Does Your Customer Service Help, Or Frustrate, Your Customers?

Does Your Customer Service Help, Or Frustrate, Your Customers?



This is a longer version of my column in the April, 2014 of Smart Business Magazine (Cleveland Edition).

No matter how well you make your products or provide your services, sooner or later one of your customers will experience a problem with your company. The way that you deal with these inevitable problems determines how your customers view your company, and ultimately, if they remain your customers. Even if you have processes in place to deal with these issues, do you actually know if they are really working?

Like everyone, I have my favorite stores. When I was preparing for the upcoming holidays, I decided to replace our dwindling and mismatched collection of wine glasses with some new ones. I found some that I liked on my favorite retailer’s website that weren’t available in our local store. They were only sold in groups of eight, so I ordered 16: 8 whites and 8 reds.  Little did I know that a simple online order could be such a problem and source of frustration.

A few days after I placed my order, my shipment arrived. I opened the box and saw two cartons of four white wine glasses. So far, so good. In place of the eight missing reds, however, I was more than a little surprised to find another carton labeled “Breast Milk Storage System”! I’m not sure how or why it was confused for wine glasses at their distribution center, but there it was. So began my experience with my retailer’s customer service processes.

The next day I called their toll-free Customer Service number listed on the packing list that came with my order. My call was answered by a friendly young woman named “Helen” speaking heavily accented English. Although language was a barrier, I did my best to describe my problem. Not surprisingly, “Helen” had no record of the “Breast Milk Storage System” so there was no way that they could process its return. After explaining the situation several times, she somehow decided that the red wine glasses had shipped separately (even though the packing list clearly showed them as “contents” of this shipment). “Helen” told me to wait five business days for the remaining glasses to arrive. I was skeptical, but I waited.

A week passed and no glasses arrived. I called the Customer Service help line again. This time my call was answered by a polite young man named “Peter” who’s English was even more heavily accented than “Helen’s”. With some difficulty, I explained my story several times to “Peter. Like “Helen”, he told me that my missing glasses had probably shipped separately, and that if they didn’t arrive within five business days I should call back. Again, language was a barrier, but he finally understood that if the glasses hadn’t already arrived, they probably weren’t going to. He agreed to ship eight new wine glasses and said that they should arrive within ten business days.

After one more week another package arrived at my doorstep. The good news was that inside were two cartons of four red wine glasses that I originally ordered. There weren’t any “extra” products in there either. Unfortunately, this shipment had been poorly packed, and one of the eight glasses was shattered into many pieces.

Luckily, the retailer allowed merchandise purchased on their website to be returned to any of their stores. Wanting to avoid their “Customer Frustration” call center, I took the carton containing the broken glass to my local store. I explained my predicament to the friendly (and English-fluent!) Returns Clerk who tried to credit my account for just the four glasses that I had returned. Unfortunately, her computer refused to accept the item so she had to ask her supervisor for help.

The supervisor apologized again and took over. He scanned my carton and the bar code from my order, but his computer said “Item not found.” After several attempts, he finally had to call their internal help line. He patiently explained the details of my order to someone on the other end, and then he was put on hold. More waiting. He was forced to call back, and, by now 20 minutes has elapsed. He was put on hold again! Finally, he somehow managed to get an authorization code to credit my account, but it was for the full price of eight glasses. Even though I had only returned one carton of four glasses, their system required him to credit my account for all eight, because that was the minimum number that their website had allowed me to order. After a 40 minute ordeal with their “Easy Return” process, the supervisor apologized again and gave me two complimentary $3 coupons for all of my troubles.

Putting on my “Business Hat” afterwards, I calculated the retailer’s monetary loss from the breakdown in their processes:

  1. $30 for the Breast Milk Storage System I couldn’t return, because, according to the retailer’s system, it never “existed”.
  2. $15 credit to me for the four extra glasses that I hadn’t returned because their system only sold them in units of eight.
  3. About $200 for 60 minutes of a corporate help line plus a busy in-store supervisor’s time.
  4. And, of course, the $6 in “apology” coupons.

Conservatively, my $30 order of wine glasses cost this retailer at least $250. Obviously, it only takes a very small percentage of these situations to consume the low margins of a retailer.

Let’s look at the bigger picture. First, how many customers not as loyal as myself would choose to ever even order anything again from this retailer? Second, cost savings on outsourcing customer service can make sense on a spreadsheet, but if these company representatives can’t be understood by customers, or solve their issues, where are the savings? Hiring better-qualified support people that are fluent in the language of their customers may cost more upfront, but it would retain customers and save money by more quickly and accurately resolving issues. Third, inefficient, inflexible computer systems cost valuable employee time, frustrate customers, and, in my case, doubled the credit that I deserved.

What about your own customer service processes? Do you know how well they really work and what they cost? If not, what are the potential consequences to your business? Maybe, like my experience with my favorite retailer, they aren’t working as you expect.


After my long ordeal with my original order, I was left with four new (free) red wine glasses, but I needed eight for Christmas Dinner. Since they are not sold in my local retail store, I decided to try my luck again with their website. I only needed four glasses. Even though they come in cartons of four, their website required me to order in units of eight, so I ordered eight more.

A few days later, my order arrived. Inside were two cartons of four of the red wine glasses that I ordered. Just like my original order, the cartons were poorly packed. Luckily, only one of the glasses was broken to bits! I was now faced with two choices: 1). re-live my previous grueling customer service experience, or 2). keep the seven intact glasses knowing that I was still three to the good. Guess which option I chose?!

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1 thought on “Does Your Customer Service Help, Or Frustrate, Your Customers?”

  1. Bob Fritz says:

    This is an example of trying to substitute “a process” for judgement.

    Also, the people who thought up “the process” omitted any way to get feedback on such things as the products break in shipment.

    Sounds like General Motors and their 10 years of faulty ignition switches.

    I switched from Dell to Apple computers. I like the fact that the Apple help people are Americans who speak good English.

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