I was recently chatting to a friend about a bad experience he’d had in a high street clothing shop. My friend was starting a new job the next week and had been freshening up his wardrobe in preparation. His frustration at the service he received was quite astounding. He ended the conversation by telling me that “I’ll never buy another shirt from there again”.
As retailers that is pretty much the last thing that we want to hear from our customers.
What went wrong? Why did my friend have such a strong reaction to the bad customer service that he received?
Here’s my friend’s account of bad customer service as he told it to me:
“I was starting a new job the next week and my wardrobe needed a pretty major overhaul. Keen to make a great first impression, I was looking for a new suit, 8-10 new shirts and some new ties.
Within a couple of hours I ended up in a well-known High Street menswear chain specialising in mens formal wear. I’d previously bought two suits from the same store and had a pretty good experience.
I tried on a couple of shirts. They were the right colour and a good quality and price. I was impressed.
I bought the shirts.
When I got home I tried on all the clothes that I’d bought that day. Some of the shirts were great, but others weren’t quite the right cut. I decided to take a few back.
Returning to the store in question, I started looking for alternative products. For whatever reason, I couldn’t find a blue shirt in the size and cut that I wanted. I tracked down the customer assistant and explained this to him.
Up until this point, I’d received a perfectly good service from the store and its employees. It was now that things started to go downhill.
The store assistant started by explaining that he couldn’t refund the shirt because it wasn’t returned in the original packaging. Nothing out of the ordinary there – most stores have a similar policy.
I explained that the shirt hadn’t been sold in its original packaging. The store assistant’s colleague had taken out the shirt when I originally tried it on. I understood his point, but I was returning the shirt in the condition that it was sold in.
He told me that he could exchange the product, but not refund it. I explained that the store didn’t have any alternative products in my size. He told me that this couldn’t possibly be the case, and that by trying on the product I had impliedly waived any right to a refund. A manager could, perhaps, authorise a refund, but I would need to return on another day for this to be possible.
I explained that I had come into town for the sole purpose of exchanging the shirt. I told the customer assistant that I’d just come from a competitor store who had refunded the shirt without a problem.
His reply was short and curt.
“I can’t help you.”
A few days later I managed to get a refund on the shirt after a long discussion with the store’s manager. He was incredulous that I couldn’t find a suitable alternative, and made a point of showing me a more expensive range of shirts. I walked away feeling like I’d made an unreasonable request and resolved never to shop there again.”
If you’ve working in ecommerce or customer service then you’ve probably got strong feelings about my friend’s experience.
Here are some of our reflections on the pitfalls of bad customer service – even if it doesn’t actually seem that bad at the time…
1. The Store Acted Within Their Rights
The first thing to notice is that the customer assistant didn’t really do anything wrong. It wasn’t what he said that wound up my friend but the way that he said it.
The store had a perfectly reasonable returns policy. My friend hadn’t returned the product in its original packaging. The customer assistant explained this to my friend.
The result? My friend walked away feeling embarrassed and frustrated, resolving never to purchase another shirt from the store.
The store acted within their rights, but the assistant failed to understand the experience that my friend was going through. He was looking for a great shirt to make a good first impression on his new employers. The customer assistant might have been upholding the store’s returns policy, but he failed to understand how customers feel.
You might think that buying things isn’t an emotionally charged process, but you’d be wrong. How we feel when parting with our hard-earned cash is incredibly important.
2. Loyalty is Hard to Win but Easy to Lose
My friend might be stubborn, but he’s a pretty loyal guy.
He went to that particular store because he’d bought two suits from them in the past and expected to have a similar experience in the future.
Think how much hard work had gone into creating that customer loyalty. The advertising, marketing, product sourcing, customer service and pricing. Years of hard work to win a loyal customer. Best of all, it worked! My friend went back to the store because he thought he’d get a good shirt for a good price.
That hard work was undone in 5 minutes of indifferent customer service. It’s a painful truth, but loyalty is hard to win and easy to lose.
3. Your Competitors Influence Your Customers
One of the reasons that my friend was so frustrated was that he’d just had a great experience at a competitor’s store. He’d had a shirt refunded without the batting of an eye.
This contrast was a big reason why he was so disillusioned.
As a retailer, whether bricks-and-mortar or online, your customers are being constantly influenced by your competitors. Even the most loyal customer is likely to check out your rivals’ products and pricing from time to time. If you’re not aware of what your competitors are offering – and taking steps to stay ahead of the game – then you’re very vulnerable.
4. Customers Return and Buy Again
From our perspective, the customer assistant’s refusal to give a refund was pretty short-sighted. Yes, he was upholding the store’s policy. Yes, it sounds like he needed his manager’s permission to give the refund. Yes, my friend was asking him to go out on a limb.
We’d suggest that going out on a limb is exactly what defines excellent customer service.
Why is this so important?
Well, in this case it’s pretty obvious. My friend is a lawyer in his 20s. He’s going to be regularly buying shirts, ties, suits, shoes and cuff-links for the next 30-40 years.
Win his loyalty now and you’re going to be making sales for the next 3 decades. Lose him, and your competitors stand to win big – without doing anything more than refunding a shirt.
It sounds like such a small thing, but on such margins do businesses rise and fall. Win your customers’ loyalty – even the difficult, demanding ones – and they’ll be back for more.
5. The Big Winner Here is the Online Retailer
My friend bought about 10 shirts, 5 of which came from the same online retailer.
What did he have to say about this company?
“They were brilliant. Unsurprisingly, they were able to offer better products than High Street competitors at a similar price. Their website was excellent and almost every shirt was available in a range of styles and finishes. I qualified for free delivery and the shirts arrived the next day”.
It’s interesting that my friend had such a good experience from an online retailer, particularly when you consider that he didn’t actually interact with another human being at any point in the transaction.
The fact that they’d thought long and hard about customer experience – the quality of their website, the pricing, free delivery, a no-quibbles return policy – meant that they impressed my friend enough to win his business.
I think I know where he’ll be going next time he needs a shirt…
6. Bad News Travels Fast
I’m only writing this article because my friend told me about his experiences. For what it’s worth, I don’t even think he was treated that badly.
Unfortunately, though, bad news travels fast. If you get it wrong as a retailer then people are going to hear about it. It might be therapeutic for your customer to vent their frustration, but it’s exactly the kind of publicity that you don’t want.
It’s hard work being in retail. But you knew that already, right…