Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Customer service so bad you want to cry

For me, etiquette and customer service are entwined. The definition of etiquette - an awareness of the feelings of others and the impact of your actions upon them - applies perfectly to the concept of customer service.

If you read my blog regularly you'll know that I don't usually name names when posting about poor customer service but occasionally, I have an experience that is so bad I fee l I have to "out" the perpetrators.

Yesterday I went to the Sears store at the Toronto Eaton Centre to buy winter boots. Like many women, I start to think about my fall/winter wardrobe in late September and thought I would see what's available before all the sizes are gone. There were more than 20 customers milling around the shoe department and only two employees, a man who was run off his feet and a woman who was engaged in a lively conversation with three other women that obviously had nothing to do with shoes. To be fair, one of the three was trying on a pair of slippers but I waited for about 10 minutes while they chatted with nary a glance down towards her feet.

Finally getting the salesperson's attention, I handed her my boot of choice and she trundled to the back to find my size. She came back out a few minutes later because she had forgotten what size I said. When she came back, she had the right boot in the wrong size. When I asked if I could try it on in MY size, she rolled her eyes and brought out another pair. This time it was the right boot in the right size but the wrong colour. My patience growing thin, I asked her if she could please bring me a pair of boots in my size and colour of choice. After an exasperated sigh, she left, came back a few minutes later, threw a box on the floor and walked away. When I took off the lid, the boots inside were completely different than the sample I had shown her.

I went to find her and, suprise, found her again chatting with the three women as frustrated customers bided their time nearby. I asked her why she kept bringing me the wrong boots to try on and, sneering, she said, "I guess we just don't have what you want". Furious by now, I went to a nearby cash counter and asked to have the store manager paged. About five minutes later, he arrived. This is where it gets good. As I started to explain the situation to him, his cell phone rang and, HE ANSWERED IT! He then proceeded to have a 3-or-4 minute call while I stood there cooling my heels. When he finally got off the phone, I asked him why he took the call when he had a disgruntled customer standing in front of him. He looked at me incredulously and matter-of-factly said he couldn't NOT answer his phone. Can I take a moment here to remind everyone that the world will not end if you let a phone ring to voicemail once in a while?

While my experience in the shoe department frustrated me, I was really dismayed by the manager's actions. An organization's leaders set the tone for its approach to customer service and, by leaving me to stew while he had a conversation, it was clear that placating customers is not a priority.

Needless to say, I left and have no plans to return even though I had money to spend and found something I wanted to buy on that day at that time. I'm sharing my experience here. But, like my friend Eden Spodek says in a similar post on poor customer service , we can blog and rant online all we want. They won't have a clue and they might lose another customer or two. So what.

If customer service was a priority, it wouldn't have happened in the first place.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Technology Ruins Life's Guessing Games

If "video killed the radio star" then smart phones are killing the music discussion.

A few weeks ago my husband, brother-in-law and his wife were sitting around a campfire in Northern Ontario. It was a beautiful night and much wine had been consumed. We were listening to Queen and the topic of Freddy Mercury's untimely death came up. We spent a mere 60 seconds trying to figure out how many years passed between Queen's first album and Mercury's passing. That's when one of us pulled out a BlackBerry, googled the question and read the answer verbatim from wikipedia, killing the conversation and effectively silencing the debate. Had this discussion taken place ten years ago, we might have passed an hour arguing about the year that Queen appeared on the music charts, sharing our recollection of how old we were and what was happening in our lives. The discussion would no doubt have included some unexpected revelations and surprises.

Later that same weekend, we were watching The Big Lebowski. Somewhere in the middle of the movie the Jeff Bridges character is experiencing a drug-induced trip after being poisoned. I mentioned to my husband that the soundtrack reminded me of a Kenny Rogers tune I used to know in another lifetime. He didn't believe me, but before I had a chance to defend myself, he whipped out his i-Phone and, thanks to Shazam, he was able to grudgingly confirm that I was right. Of course, that wasn't the point. Hearing the song had awoken a memory after almost three decades. As an adolescent I had a good friend whose mom idolized Kenny Rogers and played his records constantly to the point that I can sing along with all of his songs. In the years that followed my friend's family was shattered by some horrible secrets, she moved away and I lost track of her. But for those few years, playing Barbies in her basement, listening to country music, life was good. Of course, I never really got to share that story because, as with the Queen incident, technology had ruined the moment.

It's great that we no longer have to wait more than a few seconds to get the answer to life's pressing questions but the thing is, it's not really the answer that matters, it's the stories conjured up by the trip down memory lane that makes these debates fun. I don't know if technology makes us dumber or lazier but I venture it makes us less interesting.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cyclists, don't hate me because I drive

To the young woman in the pink helmet on Sunday night:

First of all, I want to apologize. I was in the wrong. I slowed down to make a right turn and forgot to look both ways. You were coming along on your bike and, though you were still quite far away from me, you yelled loudly to make sure I knew you were there. I heard you and I don't know if you noticed but I tried to placate you with a guilty smile. I'm assuming by the look of disgust on your face and the way you shook your head at me that it didn't work. I know what you were thinking - that I'm just another environmental-hating, self-important motorist who doesn't want to share the road. We were the only two people on that stretch of the road so I bore the full brunt of what I assume is your accumulated anger at motorists who don't see you.

On this particular evening, I was on my way to a client event. Not wanting to be away from my kids on a Sunday, I left home a little later than I should have and I was beginning to worry about being late. I was in a somewhat deserted part of town that I'm not familiar with and I was trying to navigate a series of one-way streets and when you saw me, I was a bit confused from having taken a wrong turn. It's no excuse of course for not seeing you but I offer it by way of explanation.

But, while I slipped up this time, I want you to know I'm a very careful driver. I respect the fact that I share the road with other motorists, cyclists and pedestrians, all of whom are trying to get somewhere in a hurry. I always try to give cyclists a very wide berth and I often slow down or stop to let them pass. I'm constantly checking my sideview mirrors to see if one of you is approaching and if you are, I'll often just wait for you to pass because I can't judge how fast you're going. I really do try to share the road in a respectful way but sometimes I veer a little too far over to the right (perhaps I'm being squeezed by a motorist to my left) and you let me know by hurling profanities, shaking your fist at me or slamming it on the side of the car. I don't even get mad when you come out of nowhere, plough through red lights or weave in front of me, inches away from my engine because you don't want to sit in the traffic jam we're all experiencing.

Using a downtown Toronto road is a daily feat of skill, finesse and courage. There's so much to focus on at once - traffic jams, construction, street cars, parked cars, taxis stopping to pick up or let off passengers, doors opening and closing without warning, honking horns, police cars, ambulances and fire trucks, people crossing on yellow or red lights, pedestrians who are too busy texting to watch for oncoming traffic, not to mention an ever-changing and ever-increasing series of one-way streets, no left turns and lanes that are northbound one day and southbound the next.

I was just wondering if maybe, given everything we all have to deal with, we could approach it in a less hostile manner. Just asking.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Tire Kickers - A Little Respect Please?

I haven't blogged for a couple of weeks, partly because I was in the country with my family, squeezing out the last days of summer. It was a wonderful vacation temporarily disrupted by a major etiquette violation I've decided to share in the context of a troubling trend for us entrepreneurs - the professional tire kicker.

An expression from the used car lot, the "tire kicker" is a person who wastes the time of a salesman though he has no intention of buying. We're not selling used cars at Palette PR but we are getting calls from many people who feel that investing in PR might be just what they need to weather the economic storm. Only, they're not sure how much they want to spend, what their objectives are, or when the project might start.

And, before taking the plunge, they need some assurance that it's the right step. This assurance comes in the form of a meeting in which we share our expertise, show examples of past work, talk about how we might help them and try to get a sense of what they're looking for. While we don't get an idea of the budget we are often promised that "while the initial amount will be on the low side, there is great potential for it to be increased if we're successful". This meeting concludes with a request for a two-or-three-page proposal in which we provide some free ideas for what a campaign might look like. A week or so later, we may be asked to come in and present the ideas in person to someone who is positioned as "the decision-maker". We are told that, if we can impress this mandarin, then the business is as good as ours. Sadly, all too often, this person has "difficulty understanding our vision" and asks for another memo with more detail on how things will play out. And on it goes until, after not hearing from them for a few weeks, we follow up with the potential client, only to find out that they have: a) decided they're not interested in PR after all, b) loved our ideas and have decided to do everything in-house, c) decided to work with another agency and haven't had a chance to inform us.

The person who disturbed the tranquility of my recent vacation was one such potential client, looking for PR assistance in an area in which I have considerable expertise. In order to make a decision, he needed a proposal very quickly. In a telephone conversation, I agreed to prepare a document for him within 48 hours. As an agency principal, I am always engaged in building the business so I begged forgiveness from my family, closed the door and put my work hat on. Five minutes after sending it to Mr. potential client, I received the following e-mail: "Thanks but we've already hired someone".

There is a professional way to look for an agency partner and many organizations respect it by clearly stating their budget, objectives and expectations for the project before meeting with agencies. Some work with search firms like Agency Link and some even compensate participating companies for ideas. When the process is over, these organizations call the unsuccessful parties as soon as the decision has been made and, in an ideal scenario, offer meaningful feedback that will help them do a better job next time.

I realize that, in trying times, it's tough to decide where to spend your marketing dollars and the wrong choice can have lasting consequences. But, that doesn't mean you have the right to waste anyone's time on phantom projects that may or may not happen, with a budget that may or may not materialize and the promise of future, more lucrative work that may or may not come to pass.

That's just not good etiquette!