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I Don’t Care What Your Corporate Policy Is

March 8, 2010

Recently, Ben Konosky (@BAKup) expressed his distaste for book retailer Barnes & Noble on Twitter. His rant stemmed from an unfortunate run-in between his new e-reader, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and his cat. Rendered useless after said incident, Ben contacted B&N to find out how he could get the thing repaired. “Customer service” informed him that not only would they not fix his Nook for free, but they wouldn’t even fix it for some kind of fee.

I completely understand the need for corporate policies. They keep us from doing stupid things. They protect our customers and our co-workers. What completely perplexes me is how a company as large and successful as Barnes & Noble – obviously ahead of the game in innovation and product selection – has managed to succeed with these kinds of esoteric policies in place. Whatever goodwill led Ben to buy himself a Nook instead of a Kindle or the Holy Grail (ahem, iPad) was lost as soon as the customer service rep told him there was nothing she could do for him. Not only will he not be replacing his Nook, but he’ll be telling everyone he knows how terrible Barnes & Noble customer service is, even though the rep was simply doing what was in her power to do: nothing.

Why do consumers and marketing professionals continue to speak highly of (and/or fawn all over) Zappos? Because they will literally do whatever it takes to make sure the customer has a positive experience. WHATEVER it takes. Zappos operates like a mom & pop shop, but let’s be clear: they do $1 billion in revenue every year. $1 BILLION. That being said, 40% of what people buy is returned because Zappos makes it painless for people to buy ten pairs of shoes at a time, try them on, and send back the ones they don’t want. $600 million in revenue after returns does not a mom & pop shop make, and somehow they manage to keep their customers and gain market share year over year. How do they do it?

They do it by empowering employees to make decisions on the company’s behalf. Do you think sales reps have to check with supervisors every time they seek to go above and beyond for a customer? Absolutely not. Positive word of mouth is still one of the best ways to catch new customers, and giving customers good bait is critical. Give them, “I’m sorry, we can’t fix your Nook,” and I guarantee you will pull in empty nets. Zappos management trusts the employees to make difficult decisions when it comes to wowing customers. Do you trust your employees enough to let go of control? Lose the corporate policies that put serious barriers between customer services reps and customers. They’re a sign of a sluggish, outdated company, afraid of change.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2010 11:20 pm

    I love this article, cause it speaks the truth! We are empowered to assist our customers, and make decisions on the company’s behalf. When people ask me why I love my career so much, this is always my #1 answer! We have so many tools / resources at our fingertips on a daily basis, which we never hesitate to use. As long is the customer is happy this is our main priority! You have to step out of the standard corporate box to be successful, and Zappos has done just that. The ongoing support / training to work your way up the leadership path is amazing as well. I feel so blessed to sit where I do today =)

    • Esther Steinfeld permalink*
      March 9, 2010 4:24 pm

      Thanks for reading (and confirming) what I already knew to be true. I was in Vegas and took the Zappos tour last August and couldn’t believe what I was seeing/hearing from Customer Service. It made me want to go back to my own business and shake things up. Well done!

  2. ReaderX permalink
    March 9, 2010 10:30 am

    B&N’s policy is pretty normal. If a customer breaks their own goods, then they need to buy a replacement.

    I think you need to support your proposition that Zappos has empowered its employees to make whatever decisions they feel necessary. Perhaps you have information which makes it obvious, but that information is not in the article. I’m curious beyond assumptions; what is Zappos policy exactly?

    I’m curious if customers can break high heels and then get a free replacement. Is there any evidence for this? If not, I’m curious if Zappos will replace broken high heels for a nominal charge (significantly less than the purchase price). Any evidence for that? These are the situations analogous to B&N’s situation.

    Good customer service during the sales process isn’t the same as replacing items the customers they themselves broke.

    • Esther Steinfeld permalink*
      March 9, 2010 10:50 am

      Service for shoes is different from service for electronics. If you’re going to sell an electronic device, you’ve got to develop a process for repairing these devices when they break (and they will). The pain points in the customer service process re: apparel items vs. electronics are very different. It’s how companies handle customers’ frustrations during these moments that help them stand out. Can you imagine walking into Apple with your iPod and hearing, “I’m sorry, we can’t fix that?”

      Do I think Zappos is responsible for my favorite pair of shoes that I wear until they break? No. Do I think B&N is responsible for providing service (and I never said the service had to be free or that they should replace the item for free) to customers who buy their reader? Absolutely.

      B&N can do whatever they want. They don’t have to do anything. They can tell Ben, “Too bad,” and he’ll move on with his life. But they’ve really missed an opportunity here to turn this bad situation into a positive experience. Because of it, he’ll probably never shop at B&N again. Get on the phone and help the customer find somewhere he can get his reader fixed. If B&N won’t do the actual fixing, customer service should have a list of places that will fix it on-hand for when customers call. Customer service reps are programmed to say, “There’s nothing I can do to help you” if management hasn’t predetermined the solution, and that’s no longer an acceptable response.

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