Skip Down for the Cluetrain Moment

During the last few days, I was given a strong example of how far out of sync a retailer could be in the approach with loyal clients.

I have a supermarket close to my home where I am a frequent shopper. The store is close by. The selection is not huge, but certainly adequate for my needs. The clientele is not always of the noble variety, but there the market is innocent.

The parking situation has become atrocious in our neighborhood lately. After a certain time in the evening, it has become impossible to find a parking spot. One evening, out of pure desperation, I left my car in the store’s parking lot, knowing there was a risk tied to this decision.

I went out in the morning to find out that my car had been towed away. Certainly this is not a good way to start the morning, but I accepted the risk of leaving the car in this parking lot overnight. I called the city department responsible for towed cars to find out that my car had been towed by a private company and was promptly given the number of the business. The private towing service was very friendly mentioning they are open 24 hours a day and even gave me instructions on how to get to their establishment.

At that point in time, I started thinking this situation where a local supermarket hires a private business to tow people’s cars from an empty parking lot in the middle of the night (the car was towed at 1AM), knowing full well how desperate the situation is with parking and that a car overnight can only be from someone in the neighborhood. Isn’t it correct to assume that the owner of that vehicle could very well be a customer of the supermarket?

My next step was to enquire where the customer service for this supermarket chain is located with the objective of talking to them about the situation. I was clearly guilty and had no intention to hide this. My question to them concerned a perceived treatment a loyal client had received. What is more important for this supermarket, the receipt of a towing charge (which I’m sure they don’t see much. I actually found out through discussions with others that this actually a racket where I live. I wouldn’t be surprised if the towing company does not pay the supermarket for the privilege to tow cars from their property!) or the continued patronage of a loyal customer? The objective had nothing to do with the charge I paid to get my car back, but rather this ideal I have of customer service….and what is right. I have developed a theory which basically states that those who pride themselves on customer service are the most indignant clients you can ever have. They will not accept poor service and will let you know. They will also explain WHY the service is poor. This is all tied to an obsession we have about process improvement.

That evening, I went home and started going through my receipts to calculate how loyal a client I had been. I was surprised to uncover a spend of over $1100 over less than a 6 month time period conducted within 28 visits. My daughter was astute enough to note that the figures I had calculated did not even take into account the cash payments, where we save no receipts.

Now here comes the Cluetrain moment! I drove down to the customer service department of this supermarket and went to the reception. I mentioned to the receptionist that I would like to speak to someone in the ‘customer service’ department

Receptionist: Do you have an appointment?

Me: No. I assumed under the name ‘customer service’ that the intention is to help customers with issues.

Receptionist: Did you write an email?

Me: No. I made the effort to visit you with the intention of settling matters

The reservationist was perplexed but called the customer service department and handed me the phone.

‘Customer Service’: Sorry, I am the wrong contact for your query. Have a good day

Me: I have difficulty understanding this definition of ‘customer service’. I just wanted to let you know that I felt your supermarket should be aware of the perception certain loyal customers can get from that of what happened to me. The question is not of guilt or blame. I am guilty of the infraction but feel that your business should work with the community, not against it.

‘Customer Service’: Well, I’m sorry. I can’t help you. Have a good day.

Me: I brought my documents along to show you how loyal a customer I am. Can I please show them to you?

‘Customer Service’: I am alone, and besides I told you already I can’t help you. Will you please leave?

The receptionist noticed that the conversation was getting heated and tried to intervene, to her credit. Unfortunately, the best she could offer was to talk to a regional sales representative, who might be able to offer me a gift certificate.

They all didn’t get it!

The real problem was not with the receptionist, or even the bureaucratic ‘customer service’ employee, but the corporate culture that instills in their employees that the customer is the enemy. OK, I’m sure it’s not every day that you have some crazy customer who is actually trying to help you in improving the service. Instead of saying “terrible market. I won’t go back there again and will let everyone else know how bad it is”, I made the effort to visit them to explain matters. With that of what I experiences, they made a bad situation infinitely worse!