I had coffee with a seasoned and bright marketing executive last week.  He said something that stuck out to me:

Most of the time, you can differentiate your company/product/service/brand by just figuring out what irritates customers about companies in your industry and eliminating those irritants…

Little did I know that I would have an object lesson the next day…

Some of you may be fans of big box electronics stores.  If what I say from here on offends you, I apologize up front.  Against my better judgement, I went with my wife to a VERY well-known big box store to shop for a camera yesterday.  True, based on past experience with this particular retailer, I was primed for dissatisfaction. They lived down to my expectations.

In 15 short minutes, all of these things happened (and I’m not making any of them up):

  • The person at the front door greeted us cheerily, but offered no guidance on how to find what we were looking for. When we told him that we had a camera on hold and asked where it might be, he pointed blankly and said, “Customer Service.” (Only later did I realize why he appeared chained to his post at the door.)
  • Once we found the camera section, a different salesperson approached us every 60 seconds or so (again, I’m not exaggerating) offering help.  My wife had a printed copy of research in her hand, but we would only just begin to refer to it before we were interrupted by another salesperson.  The irony – they probably thought they were being helpful.  In reality, they were getting in the way of us buying something!
  • At one point, we did have a question about their return policy.  We waited another 19 seconds for the next salesperson to show up (as if on cue) and asked our question. “It used to be 14 days, but now it’s 30 days,” Stoffer said. We confirmed that we could return it within 30 days for a full refund.  “Yes,” Stoffer said, “full refund. If you’re not happy, just bring it back.”
  • With the camera chosen, we moved on to memory cards and batteries.  Another (yes, different) salesperson approached us (one aisle away from the cameras) and offered to help.  My wife asked a few simple battery questions.  He looked at her blankly for a few seconds and she wondered if he had not understood the question, couldn’t read English, or had had a slight stroke right then and there.  Instead, he finally pulled the staff radio earpiece out of his ear that had been distracting him from listening to the customer right in front of him and then successfully answered the question.
  • Finally, we went to check out.  At the register, yet a different sales associate rang up the order and confirmed the return policy: 14 days with a 15% restocking fee! Stoffer had clearly been making stuff up!
  • We mentioned that our buddy Stoffer had said 30 days and 100% refund.  The service manager looked appalled and immediately paged Stoffer’s boss over the earpiece radio system.  (I could just imagine some customer in the Battery Departments getting a blank stare from their sales associate as the mayday call went out.)  Regardless, the service desk confirmed that we were going to get the  less generous policy.
  • Before telling us to come back, the greeter at the door asked to see the purchases, our receipt, a picture ID, and a note from my mother. (OK, I made that last part up.)

In 15 short minutes, this big box store (that spends millions getting consumers like me to come into their store) got $400 from us and we had their true brand confirmed for us: lots of product selection, poorly trained salespeople, and a lousy shopping experience.  I’ll go back to avoiding them – until I can’t.

PS Here’s the irony.  The service manager could have (almost) turned this around by simply saying, “You know what, Stoffer was mistaken but we stand behind our word.  I’ll personally write your terms on the back of your sales slip and if you have any trouble with a return, I want you to contact me by name.”  It’s highly unlikely we will return the product anyway.  But it would have made a real impression on us.

Rant over.  Now, the troubling question: in what ways does my company irritate our customers? And in what way does yours?  The answer leads to job 1 for next week.