Lack of Customer-Centric Philosophy: Books A Million “Case Study”

Ok…stand back, this is going to break away from my norm…but I am so annoyed. So I am going to use this post to identify why I am so irritated. One brand, a single offering, confusing customer service! This is where it all began!

My father bought me a gift certificate for $25.00 to purchase a book. It was a birthday gift, since March 5th I have been trying to figure out what I am going to purchase. I get the quarterly newsletter in the mail from the Harvard Business School and noticed a book about social entrepreneurs. So, I searched through my email to find the e-certificate from my dad for this Books A Million purchase. I went to BooksAMillion.com, searched for the book and proceeded through the online process to purchase the book. I entered my credit card information as a requirement, just incase my purchase exceeded the $25.00 limit of the e-certificate.

After entering my credit card information, the online shopping cart provided a place to enter the e-certificate code. It should be….voila. Uhh…NO! The online store could not validate the e-certificate. I tried over and over again. Tried different browsers, re-entered the e-certificate code, and nothing worked. So…I thought that after teaching class in Clemson, I would stop back by Books A Million in Anderson to see if they could help.

Walked into this newly renovated location in the Anderson Mall, to seek help. I go to the front desk and ask for help. I had a feeling they were going to have to call the manager. So I waited in the front while the manager made his way to the front of the store. He introduced himself and I explained the situation. Direct quote, “I cannot help you…you need to call this 1-800 number to solve this problem.” I starred at him, perplexed. I responded in a light hearted disgust, “that stinks.” He proceeded to inform me, ” this is standard practice across the industry, all brick and mortar retail shops will not help you solve your online purchase.”

Now, I understand what he said…I think. For immediate problem…it is annoying. But from a customer point of view, how can you expect the customer to distinguish the difference between a brick and mortar store and the online property of the same branded company. Where in the fine print does it say, “Hey we are Books A Million brick and mortar and we do not associate with Books A Million online.”?

I looked at the manager and said one short sentence, “This is disappointing customer service.” I guess from a customer perspective, we want to hope that the manager might take the e-certificate and help us navigate this situation. I guess not in Anderson, SC.

So, while he was explaining his justification that it is industry standard to separate brick and mortar store from the online property…I walked away to call the 1-800 number myself. So I walked around the store, trying to navigate the call center dialing options. There was not a selection that matched this situation. After finally talking to a person that was willing to help me figure this out, the manager walked back up to me to explain, “You might want to wait to call tomorrow, the online store might be closed after 6:30pm.”

Let me explain what is so wrong with the omission by the manager. First, he led me to believe he had no dealings with the online store, which is why I must be the one to make the phone call. Hmm…then how does he make the assumption that the online call center closes at 6:30pm. He must have some prior knowledge. The other issue here, I think it was his intention to persuade me to leave the brick and mortar store to make the phone call.

As I was chatting with the lady from the call center, I looked at the manager at the brick and mortar store and said…”I have this covered, thanks for your help.” As I walked around the actual brick and mortar store, browsing while talking to the online call center…I finally resolved the issue. The book will be at my house in a few days.

So here is my problem. I guess I just made a mistake, one I will not make again. I assumed that someone that works at Books A Million at a brick and mortar store could and would be willing to help me with an online Books A Million problem. Second, I assumed that by taking the time to drive to the store to try to resolve an online problem, that  this Anderson, SC store would take the time to help build a customer relationship by trying to solve this issue.

Now I understand that the online store is a “different division” of the brick and mortar stores. I mean, companies like GE have different divisions with different offerings. GE makes turbines for airplanes and also makes wind turbines. Both separate products under one brand. But, Books A Million sells books. Yes, they sell books online and in the brick and mortar store. How can you expect the customer to differentiate between the two since the brand is so closely tied with the single offering. I would expect that a person at the brick and mortar store to be able to handle that same issue as a call center. But that is not a safe assumption.

Like my dad said, making an assumption is just like making an “ass” out of you and me. I will not visit Books A Million again.

So if this is the trend, where is the customer-centric focus? If this was my grandmother, who is not a part of the digital world, how would she understand the difference? Just does not make sense to me.

All it takes is a thank you note!

There are so many layers to a story, and those layers can continually evolve regardless of time!

I was riding home from Charleston, SC a few days ago. The wife and I were tired and it was getting close to 8pm, a long day visiting my sister-in-law Susanna at the College of Charleston. As we were navigating the back-roads of this I-385 detour, my iPhone began ringing with an unfamiliar phone number displayed. This self-employeed businessman never passes up an opportunity to talk about business, so I answered. The gentleman introduced himself and called me by my name…he said, “My name is Gary and I helped your family three years ago when I worked for Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Columbia.” This begins our little journey.

This story ultimately begins with a trip. My wife’s family is notorious for packing a car full of family and that car is notorious for breaking down at the worst of times. This time it was a hot spring day, Friday afternoon traffic in Columbia, SC. Seriously, 5pm traffic on Interstate 26 towards Bowman, SC. Bowman was their destination, where my wife’s grandfather had passed away. They needed to be at the funeral home before 6:30pm, to greet family and friends the day before the funeral. Stuck on the side of the road, they do what they normally do…call me. Being two hours behind them, I did what I knew best…call Enterprise Rent-A-Car, because they have a simple motto, “We’re Enterprise, we’ll pick you up!”

So I called the nearest Enterprise based on their location, it was a branch at the Columbia, SC airport. Gary from Enterprise answered the phone and I explained the situation. He broke protocol, took a Town and Country van, dropped it off, helped them exchange cars, and my family was on their way arriving in Bowman right at 6:30pm. He stayed with the car until the tow truck arrived and then got a ride back to the branch office. It was this can-do attitude and service that has now earned a lifetime customer, yes…I am a card carrying rewards member of Enterprise.

After hearing this story, I wrote a series of letters to his boss, the corporate office, and the southeastern manager. A series of thank you notes. It probably took an hour of my time. He had the time to help my family, I had the time to tell Enterprise…because of Gary, they now have a loyal customer.

Back to the phone call. So while talking to Gary on the phone, he began telling me that it was those letters that prompted him to call me. He was calling to thank me. He told me that those thank you letters changed his life. HOLD ON? I asked, “what do you mean, changed your life?”

He continued explaining; because of that letter, he was immediately promoted to a marketing division. After a while, and a few downsizing efforts, he was laid off. I immediately perked up and wondered where this conversation was leading. He went on to explain that he took some time to consider what was next after Enterprise. He had enjoyed investing his retirement package at Enterprise and began helping family and friends with their portfolio. This prompted him to begin researching the business of investments. After a series of meetings, many certification tests, several interviews, and a long training process…it was decision time for Edward Jones Investments. He went to meet with a VP of Edward Jones, and as a part of his application package for his own branch, he included this very letter from that I wrote to Enterprise. The VP basically told him that this letter was the only thing he needed to make his decision.

So Gary was calling me on this day, March 1st to thank me. You see, it was March 1st…this day that his branch in Lexington, SC was opening for the first time! He had reached his dream, to own his own business, be his own boss, and help people. He was thanking me for writing that letter. What he did not realize, while he was thanking me, tears were running down my eyes. I was actually thanking him, because this story, this day brought a new meaning to my life. It was this day he had changed my life. His one phone call, his few minutes thanking me made me see the world in a difference way. He had once again made a serious impact in my life.

It is amazing what a thank you note will do. It is amazing the residual effect from a single gesture. It is amazing the layers to this story, that connected us once again. I have yet to meet Gary, but I will be making a trip to shake his hand. Thanks Gary, thank you for being you. You are an inspiration!

This post is dedicated to a few people:

  • To Denise Weathers, my mother-in-law who is no longer with us but made a tremendous impression on Gary that day!
  • To John Warner who taught me the value of a simple social media called a thank you note!
  • To Bob Dotson who has helped me learn the value of the red-string and finding those stories with layers.

There is something special about true customer service!

A few weeks ago, I was in Spartanburg, SC and decided to have lunch with a good friend! Jim O’Donnell (some people know him as @JimSharp because he is the scissor sharpening business) of Wolff Industries took me out to lunch, the original Fatz Cafe was our destination. If you have not gone to the Fatz Cafe in Spartanburg, SC, you are missing out on something special. They have the best fried chicken strips around.

As we walk into Fatz Cafe, it was noticeably busy but we were immediately seated in a special section. I do not mean special because of some big event going on, but it was because Jim is a regular at Fatz and has grown to know almost all of the staff.

As we sat and began chatting, he was telling me of this waitress that just retired and had worked at this particular Fatz for close to 23 years. Who works at a restaurant as a server for 23 years (I thought in my mind as we ordered two Dr. Peppers). I also learned that Jim loved Dr. Pepper as much as I did…good guy I tell ya! Back to the story; Jim continues to tell me how this one lady, this one server could work magic in this restaurant.  He explained one time he wanted a particular soft drink that Fatz did not serve. Instead of telling him that they did not serve this soft drink, she took his order and brought him what he requested. What he later found out is that as soon as she walked away with the drink order, she walked across the street to purchase the soft drink, put in on ice like any other drink, and serve it to him without he even knowing it was an issue. Now that is customer service.

This lady loved her job and she loved her customers. She loved the people that walk through the door, this was shown by  the way she made them feel special. After about five minutes into his explanation, I felt like I knew this lady and no longer viewed her as a “waitress.” She was the face of this establishment for close to 23 years.

As Jim and I sat and continued chatting about this lady, our waitress for that day told Jim that Shryl was here and Jim’s eyes lit up immediately. You see, Shryl Dover was that waitress of 23 years…the one that walked across the street to get that special soft drink. Our waitress walked back to find Shryl to send her our way. As she peered around the corner, it was like old friends picking up where they left off…Jim and Shryl just chatted without missing a beat.

jim-and-shrylYou see, it was that day the young owner of this Fatz Cafe had talked Shryl into coming back part time. That owner knew that Shryl had a tribe, a group of people that enjoyed seeing her smiling face….that special touch when it comes to true customer service. I made a new friend that day and I will never see Fatz Cafe as just the building that serves great fried chicken strips,  I will see it as the place where I can come talk to a friend and the fried chicken strips are the bonus.

Thanks Shryl Dover and thanks Jim O’Donnell for sharing this story! Everybody has a story to tell, even in a Fatz Cafe!

Thanks Firestone for Great Customer Service

There is something to be said for true customer service, something I can learn from my experience this morning at Firestone. So I am small business owner, I have to seriously watch my budget when it comes to expenditures. Well, my little bimmer needed some new rubber…it was long overdue! Four tires all around was in my search yesterday. My CFO (my wife) gave me a $400.00 budget for tires…so I stopped by Firestone yesterday on my way home from the Anderson Area Chamber’s Annual Luncheon.

I walked in and told the fine gentleman at the desk my budget. I also let him know that it would be good to get it done this weekend, some traveling I will be happening next week. Here is the catch, my little bimmer has an odd size tire requirement….14″ rims (195/65/14). They did their little search and noticed they had nothing in stock and they would have to get the Bridgestone Tires shipped in from another warehouse. Then the great peeps went into problem solving mode…three phones, a little bribery, and some sweeting talking; the manager convinced someone to make a trip to deliver the tires this weekend morning. So they asked me to be back in the morning to have all the work done.

So I show up this morning, and the place was packed. Tons of cars in the parking lot ready for service and the waiting room was packed. But when I walked in the door, the same two gentlemen greeted me from across the room with a smile. One of them stopped what they were doing, and walked out back to roll in the tires for me to inspect. The other had my paper ready to go, took my keys and said thanks for doing business with them.

Drawing of a service man between two gas umpsNow, you know about 10 years ago, gas stations used to be full service centers. When you would pull up to the tank, you could choose the gas price based on full service or pump yourself. A friendly smile would greet you with the option of having that nice person check under the hood, tire pressure, and even shake your hand when you pull out. I miss that little conversation which has turned into merely sliding your card and pumping yourself.

Well…Firestone in Anderson may not pump your gas, but they sure want to make sure you come back to do more business with them. It is the little things, a friendly smile, great customer service, even letting you inspect the tire that goes on your car. Thanks Firestone…you too should check them out!

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trust & technology – a story about AT&T

Did you ever think what it takes to turn on a light in your house? You walk into a room, flip the light switch and magically the light in the center of the room comes on…WOW. Think about the centuries of innovation and the many miles of connectivity from the house to the grid. How does this happen? How long did it take for us to trust the fact that flipping a switch in a wall will turn a light on about the room.

This morning, I woke up and walked to the front porch where the wife was on the phone with her sister in Charleston. I noticed she was irritated and as soon as I open the front glass door…I learned every quickly. Her cell phone conversation had stopped, and started over and over because of some dropped calls.

It was time to get on the phone with AT&T. So I went to get my iPhone and noticed that my visual voicemail was not working. I dialed the phone number for AT&T and after navigating thru the menu system, I am speaking with a very nice lady. I was actually thinking, this lady has a nice pleasant voice…then halfway thru explaining my issue, the phone call dropped. BLAH

Now it is time to go grab the land line to call AT&T. Note…we just added this land line a month ago after being completely dependent on mobile service for three years. So I call the 1800 number and reached another nice, pleasant voice with AT&T. Pleasant helpful voices are nice. After explaining my issue…I was off to be transferred to a technical support representative.

****I realize this is a timeline of events…I will get to the point of this post****

My new technical support friend told me of some Voice Network Issues in SC & NC. He also told me that they (AT&T) are in the process of upgrading the 3G service in Clemson and Anderson, to expand the service beyond the Clemson area. He also explained that the voice service works off of a completely different tower than the data service. WOW. It take multiple towers to provide one phone multiple services in just one location, we have not even began to talk about moving from one location to the next.

As my AT&T technical friend was sifting thru my account, where our phones are connected, and diagnosing our tower issues…he made a statement that made me think. He told me that we really TRUST technology to do what it is supposed to do, that when we flip the light switch we TRUST that it will turn on. We do not think about the technology necessary to turn that light on to brighten a room. Think about the amount of TRUST we have when we dial a phone call while driving down the road on a cell phone. The technology to connect that one phone, in a car, while driving down the road at 65 mph to someone in a completely different zip-code. We really TRUST technology.

Has our TRUST continuum for technology shortened each time we accept a new technology? Or do we even realize that we might not trust a technology…we merely do not recognize a technology is not working and check later when it is back up and running again. How long did it take for us as a society to trust that electricity is going to provide the energy necessary to luminate a room. How long did it take for us as a society to trust cell phone calling as a technology as motorola made the first successful call in the late 60’s. How long did it take for us to trust that we could connect to the Internet via a mobile device? Is there really a situation that makes us distrust a service provider like AT&T, that makes us switch providers to experience the same issues with the next provider because the technology is just technology.

HMM…well, I know this: I may pay a lot of money each month to AT&T to provide a service, but I am still amazed that I can talk to my mom while driving down the road at 85 mph in SC and she is driving down the road at 85 mph in another state. Technology is kind of cool.