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  • Writer's pictureElana Duffy

Buyer be weary (or, how camping companies can save customer service)

- Elana Duffy

Serve your customers well and they will serve you in return. That concept sounds so easy, right?

Two run-ins lately have made we wonder whether some companies care at all about customers or what their customers think.

Delayed packages.

Rude employees.

Double charges on credit cards that take 53 minutes to resolve on the phone.

And of course, it is always our fault, not theirs, as if we should diligently plan for every possible way they can let us down. In 2015, do we really need to enter every transaction expecting the worst? No business can survive without customers. So why do some experiences leave us with the impression that the name of the department is actually “customer, serve us”?

The first story began last week. I needed a fast laptop that would run necessary business operations, and I needed it before my current laptop gave me the final Blue Screen of Death. My tablet, running on mobile platforms, can’t always run things like web design. And by the recent weird clicks and whirrs on my five year old machine, I knew I had to sit down and place an order.

The computer I wanted was on major web retailers for the same price, so I figured I’d go through the manufacturer just in case of defects. I didn’t need any customization, and they covered shipping. How nice, I thought, as I punched in my credit card.

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Yesterday I checked the website. Whereas the shipping line read “Standard shipping, 3-5 days”, it had an estimated delivery of late next week. That is, for those doing the math, nearly three weeks beyond my order date.

I think my sister has crocheted wearable items and mailed them from across the country in less time. And those will probably last me longer than three years, the average lifespan of a laptop with heavy use.

No recourse. It’s now in a race against time between the ultimate demise of my current machine and the arrival of its counterpart. I should have ordered from the third party seller, defects be damned. Or maybe I should have been suspicious of the big, bold delivery promise on the order form, knowing that the terms would be different in the fine print. Production time. Of a stock item. Of… course?

The second story also took place recently. Thanks to a well-known airline, I enjoyed the unexpected challenge of camping without camping gear. My luggage spent 30 hours of a 42 hour trip as “delayed”. Nary an apology, though a strongly worded letter did get my replacement sleeping bag reimbursed.

But there are still those who believe in customer service. I recently had a conversation with a friend about how his company is very selective in its clients. This means they aren’t a huge, formidable, Fortune 500 company, but it also means they can personalize their service. The client experience is amazing. This customization is central to their business, not an afterthought. Their clients come back again and again because of a great product, but also because of the personal connection.

It’s not something everyone can do, of course. I can hear retailers scoffing.

Or is it? The more I thought about it, the more businesses I could identify that hinged their success on similar models. Taking care of the customer is key, regardless of industry. Yes, even retail.

Take REI. I’m a camper, luggage or not, and I have always been in love with this store. The thing about camping gear is you have no idea what you might like until you give it a shot. The tent you just paid $400 for might drip condensation on your face for a week straight. Your sleeping bag might itch. Your boots might never feel as though they break in. What does REI do? They take them back. No tags, worn, etc., they take it back. They have very few exceptions, and those are spelled out in detail. Camping manufacturer Big Agnes has an even better policy. They'll repair an item, free, even from wear and tear, or they'll replace it. Why? These companies understand their customer and their customer needs, and what will get the products out the door.

Meanwhile, I can’t even get a base model computer delivered within a couple weeks. Doesn’t this company think that perhaps I’m getting a new laptop because I need a new laptop? These aren’t really whim purchases, like a few extra carabiners for rock climbing. This is probably something I need, and buying it stock might mean I need it sooner rather than later.

In the writing business, we might take hours, days, or even longer, to nail down a client’s needs. We do this in order to get their voice, their ideas, and their personality into the project properly. The computer manufacturer or airline didn’t need to do that, because after all I was buying off-the-shelf. Yet they couldn’t even make their standard processes work. If I could buy this computer from REI, I’d have done so.

This industrial engineer in me immediately turns to process as the root cause. It might be time for some of these “customer, serve us” companies to consider lag times and lead times, get an operations expert in, and provide better service. Have you erased bottlenecks? Have you mitigated employee losses and machinery issues? Have you taken enough time to understand what your client wants? Are you providing it?

Though after these recent experiences, I now wonder if the causes go beyond process. It might be cultural. Do they even care at all?

Whether it’s process or culture, these are hard questions without easy answers, but they should be asked constantly and really considered. The internet is out there. Competition is fierce. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to hit “save” again and publish this before it’s too late. A week and a half to go…

Elana Duffy is co-founder and COO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. Working with everyone from authors to Fortune 500 companies, we provide a range of writing, editing, and training services. Lana is also a veteran of the US Army, a masters of engineering graduate, and a freelance writer in NYC. She is the co-author of the first in the Present Tense “singles” short ebook series, 10/10, for sale on Amazon and other major retailers.

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