Terminal customer disservice

Social media engagement can help sustain brand loyalty, but it can’t mitigate truly reprehensible customer service. Keil Hubert tells a cautionary tale of a retailer that went out business after providing an awful customer experience.

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Brand loyalty is a wonderful thing – if you can get it, and if you can maintain it. I’ve written quite a bit recently about the criticality of using Internet technologies to stay actively engaged with your customers. One follow-on point that I’d like to make is that your web presence and Twitter feed are only effective in retaining customer loyalty so long as your employees don’t foul everything up at the point where your customers directly interact with your brand. Case in point: Dallas’s old CompUSA chain.

Back in early 1990s, my university roommate and I would drive up from San Antonio to Fort Worth most every weekend to visit his family and to work on academics without the worry of on-campus distractions. One of the traditions that we held to for those road-trip weekends (and for several years after graduation) was to make an outing to nearly Arlington on Saturday morning. We’d have lunch at the old Tia’s as soon as it opened, and would then walk off our post-enchilada feast with a stroll through the CompUSA retail store there in the strip mall.

Back in the early 90s, there weren’t that many places to go to get your hands on PC tech, at least not where we lived. There were the campus bookstore, a few office supply stores, and the occasional mom-and-pop PC assemblers, but nothing that carried all of the parts, supplies and accessories that we need to keep our dorm kit working. CompUSA was the only accessible exception, in that they had an entire Macintosh division to accompany their collection of IBM compatible PCs. Remember: there were no Apple Retail Stores back then.

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Back in the late 80s, a box of these cost more than dinner out

Things that we take for granted now – like effective customer service – just didn’t exist back then in tech retail. When we took our walk through the old Arlington CompUSA, none of the employees were interested in providing service of any kind. The people you met wearing corporate livery were just as likely to sneer at you and walk away as they were to answer a question. We’d walk the aisles and find what we needed without expecting or receiving help from the people expected to provide it. If we ever had a question about a part’s compatibility, we couldn’t just whip out a smart phone and look it up. Many purchases were crapshoots, given how little useful data there was there in the store.

Still and all, it was the only place to go (and the Tex-Mex food beforehand was great), so we made the trip about once every four to six weeks. We’d meet up with local friends, exchange news and generally catch up [1]. If we were lucky, one of the engineers or computer scientists we knew would show up for lunch and would stick around for the traditional walk-through. That’s how I first learned about Windows NT 3.51 and OS/2 “Warp.”

The “redshirts” manning the floor, meanwhile, had only one thing to offer: pressure to buy whatever useless piece of kit they were poised to get the highest commission on. After the Arlington location closed down and shifted to Hurst, I’d still visit occasionally, usually on the weekend when I needed a cheap part that wasn’t worth having shipped. On several occasions, I watched the store’s smarmy sales weasels intercept confused-looking customers in the Apple “store-within-a-store” corner and vector them over to the PC area with outlandish claims of how the customer could get “exactly the same computer for less.” The redshirt would then escort the cheated customer to the register to ensure they got their pound of flesh.

The chain became a running joke among people in my corner of the tech sector. It was a caricature of a tech business; not a legitimate place to purchase goods and services. No one that I knew took them seriously.

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‘With all the dosh I saved buying her that off-brand PowerBook, I can afford to drink until I forget that she just left me in disgust.’

Once Internet commerce became de rigueur, visits to the old neighbourhood CompUSA dropped to once a quarter, to once a year, to never. Even when you needed something desperately and they were the only store in the city likely to have what you need, it was just too irritating to put up with the employees’ condescending behaviour.

I violated that self-imposed rule two years ago early on a Sunday morning. I was on my way to my oldest son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honour ceremony and discovered that the laptop we’d been planning to use to display some of the multimedia content at the venue was inoperable. I needed a DVI-D to VGA video cable adapter immediately. It was too early for any of my preferred vendors to be open, but I had to find something … I dashed up the road to my nearby Wal-Mart (they didn’t have it) and Target (ditto). I drove across the motorway to the nearest OfficeMax (closed) and spotted a brand-new CompUSA down the strip that had its front doors open.

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‘Open for business’ … Don’t say it unless you mean it.

Dare I hope? [2]

I parked and made a beeline for the store. The doors were propped open and all the lights were on. I walked past a knot of employees who were chatting idly by the tills – not the least bit surprised when none of them greeted me or asked if they could help. I found the right aisle, found my product and went up to the till … which was, by then, unmanned. I had to interrupt the smoking-and-joking crew by the front door to get the lethargic floor manager’s attention.

“We’re not open yet,” the lead jack-wagon said.

“Really?” I said. “The front door is open, and it’s two minutes before your posted opening hours. I’m desperately in need of this part, I only have a twenty, and you can keep the change.”

“We’re not open yet,” he said again, and turned back to his co-worker’s riveting anecdote about a recent drunken sexual escapade.

The irrational animal part of me wanted to Hulk-out and lay waste to the complex, reducing both it and its denizens to smoking rubble. Since that course of action was both physiologically improbable and the probability of getting arrested would have made me late for my boy’s ceremony, I dropped the cable on the counter and walked out. I never went back.

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Alienating the wrong customers can have explosive downstream effects on your business.

Those negative experiences with the CompUSA brand stuck with me (especially the last one). It didn’t matter how slick their web presence was, [3] or what kind of special pricing they offered. I was not about to give one red cent to their brand thanks to the way I’d been treated by their employees.

As a aggrieved customer, I have the power of the crowd (literally) in my pocket. Back when the incident happened, I could have captured the entire encounter on my smartphone and uploaded the video clip to YouTube to lampoon the previously-mentioned jack-wagon. I could have posted a scathing store review to a dozen different user-review sites. I could have recorded a podcast deconstructing the poor customer service in excruciating detail. I could have drawn a darkly satirical web comic about it. I could have written a humorous ‘blog post [4] about it, and so on. Now, I could also take my message to Twitter and LinkedIn and Facebook. There are hundreds of places to post a rant, thereby not-so-subtly influencing dozens or hundreds or tens of thousands of other customers.

Social media and other indirect engagement tools are great ways to keep customer attitudes generally positive after a customer’s first brand encounter; those tools are, however, next to useless if your own employees are irredeemably poisoning customers’ attitudes in one-on-one encounters the first time a new customer encounters the brand. Or the tenth time. Or the hundredth time. Customer loyalty may start with a TV advert, but it usually dies after a reasonable customer experiences an unforgivable snub.

[1] This was pre-Facebook, remember; these things were done “in person.”

[2] No.

[3] It wasn’t – I thought it was awful to the point of being unusable.

[4] I have to point out that the old CompUSA brand is now defunct, which suggests that today’s column will have about as much impact to the old brand as a neutrino pulse.

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