Best Buy At Their Worst
MONTGOMERYVILLE, PENNSYLVANIA -- Retailer’s failing service standards are a sign of the times
Scott M. Primiano
Granted, they are called “Best Buy”, not “Best Service”. And over the years they have been very true to their title, so much so that we have spent thousands upon thousands of dollars with them on everything electronic, including multiple computers, cameras, telephones, vacuum cleaners, kitchen appliances, CDs, DVDs, gaming equipment, GPS devices, televisions, and all of the supporting hardware and software. Though we are not their biggest client, we certainly rank among the most loyal and will always bypass the super clubs and discount stores, paying a little extra and going a bit out of our way for the informed opinions and technical knowledge that is a part of every purchase. Like most folks, getting the right gadget is more important to us than getting the cheapest one.
So, no complaints on the pre-sale side. Everything has always been sunshine and buttercups and would probably remain so. Sadly, we’ll never know because we aren’t going back.
Understand, I am humble enough to know that they won’t know that we are missing. I get the fact that our “account” will be replaced by some other customer, probably a disgruntled Circuit City shopper, and life and business will proceed as normal for the boys at Best Buy. Still, this service break down story is a good one that needs telling and certainly is one that we can all learn from.
The saga begins on August 13, 2008. In the middle of watching the first week of the summer Olympics, our 50” Samsung HDTV implodes. Not violently mind you but with enough commotion to let us know that something inside has gone terribly wrong. Our first thought, of course, was to blame the kids. Once this was ruled out and all apologies issued, we learned that our color wheel had shattered and taken out the lamp along with it. “Thank God we have the extended warranty” we said almost simultaneously. Yes, we are those buyers that inherently trust the recommendations of the sales staff. They always recommend buying the extended agreement and we always abide.
Naively believing that Best Buy’s pre-sale integrity was transferable to the service side of things, my wife called immediately to report the catastrophe. Let the phone gymnastics begin. After holding for 20 minutes or so (annoying but not unacceptable) a service appointment was set up for August 19. No Olympics we thought, but at least we’d catch the closing ceremonies. Upon arrival, the service tech pronounced the injury to our Samsung a near fatal one; however, a replacement part would bring it back to life and that the part would be ordered immediately and be in within seven days. This news put an end to our Olympic aspirations; however, we still held hope for the political conventions.
Then . . . nothing. After waiting for the week and after far too many nights of playing solitaire, another call was placed, another holding episode encountered, lots of transfers, more holding, and then, finally, an answer. “The part would be delivered and installed no later than September 2” said with indifference and complete disregard for the fact that we were now 10 days without a tube, we were to miss the political conventions and baseball’s run for the playoffs and were coming close to missing opening day of the NFL
Then things got way out of hand. September 2nd came and we heard nothing. My wife, having calendared this date as most important, called and spent two-hours, yes, two-hours, including hold times and transfers, trying to find out what was going on. Finally, a supervisor was found and we were informed that the part was back ordered until September 14th. “Not to worry”, “it was Best Buy’s Policy that no customer should be without an appliance or a television for more than 14 days”. Ignoring the fact that we were already beyond the 14 day benchmark, the supervisor instructed us to call back (ugh) in “a couple of days”, to get a special number to bring to the store to get a replacement TV.
On September 4th, this call was placed and another two-hour phone adventure began. This time we were informed (curtly and with the type of heavy sighing that let’s you know that you are an annoyance) that “Senior Management had not yet approved the replacement and were holding off their decision until September 6th”. No appeal, no mercy. What about the two-week rule? Turns out the clock starts ticking when the part is ordered and the part wasn’t ordered immediately as promised but instead on August 23. After pointing out that the delay was theirs and not ours, we were informed (with ever increasing distaste) that records are records. Goodbye, good luck, back to lunch.
On September 6th, the required call was placed and, no surprise, another two-hour cat- and-mouse game ensued. This time, we were told that the special number that we needed for the new TV could not be issued until September 12 because it required time to “process”. By this point, my beloved wife was at the end of her rope and requested a higher ranking supervisor. Magic! Processing time was suddenly advanced and on Monday, September 8th somebody would call with the special number.
As you might have already guessed, no call came and after waiting until 4PM we finally made the call. Good news! This call only took 30 minutes (far shorter than the new normal), and the special number was delivered. We were instructed to bring the TV, the power cord, and the remote to the store where we would receive our new TV. Though we had missed all of the aforementioned events, at least we would be able to monitor the progress of Hurricane Ike. With a daughter and granddaughter living in Florida, this was critical.
Want to see something funny? Watch two grandparents hoisting, lugging, and loading a 50’ DLP into a Honda Pilot. I think that our shear determination made it fit. Anyway, off to the store we went, knowing that we’d be coming home with a new TV as promised.
Unbelievably, things went from bad to worse. Upon arrival at our store – really, the one that we always go to – smiles turned into furrowed brows as we entered. Though we had been informed that we would receive a TV of equal value to what we paid for the original, we were now told that “what they meant” was equal specifications. The problem was, new technology had replaced the old and the old was no longer in stock. Not just in our store but in all others. It would have to be ordered and delivered, perhaps taking another week or so.
After narrating the battle we had fought to get Best Buy to honor the warranty that we purchased for just such an event, after pointing out the list of commitments that had been broken, and after featuring the promise that we would not leave the store this night without a new television, a bright young sales person suggested the next model up - a little larger and better yet the price was not more than what we had originally paid. This lad either had some customer service training or was a member of the common sense club. All he needed, he said, was his manager’s approval.
Enter the manager – Jeff. His is the only name I will use because he is the most noteworthy among all of those that we dealt with. Jeff heard us out and said no, we would have to wait . . . again. Though he acknowledged that his decision was discretionary, it was his decision to make and he had decided. “But Jeff, we hauled the old TV all the way here from home (1/2 hour trip) with the promise of going home with a working television! You have it within your power to fulfill that expectation! Look at our account and look at all of the money we spend here! We are very good customers!”
Answer . . . still “no”. Without apology, without sensitivity, and with complete indifference. My wife indicated that she would, unbelievably, pull out her cell phone and call customer service again to get this sorted out. Jeff replied, “Call whoever you wish but it won’t do you any good”, and then just walked away.
Well, he was right. After another hour spent on the phone with customer service, we were told that the store manager could decide any way that he wished and that they could not override his decision. Hearing this was like being shot in the chest, only less damaging and not as bloody. We had been in the store two-hours, had driven ½ hour to get there, missed dinner, and we were now about to drive ½ hour back home empty-handed.
I asked to have Jeff paged so that I could speak to him one more time. Not to appeal (I had given up) but to let him know that he had seriously mishandled the situation. The points that I made to Jeff are the lessons that I want to remind us all of, for they are basic tenants of baseline service.
• Honor your company’s commitments, even if you didn’t make them.
Jeff informed us that the people on the phone were wrong to tell us what they told us. He pointed out the descriptive language buried in the warranty agreement that said “45 Days” without a TV. He argued his point without considering the fact that the “they” that he spoke of, in our eyes, worked for the same company and were his colleagues. Not some disenfranchised group from another world. Regardless of who made the promises and commitments, they were well documented and clearly communicated. Jeff had an obligation to fulfill them and deal with the disagreement internally.
• Look to make a bad situation better, not worse.
This should have been a moment of magic, a chance for Jeff to salvage a relationship gone bad and to reestablish the good will that had been lost. It could have been and should have been a win/win opportunity. We would have been ecstatic leaving the store with an upgraded TV (faith in Best Buy renewed), the cost was the same, and Jeff wouldn’t have had to pay a third-party to deliver the one on back order. Instead we left disgruntled with a commitment never to return.
• Be empathetic, even if you’re not.
Jeff must deal with service issues all day long and has probably grown indifferent to everybody, so I don’t take his stoic responses and need to get back to his administrative priorities personally. However, Jeff missed the fact that what was happening to us was meaningful and damaging. Rather than being dismissive, busy and bothered, Jeff could have recaptured some lost ground by actively listening, by not pre-judging, by thinking though his responses, and displaying some empathy. Even if he had to fake it.
• Be loyal to those that are loyal to you.
As mentioned, we spend a lot of money at Best Buy. We are easy and loyal customers that follow recommendations and, until now, never complain. I was very clear with Jeff that we had some big purchases coming up – our computers are old, we have the old Iphone and want the new one, our Xbox was shot and out of warranty, etc. I went on to say that we were going to take the money that we would otherwise spend in his store, his money, and spend it elsewhere. His only response was a wry smile that said without saying it, “sure you are, I hear that one all day”. The money lost may not be significant to Best Buy, however, me times a few hundred others may become noticeable. Jeff should have come out of the negative ether just long enough to check my account history. Then he might have realized that saying “no” to our request just because he could was not the best decision he would make that day. Again, there was no economic loss to saying “yes”, only damaging consequences to saying “no”. The ego trip cost Jeff a customer for life.
• Look for saints, not serpents.
From the outset it was clear that Jeff did not believe us. His language and his demeanor were unmistakably accusatory. Rather than listen to the service saga that we had experienced and trust that at least we believed what we were telling him, he immediately determined that we were trying to take advantage of him and the situation; trying to get something for nothing. All we wanted was a television – any television! We had done nothing wrong and had correctly done everything that we were instructed to do over these past many weeks. Even at my best, I couldn’t make this story up.
• The customer may not always be right, but the customer is always the customer.
Okay, I didn’t fully understand the nuances of the warranty agreement. So what. I was working with the information that we had been given, abiding by what we had been told to do, and trusting in the people and promises of Best Buy. Clearly, those on the phone didn’t get the finer points of the warranty agreement either. Rather than focus on what the warranty said, Jeff should have turned his attention to what had otherwise been said, and confirmed, by his service team over the phone.
• Never, ever, let a customer leave unhappy.
I was completely amazed by Jeff’s indifference as I walked out the door. I had spent the time to make these points with him while my poor wife labored through the ordering process for the “specification compatible” TV. As I write, we are still TV-less and bitter. Had Jeff exercised his discretion and common sense appropriately, we would have departed the store feeling redeemed, respected, valued, and whole. In spite of the agony required to get there, the story would have a happy ending. As it is, I can count 15 hours invested in this project, a couple of hundred dollars on a weak warranty, some gas, and a lot of grief and we are left with nothing to show for it. As a result, we are never going back. Not to penalize them (they won’t even notice and it’s clear that at least Jeff doesn’t care), but because they will never be able to reestablish the value, trust, and integrity that brought us there to begin with.
Of course this is one service story out of a million that could be told about many companies in many industries. Personalized, professional, and thoughtful service strategies are hurriedly being replaced by automated responses, indifferent providers, and call centers in India.
In the wake of this experience, I’ll ask you, my dear readers, to take a hard look at your service models, people, and platforms. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Is distance making us indifferent?
Most service calls are being handled over the phone or through your website rather than in-person. Does this electronic divide insulate your organization too much from the problems and pain felt by your customers? Indifference is a service killer while active listening and taking the time to empathize matter most – even if the problem can’t be resolved. Remind everyone to focus on the client or customer in front of them (literally or figuratively) rather than looking for ways to end the discussion because of concern for the call cue.
2. Does our pre-sale culture of service extend to the post-sale?
If not, you are culturally incompatible and heading for trouble. We all know that it is much easier to keep an existing client or customer than it is to find a new one. And it is a lot less expensive. Regardless of your advertising and marketing programs, your best customers and clients will always come to you from a referral and recommendation from your existing customers and clients. Most of these recommendations hail from satisfying service experiences and not a sale or a bargain. The reverse is also true – bad service experiences travel like a virus and can destroy even the strongest of reputations. And . . . every now and again . . . a guy like me gets upset. Then, Jeff, everybody hears about it.
3. Are service teams empowered and inspired to do the right thing?
In Jeff’s case, he had the power but lacked the inspiration. If Jeff’s staff had been allowed to deal with our situation, no-doubt we would have had a different outcome. One that may not have involved an upgrade. A little investigation by anybody would have revealed that the problem was simple, we needed a TV. We could have used a floor model for a loaner, we would have been willing to pay a little more for an upgrade, we would have probably settled for a smaller TV or a different brand. None of these alternatives were explored and a customer was lost as a result. Encourage your folks to spend the time and explore the possibilities. Let’s not live in a “yes” and “no” service world.
4. Are we investing in service?
Service investments include training, client and customer surveys, and constantly evolving service strategies. The best source for service improvement ideas that keep customers coming back is your front line, not your board room. In challenging economic times, with an obsessive focus on the bottom-line, service is too often viewed as an expense and a place to cut back. The real economics of service tell us that investments made in this area increase revenue by a much greater margin than almost any sales and marketing initiative. Think smart and act smarter. Take the time to listen to your most junior staff and they will tell you what to do.
Finally, don’t be a Jeff and don’t tolerate Jeff-like behavior. Jeff’s indifference to one customer spoiled the reputation of an entire firm in the heart and mind of this customer and, perhaps, in yours as well. Jeffs are caustic and small thinkers; the downfall of too many organizations. Train them, coach them, support them, but do not settle for them.
Side note: This service story is from the Best Buy Service Department and their store in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania. When ordering the replacement TV, the sales person actually had the audacity to offer my wife the extended warranty agreement!
Be well my friends