By Allen McBroom, owner of Backstage Music in Starkville, Miss.
Allen McBroom, owner of Backstage Music in Starkville, Miss., is a longtime MI columnist. He now offers an exclusive new column for musicretailer.blog.
Retail relationships between stores and customers are not the same as they were 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, retail customers were still won with good, in-person customer service, a handshake, and knowing the customer’s name.
In today’s world of blended retail (part in-person, part online), those old, finely-honed skills are not as useable as they used to be. Online customers buy an item, get it in the mail, and unless something goes wrong, that’s usually the end of the relationship. The customer may call again, but in a lot of instances, the customer won’t remember which online retailer they used for their last purchase and will just buy their next item from whatever store pops up on the first page of Google. They process repeats itself, and the relationship thread between customer and seller is broken.
This is bad news for everyone involved in the process. We know how bad it is for the retailer, but customers are losing the sense of “having a guy” they can call when they need something. Going to see friendly Lou at the local hardware store always resulted in a more comforting and reassuring transaction than buying the same item today from some big online box store. Even going to the big-box stores in person is an experience that lacks the familiar comfort of dealing with the local hardware store guy.
The worst thing an online transaction can produce is no sense of connection between the store and the customer. Stores MUST do something to stand out in the customer’s mind and leave the buyer with a sense of “I’m glad I bought from that store. They were great.” We’re dropped little “happies” in every box we’ve shipped for years, along with personal notes, cards, stickers, etc. in an effort to form a connection with the buyer, and I don’t know that it helps. Recently though, I’ve had an epiphany about a way to turn the current sow’s-ear state of shipping companies into a silk-purse of customer relations.
We have all experienced the email or phone call from a customer who ordered something two weeks ago, and now the post office or UPS or FedEx can’t find it, even though it shipped the day it was ordered. Asking a shipping company to look for it seems to be useless effort. I recently got an email from the post office that they had received my missing mail report, and they were going to investigate it. While that sounds good, the email came more than two months after I sent the initial report. I shipped a guitar to Utah (from Mississippi) on UPS, and it got all the way to Salt Lake City, and then it disappeared. UPS paid for it, but that was of no help to my customer, and that was probably the only guitar of that model available in the country, so I couldn’t send a second one. You know the feeling you get when you’ve done your best, and you still end up looking bad because the shipping company can’t insert Tab A into Slot B with any consistency. Shipping efficiency today is pathetic, across the board.
Just before Thanksgiving, the broiler element in my mother-in-law’s oven failed. With the oven being a key component in preparing the Thanksgiving meal, this was a catastrophe. I was able to find a replacement element online, and I got it ordered. Knowing the pitiful state of shipping today, I asked it be sent two-day delivery on FedEx. This cost a good bit more than the eleven-day free delivery, but it was worth it to get the oven fixed in time for the holiday. I ordered it Monday, it shipped Tuesday, and at 4 p.m. on Thursday, it still hadn’t been delivered. Checking the tracking number, FedEx claimed it was delivered at 9:30 that morning. We’re getting close to the epiphany part, so stay with me here.
I called the online parts company, gave them the order number and the story, and they very first thing they said was (get ready for this): “I know you need that element, would you like me to ship you another one today? If the first one arrives, just refuse it.” This was an element that costs about $135, and she was offering to send me another one, no questions asked. When I told her I didn’t have time for the second one to arrive, she then offered to give me an immediate refund on the first one. Part cost PLUS shipping.
Customer service is part of my life, and this caught me completely off-guard. These folks didn’t know me, we had no history, but they just took me at my word and offered replacement or refund. Once I recovered from the shock, I told her I’d rather wait a day, and see if it showed up a day late. She took lots of notes, and told me if it showed up the next day she’d refund the two day shipping charge.
After I got off the phone, I knew these people were not only honest, but they wanted me to be happy with them no matter what. They offered to replace or refund, my choice, with no prerequisites, no waiting, no questions asked. Turned out FedEx had left it at the wrong house, and that neighbor walked it over the next morning.
I called the appliance part company that day to let them know all was well, the part had surfaced, and the lady who answered (never talked to the same one twice) said they (the ladies at their call center) had been discussing the missing element that morning, and they were glad to know it showed up, and my 87-year-old mother-in-law would be able to cook Thanksgiving dinner after all.
After that brief series of short interactions with the appliance parts people, I can tell you I easily remember the name Appliance PartsPros.Com, and will recommend them to anyone who needs an appliance part. Had FedEx delivered the part correctly in the first place, it’s possible I’d never remember the name of that parts outfit, but after getting stellar service that I genuinely did not expect, I’ll never call anyone but them for parts I need in the future.
Now, the epiphany: The current sorry state of residential and business deliveries gives each of us a chance to make the old-style, personal relationship with our new, online customers. Every time a delivery company blows it, it’s an opportunity, and we should immediately send a replacement or a refund, no questions asked. Yeah, we might get stiffed every rare now and then by some unscrupulous buyer, but so what? The majority of our buyers are honest, and just want what they ordered. If we are obviously going above and beyond to take care of them the best and fastest way possible, there’s a good chance we’ll get some repeat business, and at the very least, maybe some online praises in terms of great reviews. Even more importantly, it will just about eliminate the bad reviews that come from late or failed deliveries. If it doesn’t arrive in a timely manner, we’re going to refund it eventually anyway, so on the first contact from the buyer offer a refund or replacement. Take away the time they have to stew about the bad delivery and make yourself the good guy despite the shipping company failure. Leave a good taste in their mouths, and they’ll not only skip the bad review, they’ll remember and (hopefully) send you more business later.