Tuesday, November 09, 2010
Who Your Friends Are
Things are good when everything is going well and there usually is no trouble when there are no problems. The test of a friendship or business is how they fare under adversity. Smooth sales are smooth sailing.
I once read a recommendation from a business CEO who suggested that one of the best ways to assess the customer service of your own business is to call your company, fabricate a problem or complaint and see how it is handled.
The business environment is extremely competitive and over the years, return policies have become more and more lenient. However, although a very liberal return policy is something that most quality businesses want to proudly offer, the true measure of this policy is how readily the company embraces it and in the customer experience of the return process itself.
In the 1980s, I was located in lower Manhattan near J&R Music World. Prices were competitive, inventory good and the sales staff very knowledgeable, so this is where I found myself making virtually all of my electronic purchases. Salesmen would extol the lenient return policy in making the sale. However, when we needed to make a visit to their return department, it was with great trepidation.
The return department was located in the basement - a the perfect metaphor for what was often a short hellish experience of being put through a fire of questioning as to why an item was being returned. There was always a "scary guy" serving as gatekeeper to getting the coveted store credit. Telling him that the salesman had said that any reason for return was adequate was apparently no longer really adequate on the day of return. Sometimes a small interrogation and/or debate ensued with the customer having to justify his or her return. The customer typically prevailed, but the experience served as a warning to the whimsical returner.
Things have changed since then - we are in a different world. Most retailers, have learned that if you make an offer, don't punish the customer for accepting it. At B&H Photo (see You're Not in Kansas) e.g., returns are done without a question (other than perhaps if the product was broken), even with products in the thousands of dollars.
Retail giants are quite routinized in their handling of returns. The volume of returns prohibits customer interrogation and the size of the companies allows for absorption of monetary loss. Companies like Nordstrom's and LL Bean are legendary with no time limits on returns. In New York City, Macy's is well known for a very liberal return process.
With the small independent shop, however, taking many returns can be a financial hardship. This is where the customer may find many terms and conditions, difficulties and charlatans. In times of personal hardship or when returning goods in New York City, you will quickly find out who your friends are :)