Everything Pedde

   S J Pedde Canada  S.J. Pedde

Customer Disservice:  Helping The Customer Decide Where Not to Shop

Dear Zachary:

You and I have spoken on numerous occasions of how important it is to make good decisions, to work hard and to accept responsibility for your actions.  I not only want you to always do the right thing for yourself, I want you to think how you will act beyond that, how you will act and interact beyond your own immediate circle of friends and family.

Why?  Well, for one thing, one day you will inherit my various businesses.  Even if you elect not to manage any of them yourself, you will nevertheless be responsible for how they are run by whoever you hire for the task.  You, and your hired managers, will need to adhere to the strictest business ethics and the highest standards of customer service in order to carry on my companies in the tradition to which our customers have become accustomed.

Let me be clear about something.  Just as no person on this earth is perfect, neither is any business perfect, being itself made up of imperfect humans.  Mistakes will be made by owners, by management, by employees, by anyone who has anything whatever to do with the day-to-day operations of the organization.  I’m sure you might have heard of Murphy's Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.”  And when anything goes wrong, the ultimate responsibility will reside with the owner of the company.  With my companies, someday that is going to be you.  How your employees and managers handle customers and suppliers, good or bad, will reflect back on you.  How you deal with the inevitable daily problems will define you, personally, both as a human being and as a boss.  If you accept responsibility for problems, you will be respected.  If you blame others for problems or hide from responsibility, you will be scorned.  That’s the way things work.

Since you were five or six years old, I have been using observations we both make, while we roam far and wide, to illustrate both the good and the bad examples of human interaction.  That includes how employees and management of stores we frequent and services we purchase handle problems when they occur.  Just as we interact daily with individuals at work and school, we interact with individuals who are employed by and who are essentially extensions of, the business for which they work. Yes, they are individuals first, with their own problems and lives outside of their position as employees of a business.  But when we interact with them to purchase a good or service, they are the face of the company which employs them.  Each individual and the way that he or she transacts business with you will colour the way that you perceive the employing company.  Good service, smiling face, pleasant voice: good impression.  Poor service, frowning face, snarly voice:  bad impression.  After any commercial transaction, we don’t care that the employee was in a good mood because she just got a bonus or that he was in a bad mood because he had an argument with his wife that morning.   We just care whether we were treated well or not.  Any lingering aftertaste, good or bad, is of the company, not the individual.

This past weekend, you and I inadvertently encountered a situation which presented a valuable lesson in how not to treat a customer.  I didn’t plan it.  I became very upset as it unfolded.  Now, after the inevitable anger and embarrassment, I can use the events as an illustration of what not to do when dealing with a problem involving a customer.

Let’s go over the events together:  I had promised you a standalone basketball net for our driveway.  This past Saturday, after I picked you up from German School, I agreed to go with you in search of one.  I wanted to go to Wal-Mart, because I am always impressed with their selection and pricing, but you suggested that we go to Canadian Tire instead.  I have had some bad experiences with Canadian Tire in the past and rarely shop there anymore.  Still, I try to be flexible if my views don’t coincide with yours, so off we went to our neighbourhood Canadian Tire store in east London.

We found the perfect basketball net, at a very good price.  I was pleasantly surprised.  There was only a floor sample on display.  The shelf space where the items should have been available to customers was completely empty, but a very nice, helpful young man summoned a warehouse worker to bring a box to the sales floor.  It appeared shortly, while you and I were looking around at other items in the sports department.  When we returned to the area after several minutes, the large box was sitting in the middle of the aisle.  There was no way to easily move it to the registers at the front of the store.  Ever helpful, the young salesman went in search of a cart that could be used to transport the heavy box to the sales register.  He placed the flat box upright and long-side horizontally on the cart. When he realized that we couldn’t clear the aisles that way, he turned the box so that we could make it through the aisles.  The box was now upright and long-side vertical, flat side facing forwards.

Turned the way it was, we still couldn’t make it through most aisles, but finally found one that wasn’t obstructed by sales displays or other paraphernalia and made it to the sales registers and got in line.  That’s when the problems started.  As we got closer to the register, the way the box was placed on the cart wouldn’t allow passage through the narrow channel.  I turned the box so that it was now upright, on end, long side pointing forward.  The box was much longer than the cart and in order to keep it from  falling off, you, Zachary, had to stand at the front of the cart to support it.

Eventually, we were at the register.  The cashier scanned the box, took my credit card and had me sign my copy of the credit card slip, all while, with one hand, I was trying to help you keep the box from toppling over.  She handed me my copy of the original sales invoice and... oops, it fluttered to the ground and disappeared.  Yes, disappeared.  I saw it fall.  I bent to search for it but it was nowhere to be seen.  It was gone.  I didn’t know if it had somehow fallen into a crack along the register counter somewhere, whether it had become stuck to the shoe of a passing customer or... I don’t know.  The invoice was simply gone.

The cashier observed what had happened and continued to serve other customers as I searched for the invoice.  That was reasonable because I fully expected to find the invoice somewhere, eventually.  After some time, it became evident that the slip had simply vanished.  Since there was still a line-up at the register and since I didn’t want to inconvenience any other customers, I waited until the next customer had been served before I asked if I could have a duplicate invoice.  The cashier said that she couldn’t do that because she needed to follow procedure.  She would have to call for someone higher up to help me.

You and I waited at the register, out of the way of other customers.  And waited and waited.  Finally, I asked if I should go in search of someone responsible myself and the cashier pointed me in the direction of the customer service desk.  I strolled over there, saw that there was a long line-up before I could even expect to speak with anyone and returned to the register.  I asked the cashier again to try to find someone to help me. She was becoming visibly flustered and I’m not sure if she called anyone on the intercom again.  She was being hustled off by another employee, perhaps the head cashier, to open another register.  Another employee was now waiting at the original register to take her place.  My only witness to the original purchase was being moved and I was beginning to think that we were going to spend the entire day at the store.  At that point we had been at the register for nearly 30 minutes. 

Again, I went off in search of someone to help.  As I headed towards the service counter for the second time, I saw a scowling male Canadian Tire staffer approach and I asked him if he were looking for me.  His response was not helpful or even civil, but I gathered that he had been sent to help solve the problem.  We went to the register where the slip had disappeared.  I explained what had happened.  He went outside and looked around.  He came back and said that if the slip had gotten stuck to someone’s shoe it surely would have fallen off by the time the customer made it through the exit doors.  The implication was that my story was suspect.  He asked to see the bottom of my shoes and the bottom of your shoes and at that point, Zachary, I was starting to get angry.

I explained that we had already inspected our own shoes, that I had already searched in front of the registers and outside the front doors.  All I wanted was to get a copy of the invoice so that I could leave.  The man told me that the situation was my fault, that he was only doing me “a favour” (yes, that was his actual quote) and that he had to “follow procedure.”  I wanted to simply demand my money back and leave without the basketball net but couldn’t even do that.  I had already been told by the original cashier that returning the basketball net would be impossible, even though it had never left the store, because I didn’t have the original invoice.  This was even though she had taken my payment for the item a few minutes earlier.

The grumpy male eventually left to get me a copy of the invoice, after yet another lecture about how it was being done as a favour and he really didn’t have to do it. The man, who by his actions I presumed to be an employee bitter about having his lunch interrupted, never returned.

A young female employee of Canadian Tire eventually approached me.  She was carrying a cash box, so she might have been a cashier.  She handed me a copy of the sales invoice and said to me something along the lines of “I guess you better hang on to this one.”

The comment and the inference were insulting.  I had taken so much bad attitude and poor customer relations by that point, that I explained to the woman that I was disappointed with the way things had been handled.  I felt that I had been treated at best like a fool and at worst like a criminal.  That was not right.  I asked her who the rude man who had interacted with me had been and was astonished to discover that he had been the store manager.  At no time had he introduced himself to me or had been in any real way helpful or understanding.  I apologized to the woman for unburdening myself on her, she had really had nothing to do with any part of my frustrations, other than her rather snide comment about not losing the invoice again.

That's what happened.

Here is what should have happened:  The original clerk should have taken the box to the registers for us.  He did ask if I wanted someone to do that for me, but being ever polite and considerate, I demurred to save him the trouble.  I shouldn't have done that and he should have insisted on helping.  As a matter of policy, store employees should always take large items to the registers.  It means better customer satisfaction, lower likelihood of damage and less likelihood of what happened to us.  After the problem developed at the register, the manager should have introduced himself, by name, and asked what he could do to help.  The duplicate invoice should have appeared quickly. I would gladly have signed a form that stated that the original invoice had been lost. That way, someone else who might have found the invoice couldn’t somehow have benefited from his find. Then I should have been thanked for shopping at Canadian Tire, wished a good day, and sent on my way.  All this with a smile and a helpful attitude.

That would have left an improved image of Canadian Tire with me.  Since I already had a poor opinion of Canadian Tire, this would have raised the organization in my esteem. I would have told others how helpful the employees and the manager had been in this admittedly bizarre situation. Instead?  My poor opinions of Canadian Tire have been reaffirmed.  What do you think I will tell others about this ridiculous experience?

Consider this quote from FusionBranding: How To Forge Your Brand for the Future, by Nick Wreden:  “A satisfied customer will tell four or five others about a pleasant brand experience. Deliver a poor experience, and seven to 13 others will hear about it. Another study's scary statistic: Unhappy customers will continue to voice their dissatisfaction for up to 23 years.”

Scary, isn’t it? 

Here is another quote, from an article by author Jill Griffin:  In a recent study, 1,000 senior managers from America's largest corporations were asked if they knew how many customers they lost per year. Forty percent of respondents said "yes" and 60 percent said "no." Those who said they knew their defection rates estimated them at 12 percent or less. In fact, the average company loses about 20 percent of its customers annually.”

Doesn’t that high turnover rate say something?  Is Canadian Tire somehow exempt from those customer losses so that they can be so cavalier about customer service?

I doubt it.

So, Zachary, what do we do about this?  When you want a new bicycle or a tent or any one of the thousands of other things that you could find on the shelves of Canadian Tire, will you subject yourself again to the potential of embarrassment and surly “customer service?”  Or will you simply shop somewhere else?

I think I know the answer.  I watched your face throughout this ordeal, while you waited as patiently as you could for the eventual time when we could leave the store and have the lunch I had promised you.  You waited 45 minutes at the front doors of the Canadian Tire store in east London by the time we finally got to leave, hungry, tired and frustrated.

It will be a long, long time before either of us ever sets a foot in another Canadian Tire store.