Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sears and Customer Service

Oh, the problem's not so much Sears, but Sears exemplifies the problem. Also, given that there was a time when Sears could literally deliver your doorstep to your doorstep, it's amazing that the 21st century successor makes no apparent effort to distinguish itself from its competitors.

Sears also has the problem that they have been around long enough that a large proportion of the population is likely to have had a customer service problem with them, and pretty much everybody else is going to know somebody who has had a customer service problem with them. (Case in point.) Sears made the mistake a few decades back of letting its quality control slip, and by doing so it alienated an enormous base of consumers. I was one of them, so I was a bit surprised at myself for giving Sears another chance with my recent purchase of a washer and dryer.

The delivery crew who brought the appliances was very polite and professional. But unfortunately, somebody at the warehouse had crushed the top of the dryer (a v-shaped impression, probably 1-1/2 to 2 inches deep at the front of the unit and reaching all the way to the back), and had scraped both sides of the washer. I probably could have been convinced to keep the washer (for a discount), assuming I tested it and it worked, but the damage to the dryer was a bit much (and I'm not at all sure that it would have worked).

This is where Sears could have gone the extra mile, to ensure a positive customer experience. They could have apologized and arranged for a very rapid shipment of replacement units. But Sears doesn't choose to distinguish itself in its treatment of customers. Its shipping department punches product information into a computer and if the computer says "two weeks", you get your replacement shipment in two weeks. If you ask for an explanation, you get to talk to a supervisor who will also tell you want the computer says. In fairness, the supervisor I spoke with seemed to make a genuine effort to find out if a faster shipment was possible, but she had no discretion to go outside of channels - so the date the computer spat out is the date of redelivery.

I would also like to tell you that calling customer service was easy, but you probably already know better. The first time I called, using the number on the receipt from the order, after I was told that my phone number isn't in the system for delivery (it is) and punching in my phone number (the same one they automatically detected when I called), I was given an abrupt recorded message that there was a problem with my call, and was disconnected. When I called back, after again punching in my phone number, I was connected to a representative. The first thing she wanted from me, of course, was my phone number. (This is hardly unique to Sears, but is absurd.) After a brief discussion, she transferred me to home delivery. Home delivery told me that I had already spoken to somebody from home delivery when the problem with the shipment was detected. That was true, I responded, but that person told me to call customer service as I could probably get an expedited shipping date. "I don't know why they would have told you that." (Don't you just love that reply?) Then it was suggested that customer service should help me - "Do you want the number before I transfer you?" You guessed it - the same number I called earlier, which resulted in my being transferred to home delivery.

After another attempt to discuss the situation with customer service, I was offered the aforementioned opportunity to speak to a manager. I asked if the manager could do something, or if she would simply repeat what I had previously been told. The response was that I could expect to hear what I had previously been told. "Do you still want to talk to her?" Sure. Why not. I'm now more than twenty minutes into the phone call, and what's a few more minutes.

The person who took over the call identified herself as a supervisor, and I do think she tried to find a way to expedite the delivery, but as I previously noted she seemed locked into channels. She had neither the power nor authority to "find a way to make the customer happy". Toward the end of our discussion, the line dropped. I didn't get a call back; perhaps she thought I hung up on her. Needless to say, two dropped calls in one exchange with customer service is two too many.

The issue here is that Sears does have the power and capacity to obtain and redeliver the washer and dryer in less than two weeks - they simply don't find that level of customer support to be worth the investment. I know that I could as easily be writing this complaint about another appliance vendor, and my thoughts would be the same: Customer service is easy when things go as planned. But if you don't care enough to distinguish yourself when the customer has a problem, particularly when the problem is your fault, you will send the message that you don't care about the customer.

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