What To Do When Your Retail Customer Service Fails Miserably

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It’s been said that a brand is a promise of an emotional payoff of a purchase.

I believe customer service is the level of service your brand promises compared to what your customer receives.

I had to take charge of the funeral arrangements for a neighbor. His service was at his church, an hour away, and since he was a vet, his internment had to be at the National Cemetery in Saratoga an hour and a half beyond that.

I arrived at the church at 9 am and parked on the street when my front right tire blew out. It had already started snowing hard.

As the service was about to start, I remembered my salesman had alerted me to the great Audi roadside app so I’d never be stranded. I clicked on it and was connected to a woman who told me someone would be out within half an hour; I could track their progress in the app.

While the church service was underway, I was called out to meet a guy who arrived in a KIA van who said he’d worked on many Audis but couldn’t find my spare tire.

He didn’t know my 2017 Q7 has no spare tire, it just has a spray can to fix flats, and that wouldn’t work on my sidewall tire burst. He should’ve known; his visit was worthless.

I called my dealer and asked if we could get my car towed there. “That’s no problem,” but I had to call back Audi roadside. I did, and they said they could do that. I went back inside. Finally, the app updated a service technician would arrive at 12:15 pm. I called again and said, “I have to get to the National Cemetery by 1:30 pm, and I can’t be here when you get here.”

“Just leave the key fob inside the car on the floor, and we’ll get it to the dealer.”

But by now, a major snowstorm was upon us, and the undertaker had to leave quickly to switch hearses so he wouldn’t get stuck on the unplowed cemetery roads. I hitched a ride with someone, and we were off.

At 3 pm, I called the service manager at the dealership, “Is my car ready?”

“No, it’s been picked up and is about 30 minutes away.” The app showed it still hadn’t been picked up. The service manager told me to drop in, they’d give me a loaner, and I could pick up my car the next day.

When I got there, I expected I’d have paperwork to fill out, but what I got was a loaner car already running and heated and an apology... Just what I expected.

At 5 pm, I called the dealership from home as the app showed my car hadn’t even been picked up. The service manager was concerned too. The car's wifi wasn't working, and they couldn't track the car with their satellites. She couldn't get an answer from Roadside but said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get back to you before I leave.”

I called the church to see if my car was still there. A woman said it wasn’t.

With all the stress of the day, I was starting to panic. Some of you might be asking, What’s the big deal - you have insurance - they’d replace it.

But I wondered if I had left some of my neighbor’s valuables in the back seat. Had I taken my own checkbook out?

Can you imagine how I felt two hours later, at 7 pm, when I called the dealer as I still had no word on my car?

Service was closed, but I demanded I speak to the general manager. The receptionist said there was no way they could reach him. A few minutes later I got a call back from the general manager who took an earful and was as upset as I was, but he had no information and had contacted the police.

At 8 pm, I received a call from the service manager. She left work and drove down to the church to see if my Q7 was still there.

When it wasn’t, she returned to the dealership to discover the car had been dropped off and the keys were left in a box.

Cut to the chase…

Ultimately, the dealership put a brand new tire on my car at no charge and drove my car down to me the next day. And included a logo knit hat and coffee mug. My valuables were all there, and the wifi was fixed.

But here’s the problem...

I purchased an Audi. The brand promise is a superior car and superior service. The service manager at the dealership embodied that.

The roadside company didn’t. They treated my problem as if it was an old clunker.

I had expected an exclusive brand like Audi to send their own tow truck, not some third-party guy who didn’t know a Q7 had no spare tire.

I expected someone to take responsibility. And that’s the crux of delivering customer service, isn’t it?

When the roadside company agent called to apologize the following day, he noted how many calls I had made and told me it was not the service level he expected to deliver.

In short, everyone felt bad about how such a simple matter snowballed into concern my car had been stolen.

When people talk about customer service, they make it a general rule to treat customers like you want to be treated.

But that doesn’t go far enough.

We create training, so a customer’s expectations are met and exceeded.

When something falls through the cracks, there must be systems, processes, and empowered employees who can empathize with a customer - who now feels trapped and helpless -  while your brand or retail store tries to figure out a solution.

At that point, your brand has to either help fix it or buy the customer off.

Hopefully, you choose the first…

Your first concern must be to help resolve any issue. In providing an exceptional experience, someone needs to take responsibility and fix the issue - whatever it is -  from improper billing to late delivery to failure of a product.

And no one wants to hear false promises...

Your attitude throughout this process determines whether your customer will feel better and forgive or feel slighted and want to rail.

The Audi service dealer had empathy, but the app's third-party company didn’t. I had expected immediate service worthy of my price for an Audi. I had also expected to be able to talk to someone throughout my ordeal. Both were missing.

The dealership was on my side and apologetic in trying to fix something they, at the time, had little control over.

On the other hand, just two weeks ago, I checked into a hotel room and found no working phone or clock. This time, the hotel agent’s first response was not to fix the problem but to offer me 10,000 points in consolation... she tried to buy me off.

She needed to fix the issue first, and then if she wanted to offer goodwill with an additional item or service, she should have done that second.

When your service goes from great to miserable, you should never try to cover it up with points, gifts, or discounts first.

How you deliver on the promises you have made customers believe is how well you are perceived as having good customer service.

In Sum

Training for customer service means someone somewhere takes responsibility for getting something solved. For cutting through the rules. For getting you on the road again.

Scripts with training can help avoid many errors, but if the questions asked come from how to get a customer off the phone, they are lacking. However, a script that would have asked me what kind of flat tire I had at the outset – asking me to check the sidewall or text a picture - could have gone a long way.

Technology can be good, but if it isn’t looked at from the customer’s viewpoint, it can set up expectations for transparency that simply aren’t there. I could track the non-movement of my car just fine.

Managing customer expectations is a good start. You can educate your customers about what a product can and cannot do, but in this age where people can - and do - return products they’ve used, worn, or abused due to liberal online return policies, there will always be the need for a personal touch.

Most customers are reasonable; they aren’t demanding outrageous things.

And no, I don’t think the customer is always right.  

But when something goes wrong, someone must take responsibility, show empathy, and proactively follow up by taking ownership until the problem is solved.

Passing the buck to the manager, the vendor, or the app is pointless unless you want a social media rant about your brand.

I received a second call from the same roadside service person who shared they had missed all their internal processes on my flat tire call. Supervisors weren’t alerted, they didn’t follow their own criteria, and as the situation elevated, they could not confirm crucial details.  

That’s the final point of this post - whenever something goes bad, it is time to look at your own systems and see how you can manage them better.

After all, whether you sell $70,000 cars or $700 sweaters, or $7 cups of espresso, consumers’ expectations will only rise. You can’t afford a hit like this to your brand’s image.

What’s your plan when something goes wrong?