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Are Your Competitors Too Big To Offer Great Customer Service?

Furniture World Magazine


If they are, you have a priceless opportunity.

Do you remember when you could pick up the phone and call a local number for any of the major airlines to see if a flight was on time? Now you have to dial an 800# and go through a sophisticated series of automated prompts. And you sure better have the exact flight number or you will go into a labyrinth of exercises of "push this for that." If you hit the key for domestic or international reservations in order to talk to a real person, you better have some snacks by your phone. It could be a long time.

Airlines are big business. And as anybody who flies knows, it’s a harried experience of delays, cancellations, and standing in line. It never used to be this way. Airlines merged together and got out of control. Big is not always better. And big is not always profitable.

I think there is a direct correlation between great customer service and profitability. Many Internet sites lack that one-to-one connection. And as Priceline.com, Pets.com, and a host of others found out - people may shop once, but many don’t come back. It can be very exasperating for a customer if they don’t have a real person to talk to.

The most highly visible site on the Internet today is probably Amazon.com. Customers have instant access to millions of books, videos, CD’s, and such. You can order a book at a discount... maybe. It is shipped in 3-5 days... maybe. And if you have a problem, you can get in touch with them... maybe.

Amazon.com does not put their phone number on their invoices, bills of lading, or packing slips. They want you to go to their Website. If you receive the wrong item, they give you instructions on how to return it. If you have a question or problem, you have to go to their Website. I will give them a lot of credit for putting together a gigantic on-line business. I buy stuff from them every month. It used to be every week. They have yet to be profitable. Bet it’s not anytime soon. They are too big for great personal customer service.
This past holiday season I ordered a set of VHS videos of the first year’s episodes of the Sopranos from Amazon. The price was $79, which included free shipping. I ordered them as a gift. I didn't know that BJ’s Wholesale, Sam’s Club, and Wal-Mart had them at $59. So after they arrived, I thought I would send them back for credit, get them from Sam’s Club, and save 20 bucks. But I wanted to call them first. It’s not easy. No phone number is listed on their Website. It’s not anywhere. After 45 minutes I found it through another Internet source. It’s (800) 201-7575. Write it down. You might need it someday.

I called and, after 28 minutes on hold, I reached a real person. I explained my plight; they told me to keep the videos, and they would credit my account $20. I said ok. Then I unwrapped the videos. (If you break the seal you can’t return them.) Guess what? They were DVD’s in a VHS size box. So, I decided to call back. I waited another 35 minutes on hold. Customer service said they didn't know what to do. They put me on hold for 20 more minutes. Then another voice came on and said I couldn't return them because they were opened. The invoice said "VHS tapes," the packing list showed the same, but they were DVD’s. After about 10 minutes of "too bad for you we haven’t had that problem before" conversation, they agreed to overnight the correct order and give me a shipping label to return the wrong item, but they were not happy about it. They wanted to know if I wanted anything else.

I asked them for a $200 gift certificate for the hour and a half on hold.

They said "no." And they weren't smiling either. They were not exactly in the holiday spirit. They are too big. They didn't offer anything. They are a huge Internet operation and they aren't making a profit. They didn't make a profit last year, won’t make a profit this year, and maybe not ever.

In spite of what you may have heard, companies that don’t make a profit don’t stay in business forever.

Here’s the moral to the story: if you think that other businesses are bigger, that your customers are drifting to the Internet, that your competition is looming over your head by increasing their advertising, adding more staff, taking on more lines, and getting highly automated don’t panic. Something suffers, and the first thing to go is great personal customer service. One-to-one conversation is lost. Customers miss having nice people to deal with and the luxury of speaking with real people on the phone. The Internet is not going away, but a lot of dot coms are. Hang in there. Remember, many of those big box stores weren't the threat that they were supposed to be either. They don’t all last. There are a lot of cavernous, empty buildings where stores like Hechinger, Builder’s Square and others used to be. Customers may drift, but many come back to stores where everyone knows their name. And where their name comes out of a human being’s mouth, rather than on a computer screen, or automated voice mail. There’s no substitute for great personal service.

Bob Popyk is the publisher of Creative Selling®, a monthly newsletter on sales and marketing strategies for high-ticket retailers. His sales meetings and seminars are presented worldwide to major companies and industries. Questions or comments can be directed to FURNITURE WORLD at editor@furninfo.com.