Saturday, 24 December 2011

Customer service and common sense

When I began these posts, I warned you that I might occasionally stray from my area of putative expertise and reflect on other matters. This is one of those occasions.

Accepting as a matter of common sense that the best kind of advertising is good customer service, I am always amazed when some companies forget this policy and put their own short-term gain ahead of long-term customer satisfaction.

Let me first give you an example of sensible policy in this regard. I recently bought a book from that venerable Victoria institution, Russell's Books. From their huge secondhand collection I chose one of several copies of a book, took it home, and began reading. Half way through I came upon some missing pages, so I dashed back to the shore, hoping to exchange the book for another copy. Too late! The store was closed. "Come back tomorrow," I was told by an employee who was still hanging around. I explained my predicament:"You know how it is when you're in the middle of a book." "Of course," he said, grabbed some keys, climbed the stairs and found me another copy. Needless to say, I left the store with very positive feelings about Russell's Books.

Here's another incident. I bought a bag of cherries at Oxford Foods in the Cook Street village. A few cherries into the bag I encountered some rotten ones, so I took the bag back. Instead of taking my receipt and refunding the full amount, the assistant weighed the bag, knocked off the cost of what I had eaten, and gave me the balance. No thought given to my inconvenience at having to return to the store, or my discomfort at biting into a rotten cherry. I have never been back to the store. That day, Oxford Foods saved 99 cents and lost a customer for life. Thrifty's or Safeway would never act like that. Or so I thought....

Recently, we had to put down our dear dog, Tia. It was a sad occasion, but she was almost 17, and had had, as they say, a good innings. She has gone, as Elvis and others have put it, "where the good doggies go". She had been on painkillers, but I had run out, and needed one pill to get her through her last day. I went to a Safeway pharmacy. The pill cost $1.53, but I was charged an $11 dispensing fee. I pointed out that this seemed a bit excessive for a single pill, but was told by a somewhat sympathetic pharmacist that they had to follow "policy". I decided to try to discover the thinking behind this policy and contacted the Complaints Department. 

I am now engaged in an email correspondence with Safeway. I receive form letters with one or two original sentences specific to my complaint, buried in paragraphs about their commitment to world class service, etc. I persist in asking them why they can't dispense with the dispensing fee when it's more than  five times the cost of the single pill. They fall back on their standard answer: it is their policy to charge a dispensing fee.

What is interesting in all this is that my simple questions do not get simple answers. Instead, I get what George Orwell called the worst kind of writing: "gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug". I can imagine a person at Safeway's Head office cutting and pasting from a catalogue of stock responses, like Harper's ministers.

They have, however, "escalated [my] concerns to the Retail Operations Department for further review on this matter". 

Update, January 23

I am happy to report that common sense has prevailed. A representative from Safeway contacted me, apologised, offered a refund of the dispensing fee, and explained that pharmacy managers did in fact have the discretion to dispense with fees in exceptional circumstances.

Update, April 22

I have long been interested in how some businesses can see the benefits of creating long-term good will in their customers, and others just don't get it.

MEC gets it. I recently spent a few days in Vancouver, and of course it rained. It rained so hard that the water came right through the MEC jacket I was wearing. Vancouver rain would penetrate anything.

(By the way, for those of you on the prairies who might lump Victoria and Vancouver together as soggy cities on the Wet Coast, note that Victoria has exactly half the annual rainfall of Vancouver.)

Anyway, I popped into MEC and pointed out to the man at the Customer Service counter that rain was coming through my rain jacket. "Ah," he said, "we don't make that jacket anymore. I think it's well past it's normal lifespan. This is not a warranty issue." Yes, I know, I was about to say. I quite understand. Thank you.

"Hang on," he said." Let's check it out." He looked at my purchase record. "You bought it in 2005." Fair enough, I was about to say. I've had good use out of it. Thank you.

"Wait," he said. "I see that you paid $110 for it. It cost us about half that. I can offer you a store credit of $40. Then we've still made a slight profit and you're happy."

So that's why I shop at MEC. I like to support local businesses and I do, but when it comes to buying anything that I might want to take back in the future, I shop at MEC.

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