued with the manager about paying the bill, feeling that they were taking advantage of themselves. How Canadian is THAT?!? 😀 We ended up not paying the bill, but we each threw down a $10 for a tip and told EVERYONE. That was a year ago, and I’m still telling people that story.

  5. Ray Thompson says:

    There are still some companies around that operate in that manner. B&H Photo is one such organization. They will do what is reaonable to make it right. I received an item that I thought was new. The package had been opened and resealed. I don’t really know if the item had been used. It looked fine and worked fine, no big deal. I made a comment about it on a survery I received. B&H gave me 10% back on the item. When they called me and asked what they could do to make it right I said nothing, the item is fine and nothing is wrong. They persisted on giving me something and would not take no for an answer.

    There is another company, ExpoImaging, that I use to get gels for my flashes. There is a special rubber band that goes around the flash. I called and asked about getting a second rubber band for my other flash, offering to pay. They would have none of that and sent me the band at no cost.

    Most smaller web companies (B&H is not small and is an exception) are generally more helpful when dealing with customers.

  6. Dave B. says:

    Bob, you’re absolutely 100% right about customer service. My only comment is make sure you charge enough for the kit in the first place to make sure you cover for the cost of that overhead. I used to work for a small company that didn’t do that. It sure was weird working for a company where the owner is poorer than you are.

  7. Rick says:

    I regularly see both the incompetence, poor service and out and out dishonesty in the computer business. I provide IT consulting for small businesses. I got a call from an employee of one of my regular customers. Her personal computer had died. She took it into Best Buy. They charged her a $70 “diagnostic fee” and told her that it had a bad power supply, motherboard and video card. I told her I would look at it as I was skeptical that this was the case. It was not. The power supply had failed and the fan on the video card had failed, frying the card. There was nothing wrong with the motherboard and, since the motherboard had on board video, I was able to get it running by replacing the power supply with an Antec one and removing the video card. I ran the motherboard diagnostics and it passed all tests. I charged her $60 for the power supply and $90 for labor. I told her to demand her money back from Best Buy as I don’t think they did any real diagnostics. It took Best Buy a week to (mis)diagnose her problem. I had it back to her the day after I received it.

    I am in the process of switching my checking account of 40 years from a mid size multi-state bank to a credit union. When I opened my account, they called it a “charter” account and promised I would not pay any fees. They have tried to break that promise several times over the years and have backed down when I confronted them, but I am tired of fighting them. They recently started putting unreasonable holds on checks I have deposited. I can deposit up to $25,000 per day into my credit union account by uploading a scanned copy of the checks. The funds are available the next business day. They won’t let me scan cash (yet). I even get 2% interest on the first $10,000 I have in my account.

    There are large companies like Amazon and Costco that provide exemplary service. There are small companies that provide miserable service. There are companies like Sears who formerly offered great service but no longer do.

    Rick in Portland

  8. Ray Thompson says:

    She took it into Best Buy.

    Best Buy is NOT the place to take a computer when it is ailing. Standard canned responses to all problems where BB will make a lot of money. The “virus infection” is always good a for several dollars when in truth no virus existed, just a bad file association which most BB’s have no clue how to resolve.

    Want to really confuse BB? Take them a Linux computer.

  9. SteveF says:

    When I held it down to him, he spent two or three seconds sniffing it before he took it.

    Your worthiness is continually evaluated. See that you continue to pass.

  10. BGrigg says:

    My dog is more like Malcolm. If I eat it, she’ll eat it. She’s been surprised a few times, like when a mushroom rolled off the counter and she scooped it up and bit down. The look she came up with was priceless. She slowly deposited as if she was afraid to insult us. She now sniffs that which rolls off accidentally, but if I give it to her, she gobbles it.

  11. Chuck Waggoner says:

    From a Red Hat employee’s blog:

    As things stand, Windows 8 certified systems will make it either more difficult or impossible to install alternative operating systems. But let’s have some more background.

    We became aware of this issue in early August. Since then, we at Red Hat have been discussing the problem with other Linux vendors, hardware vendors and BIOS vendors. We’ve been making sure that we understood the ramifications of the policy in order to avoid saying anything that wasn’t backed up by facts. These are the facts:

    Windows 8 certification requires that hardware ship with UEFI secure boot enabled.

    —-Windows 8 certification does not require that the user be able to disable UEFI secure boot, and we’ve already been informed by hardware vendors that some hardware will not have this option.
    —-Windows 8 certification does not require that the system ship with any keys other than Microsoft’s.
    —-A system that ships with UEFI secure boot enabled and only includes Microsoft’s signing keys will only securely boot Microsoft operating systems.

    This looks serious to me. And it is clearly anti-competitive. Our cousins in the EU will fight this for sure, if they survive, but who knows about the US. They have been letting the big get bigger for decades now, and do things today that companies were busted for as against anti-trust legislation in the ‘50’s through the ‘70’s, when the companies sued did not even have 90% market share, as M$ already has. Meanwhile, the US busies itself with throwing women who WANT to cook, clean, decorate, and garden in jail, just for lying about something that is not even against the law.

  12. Chuck Waggoner says:

    Sorry about the formatting of the above, but I cannot go back and change it. The bullets in the original did not show up when I pasted it into the comment window, and so I added some dashes. Missed the first one. There are 4 bullet points above, not 3.

  13. Chuck Waggoner says:

    AND, it did not obey the ‘end italics’ command. WordPress stinks.

  14. OFD says:

    I would normally be with Robert most of the time on how to treat customers, and as others have pointed out, there are some real assholes out there as customers who will derive some kind of power trip or joy or sexual ecstasy or whatever from making some poor sales clerk’s or waitress’s life utterly miserable in front of other people. I would happily beat these jerks to death on the spot. If I could get away with it.

    You are, obviously, doing the Right Thing there, Bob. It can be much different in face to face encounters with some of our fellow primates.

  15. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    Well, I forgot to mention the other part of my policy. If they abuse it, I shoot ’em.

  16. OFD says:

    Outstanding, sir!

    And no doubt you have the ability and the wherewithal to properly and completely dispose of the remains.

    Assuming they’re not fed to the beasts.

  17. Jack says:

    Had a phone call from a customer late last week about an antenna amplifier I sold him. (It’s a broadband shortwave receiving antenna used by shortwave listeners and ham operators).

    He was curious what was inside the box, so he opened up the gasket sealed enclosure (this part of the antenna mounts outside) and removed the printed circuit board.

    In the process he managed to knock a component off the printed circuit board – sheared it right off the solder pads.

    I now have the damaged amplifier for repair.

    My quandary is whether to charge my normal hourly repair rate, plus shipping and parts, or just ask him to pay for return postage and the part. Postage and part is around $10, and the full charge with labor would add $25 for a total of $35. That’s assuming I can reuse the gasket which is 50-50.

    While I appreciate his honesty in telling me that he damaged the PCB, that would have been obvious from inspection – parts don’t come off like that in the absence of major mechanical force — he said his nutdriver slipped when reassembling the board.

    Charging labor plus parts might deter similar action in the future – in this case the damage is not too difficult to repair, but it could easily have been much more expensive. A free repair carries no such educational value.

  18. Miles_Teg says:

    I’d charge the minimum *this* time. Curiosity is good but he shouldn’t expect a cheap repair next time if it’s his fault.

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