There is a cost associated with providing customer service. To stay in business, companies load those costs into the price of the items they sell. To remain profitable, they have to keep operational costs as low as possible. For some companies that have slender profit margins, revving up the volume on customer service is not in the cards. Processes are streamlined and automated. So when problems occur, their customers find that they share a portion of the burden of sorting things out.
Here’s an example, from a recent episode in our own real-life reality series. (who needs television when you've got real life to keep things exciting?)
We purchased a product from an online consumer electronics outfit in early January. We had been watching the price points carefully and selected an optimally priced item, actually an exceptional value. A week or so later we received an email giving us the contact information for the retailer’s delivery services vendor so we could call and coordinate delivery with that firm directly.
Cristy called and selected a delivery date. We have both received a number of shipments to our personal residences through the years, and in our collective experience, freight companies contact the recipient with an estimated delivery window, say a 2-to-4 hour window, so the recipient will actually be at the premises when the shipment arrives. Given this experience, Cristy anticipated that the shipper would call in advance to give her an approximate time, but they did not. They just arrived at the house. Someone was (thankfully) at our house that day and received the product in our stead. It was in a large, bulky box and the delivery person did not have a dolly; they both carried it into the house. But we were dismayed when we arrived home to discover it was the wrong product. And not just a little bit wrong, but really wrong. It was way, way more expensive than the item we purchased.
Cristy called the next day to sort it out. The online retailer had no idea how this mistake might have occurred; they were shocked. Their plan to remedy the situation was to dispatch the delivery company back to our house to retrieve the product and when it had been returned, they would ship the item we ordered.
The next week, we were back on the delivery vendor’s schedule for the pickup. It was one guy, again without a dolly. He did not know what he was supposed to get or who he was supposed to invoice. He man-handled the box out to the truck by himself and drove off without securing the box inside the back of the truck. Cristy watched in complete disbelief, certain that the product would fall over and break as soon as he turned the first corner. Then as if to heighten the drama, she noticed that the strapping around the box had badly cut into our wood floors. The driver had pushed the box directly across the floor without covering it first. Nice.
She called the online retailer again, to notify them of both the damage to our property by their vendor and the incredibly high possibility that the product would be returned to them damaged because of the freight company’s failure to properly secure the cargo within their vehicle. The online retailer suggested that we initiate a discussion with the freight service company to pursue a remedy for the floor scratching.
Over the next couple of weeks, Cristy spoke to no fewer than 5 people at that freight company about the incident. None of them had any idea what to do. It was as if this was the first time in the company’s history that an incident of this sort had occurred. Completely frustrating (for us). Someone finally gave her the telephone number of an insurance company to file a claim. OK.
In the meantime, we received an invoice from the freight company since they had to make a second trip to our house to retrieve the equipment mistakenly delivered. I attempted to resolve that with an email to the online retailer’s customer service group, but it appears that “online customer service” is not actually staffed by humans. All replies appeared to be computer generated and were not oriented toward solving problems. Cristy called someone at the customer service center and received agreement that they would handle the mistaken invoice.
About the same time, our originally ordered product was approaching; we received word that we could again call the freight company to arrange delivery. Cristy called and selected a day, but the day came and went without a call to her. She called again and they said they would get to it the next day. On my way home the following day, Cristy told me that the delivery truck was en route to our house. Thankfully she had called to check, because again, they failed to contact her. They arrived shortly after I got home.
The very nice delivery man informed me that he had instructions not to enter our house, so he would leave the product either in the garage or outside on the front porch. I opted for the front porch. The product was strapped to a small pallet and he moved it from the truck to our porch by see-sawing it back and forth on the corners of the pallet. He opened the packaging to confirm that the product was intact. I signed the receipt form and he left. When Cristy arrived, we carried the item indoors and disposed of the packaging ourselves (except for the pallet – waiting for heavy trash day).
At the end of the episode, we received what we ordered and the online retailer offered us a small cash rebate. We have a badly scratched floor for which we need to buy a rug, the cost of which will not be covered by the cash rebate. And we still need to begin a conversation with the freight company’s insurance carrier to pursue a possible reimbursement for the floor repairs.
As retailers shift their business models to strictly online customer interaction, the cost of doing business also shifts to the consumers. The two companies in question? CircuitCity.com and YRC, Inc. Buyer beware.