Absurd Customer Service
I want to share two stories of customer service I have received in the past week.
- In the first story, I was a customer of Citibank, one of the largest banks in the world.
- In the second story, I was a customer of Animal Outfitters, one of the smallest retail stores in the world.
Wait, let me guess...
OK, fine. You already know how this is going to turn out. The huge company was awful and the tiny company was extraordinary. Feel free to skip the rest of this article if you like, but before you go, I want to leave you with one thought:
We are all conditioned to expect terrible customer service from large companies and great customer service from little companies. Yet, those little companies are the dying breed in the world today.
Isn't that kind of sad?
Right. Off you go.
So I sat down at my home computer to pay my credit card.
The story goes downhill fast, but I'll admit that it all started out as my fault. You see, I was late paying this bill.
Sometime recently Citibank changed the way late payments are made on their website. If you're paying on time, you go through the normal forms. But if you're paying late, you get sent over to a completely different section of the website. There, they ask you questions.
Lots of questions.
The first one was "Why are you paying late?" Unfortunately, the only way to respond to this question is a drop-down list with around a dozen predefined answers. Fine. I scanned the list for one that said "I just forgot". Nope. Not there.
So I looked at every item on the list to see if any of them applied to my situation. Nope.
It's a mandatory field. I have to give them an answer. More to the point, I have to give them an answer which is incorrect.
I chose "Natural Disaster".
The rest of the questions were similar:
- When do you expect to resume a normal payment schedule?
- When you resume your normal payment schedule, what source of funds will you be using to make the payments?
- What kind of useless crap did you spend your money on instead of making your credit card payment on time? (OK, this question wasn't really there. I made it up.)
My annoyance grew steadily. I'm pretty sure that my answer to every question was just as honest and helpful as my answer to that first one.
Finally, the Citibank website allowed me to pay my bill. The whole process was simply absurd.
After the payment succeeded, I immediately called their 800 number and canceled the card. That didn't go very well either.
So we got a new dog.
(BTW, thanks to the many folks who sent kind notes back in March when Sadie was killed. I did not respond to any of them, but the sentiments were much appreciated.)
Our new family pet is a white German Shepherd. After some advice from the rescue and a bit of research, we decided to feed Sophie a specialty food called Evo. The only store in our area which sells Evo is a very small place called Animal Outfitters. The owner's name is Mark Fisher.
German Shepherds eat a remarkable amount of food. Monday I went in to Mark's store for another bag of Evo, but he was sold out. There had been some sort of delivery problem with his supplier.
As I said, this is a really small store. Usually when I go in there, the person working is Mark himself. In this case, he went way above and beyond the call of duty. The next day, he brought in a bag of Evo from home, the one he had for his own dog. He measured out enough Evo to feed Sophie until next week when his delivery is supposed to arrive.
And despite my attempts to pay him, he didn't charge me a dime.
For Mark to give me this dog food was simply absurd. Fair price for that quantity was perhaps 10 or 15 bucks. I expected to pay. Heck, I would have paid twice the fair price just out of respect for the law of supply and demand.
I walked out of the store stunned.
In the last week, two companies made an impression on me with customer service incidents that I will probably remember for years:
- I cannot imagine ever having another credit card with Citibank.
- I cannot imagine ever buying pet food anywhere but Animal Outfitters.
Both businesses were simply absurd. One in a bad way, and one in a good way.
The Animal Outfitters store is around 10 years old. When I first walked in there, I wondered how this guy could possibly stay in business for so long. Now I know.
And as a fellow entrepreneur, I understand what he did. I love it when I get a chance to help a customer in a way that makes a big impression.
But opportunities to be absurd don't come along every day. Whether it's dog food or software, we need to keep our eyes open and be willing to grab these situations when they become available.
If we encounter a guy with a problem at just the right moment and solve it in a highly memorable way, we can sell him high-priced dog food for decades.