Good Customer Service Begins with Good Customers …

So, yesterday, a show on CBC called “Marketplace” had its season premiere, talking about bad customer service. You can find the website here. But as I was watching it, a few things stood out for me about customer service in general.

The first thing was that the notion of what is or isn’t customer service might be personal and varied. This really struck me when the show presented one of the most egregious forms of bad customer service being not having a salesperson ask you if you needed help, coupled with when you ask for help them not walking you right to the aisle or place where it was. But for me I don’t want a salesperson to do that. It actually annoys me. I find myself thinking — but not saying — “Look, if I want help, I’ll ask you for help”. It’s nice to be acknowledged, but they have other work to do, and stopping that every five minutes to ask a customer who is browsing if they need help isn’t really reasonable. The same thing applies if I ask them where some things are, and they point me to the right aisle. I don’t want them to walk me there. The example given was of a Canadian Tire and the salesperson simply saying “That’s aisle 39”. Now, in Canadian Tire you have really big numbers outside each aisle telling you what aisle it is. I don’t need help finding an aisle, and so don’t need the salesperson tagging along with me. In a smaller store, it might be nice since they might also be able to help me find exactly what I’m looking for, but in a bigger store if I’m in a completely different department I can’t expect them to know everything about departments that they might not normally work in. So I’ll go find it myself and if I get stuck there I’ll find someone in that department to help me. That way, they don’t have to walk way out of their department to help me, when they can stay there and help someone else.

And you can see that part of the issue is what customers are expecting. Why we expect these sorts of things is that we think it’s just simple, trivial, easy and with no consequences whatsoever for the salesperson. Surely it’s the least they can do. But if we look at what it means for them, and what it would mean multiplied over many, many customers. It’s not the least they can do. It’s them doing something that you could and should very well do yourself that at least forces them to interrupt what they’re doing, often to get answers of “No”, some slight annoyance, or being taken far away from their jobs to a department they don’t know, meaning they’re away from their actual department for what might not be an insignificant amount of time.

The second thing they talked about were three examples of complaints that customers had against their top three worst companies, and how they were handled. The complaints were:

  • For Walmart, a woman had been promised a picture book in 2-3 weeks, and when it did not arrive in over a month she complained, got no help, and then was finally told at 2 months by someone not associated with that store that it was in but no one had told her.
  • For Canadian Tire, a man had purchased a lawnmower, tried it once, tried to return it and the store said “No”.  Canadian Tire said that returns are determined by individual managers, and another store did take it back.
  • For Zellers, Marketplace’s secret shopper had bought a coffee maker there, and fortuitously for the show it looked like the advertised as new coffee maker had been used, scratched up, and even dented.  They waited until after the 30 day return period, and tried to return it.  The store would not give them their money back, but would only offer store credit.


Now, what I can say is that out of all of those three, the only case of actual poor customer service is Walmart, mostly because the store simply didn’t give her any information about the thing she had already paid for, including that it was actually ready for her to pick up. That’s really bad.

The Canadian Tire case is, to me, a bit more grey. Should you be able to take a product like a lawnmower home, try it, and return it necessarily if it isn’t defective? In one sense, I think you should and would like to be able to, but in another sense there is a problem taking back a used product as if it’s a new one. There are always issues with that, since the poor person who gets the used product might not like that, as was seen on Marketplace with their coffee maker. Now, the lawnmower likely wasn’t in that bad shape to justify it, but it seems reasonable for a store manager to say that they aren’t taking back products that have been used or opened unless they’re defective to avoid going through all the hassles of figuring out if it’s too used to take back and re-sell. About the only thing you can really call Canadian Tire out for is not having a consistent policy on this, and for not insisting that the policy be stated clearly. But thinking in terms of the store itself, it’s not all that bad.

The least problematic for me is interestingly the one they thought was the worst: the Zellers case. Now, it’s obvious that if you buy a product advertised as new and it’s used — and seemingly heavily used at that — you should be able to return it for a full refund and profuse apologies. But note that the complaint is indeed that it has been used. So, you bought it over a month ago, and only now are you complaining that when you bought it you noticed that it had been heavily used? Why didn’t you return it right away? How do we know that you didn’t use it yourself for the month and are now trying to get cash back because you don’t like it anymore? Now, we know — presumably — that that was not what had happened with the Marketplace case (or, at least, we really, really hope that wasn’t the case), but the store doesn’t know that. You can argue that it wouldn’t be worth someone doing, but the instant you make that argument it should hit home that, yeah, someone might try that. And that can be countered with asking who wouldn’t return it right away in such a case. A few days is reasonable, but over a month isn’t. And it appears that if it had been in the 30 day window, they would have gotten their money back no questions asked.

Considered that way, offering store credit seems not unreasonable, but a pretty good deal. It’s the store giving something in case this is a legitimate case with some odd circumstances that delayed the return, while ensuring that they don’t get taken in by people trying to scam them. You can argue that they should put customer happiness over the possibility of being scammed, but that’s a much deeper discussion and doesn’t really mean that their customer service is bad, since asking for that level of satisfaction might, again, be unreasonable.

So good customers should think about what it is reasonable and unreasonable for a salesperson or store to do from the perspective of the salesperson or store, and then you can determine what really is good and bad. If you’re asking for unreasonable things, expect reasonable stores and salespeople to not do that. That you would like something does not mean that it’s bad that you don’t get it, even if you can get it elsewhere. Going above and beyond is going above and beyond, and should never become the expected.


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