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Reasons to Have a Flexible Customer Service Policy

by Leigh Duncan-Durst  |  
March 21, 2007

Smart companies have customer service policies in place to protect their best interests and the bottom line. Smarter companies, however, know how and when to bend certain policies for customers who have the right profitability, loyalty, frequency of purchase and long-term revenue potential. This helps protect customer loyalty and works to maximize the bottom line.

The challenge in today's market, however, is institutionalizing a system wherein each employee understands customer centricity -- and the right employees are adept in exercising flexibility with appropriate boundaries.
Databases, systems and policies are critical tools. Executing based on the knowledge gathered by companies is another thing entirely.
Beyond loyalty programs, when it comes to appropriately recognizing customers in the service arena, most companies fall short. This is why customers losing out on good service have little choice but to become more vocal and tenacious.
Consider this recent experience.
I went to Best Buy to accomplish two things: First, I needed to return an extra power source I'd purchased for my laptop. The associate who helped me had sold me the wrong model. The kicker was, I didn't realize it was the wrong adaptor for three months because while I had purchased the smaller model for a trip to Europe, I had forgotten to bring it with me. When I finally took it out of the package and realized the extra $90 power source was useless to me, it seemed worth trying to return.
Second, I was with my sister-in-law, Leah, who was ready to buy a new laptop with my assistance.
We trolled the computer department first, and I left Leah to play with the model I had recommended. I then approached the customer service desk to return the power source.
It only took a minute of watching the dull-eyed customer service representative handle the woman in front of me to predict that I was going to need a supervisor. After 10 minutes, she turned and walked away, cautioning me to get a supervisor if I wanted any "real help."
When my turn came, I made my case and, as I suspected, "Dulleye" expertly spouted the 30-day return policy to me. I thanked him and asked for his supervisor. After a long wait, an eye-rolling supervisor approached, and the two huddled with briefly before he approached me.
It's enough to say that both "Dulleye" and "Eyeroller" expertly spouted "policy" to me. After explaining for the second time that: 1) The packaging was intact; 2) The item had not been used, and 3) the exact model was still being sold on the shelves, I said in an exasperated tone, "Look, YOU guys are the one who sold me this power source -- and it's the wrong one!"
I was met by open-mouthed, blank stares and a glance toward the counter from both of the policy drones. So, I continued:
"Does it help to know that I've purchased FOUR laptops at Best Buy this year alone? I've actually come to purchase another one today, and I'd hate to take that sale to another store because I'm short on time. What do we need to do to make this right?"
After another wait, I asked for the store manager. I watched as "Eye Roller" explained my situation to the store manager, shaking his head vehemently to indicate that Best Buy should not refund the money. So far, about 20 minutes had elapsed.
Hope sparked as the store manager walked over to me with eye contact and a hesitant smile. I repeated my plight to him. I explained that I would love to exchange the power supply for the right product, but they didn't happen to sell one. I was fine with store credit and it only made sense. He wasn't quite convinced.
So, with one final push, I drew upon my inside knowledge of Best Buy's customer management infrastructure and added:
"I understand you've got policies for a reason. In fact, I write, speak and teach about customer service for a living. Because of this, I also understand that Best Buy is flexible with its policies for good customers. I'm a good customer. In fact, it may help your decision to know that in Best Buy's profiling schema, I am considered a 'JILL'and I carry a profitability level of four out of five. I understand this means that you guys should want to keep me as a customer at this store."
This is where the store manager got the nickname "Wide Eyes." I continued with a pleasant smile.
"Now, Jeff over there (pointing to our Geek Squad computer sales rep, Jeff as he waved) is helping me and my sister-in-law with my fifth laptop purchase of 2006. So, can we return this cable now, or do I need to head for another store?"
The store credit was issued immediately. We bought another laptop that day, too.
Now, I was fortunate enough to have been previously shown my entire Best Buy purchasing history, demographic profile and profitability number in an interview with a Best Buy executive several months before. She had explained to me congruently how someone with a profile like mine would (hypothetically) be handled in a return policy decision. The same executive had also described how hard it was to get her staff to understand the simple categorizations to make exceptions to the rules on a case-by-case basis.
I'm glad I had that knowledge in my back pocket .... but ultimately all of this serves to make a point.
I've written a bit about Best Buy in the past. In short, what's great about Best Buy's system is that it maps customers to persona-based profiles that help associates understand the type of customer they are dealing with. It also assigns a simple profitability scoring scale from 1-5 (5 being the best). This should make it super easy for any associate to quickly grasp the value of a customer without doing a detailed analysis on purchase history.
– The problem is getting people to use this knowledge. I went through three people to get Best Buy to treat me like a "Jill" with a profitability multiple of four. And all three had access to my profile. Not one of them looked at that information .... despite my earlier pleas.
The truth is, it just takes time to operationalize a flexible customer service framework. A myriad of factors weigh in, including training, turnover, management preferences, staff maturity, common sense, level of experience and individual store policies. Over time, it should only get easier for Best Buy to properly train customer service associates to review a customer's profile, understand their value and to take action that is fiscally responsible and that meets the customer's requirements to remain loyal.
However, until this happens, the sadder truth is, it's still the tenacious are more likely to get the service they deserve. While most of us aren't positioned to know how we're profiled in a store's database, there's good news:
The visibility created by the internet, social networks and sites like YouTube are creating popular outlets for wronged and vocal customers. The exposure risk companies now face will only create more impetus for them to get customer service right the first time .... and to invest in appropriately flexible customer service management policies and procedures.

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Leigh Duncan Durst (leigh at livepath dot net) is a 20-year veteran of marketing, e-commerce, and business and the founder of Live Path (

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  • by Cam Beck Wed Mar 21, 2007 via blog

    Leigh - This is a very great example of a business culture that either does not train its employees well or does not give them the necessary power to make decisions... It probably also indicates a culture that doesn't allow employees to make mistakes without serious repercussions. I remember reading one of Jim Collins' books, either Good to Great or Built to Last, and he talked about the culture at Nordstroms... One of the examples that was preached to the employees included, if I recall correctly, a salesperson who accepted the return of snow tires, even though the store didn't even sell snow tires. This, according to management, was a good thing. But Best Buy is competing on price, and margins are slim as it is. This means paying employees as little as possible (and accepting whomever they can attract with such a policy) and trying to plug them into a system without giving them incentive to really care. Thank you for sharing this experience. It's an eye-opener.

  • by Paul Barsch Wed Mar 21, 2007 via blog

    Leigh, Awesome post. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  • by Leigh Duncan Wed Mar 21, 2007 via blog

    Cam, I definitely see your point but it's often more complex than this. I think Best Buy is making great strides to teach its employee base how to use the information stored in their customer management system. According to several articles I read, Best Buy gives employees approximately two weeks of training per year, including customer training - opposed to the average of 2 DAYS in the rest of the market. They've seen the fruit of this in amazing ways - and I think over time the customers will, too. ;-) Leigh

  • by Claire Ratushny Wed Mar 21, 2007 via blog

    Leigh, Thank you for an excellent post. This blogging venue has been used to discuss companies' deficiencies in the area of customer service over and over again. I especially like Elaine Fogel's work on this topic (just a little plug for Elaine--hope you don't mind). . . It's sad you had to spend 20 minutes with 3 different BB employees (and the store manager, yet) to get anywhere; and fortunate you knew you were a "Jill" due to your knowledge of the company. How silly was this, really? C'mon, Best Buy: your employees sold a valuable customer the wrong thing and it was returned unopened. They should have taken it back immediately and given you a credit, Leigh. Where's the old-fashioned common sense here? Then they should have apologized for having made the error in the first place and asked how else they might be able to help you today. You should have gotten kid glove treatment: you're a great customer. Wouldn't you think companies would work hard to keep their customers happy and keep them coming back? Your experience illustrates more than a need for flexible customer service policy, Leigh. It illustrates a need for decent customer service. Period.

  • by Damon Billian Wed Mar 21, 2007 via blog

    I am glad that they decided to credit. I am, however, a little confused by this... "When I finally took it out of the package and realized the extra $90 power source was useless to me, it seemed worth trying to return." You later mention that the packaging was intact. Was the item removed from the package, or was it still brand new (not opened)? However, given your purchasing history at the store I would have been less inclined to recite policy over and over. Perhaps they should have a different policy for unused accessory items that are less than 100.00?

  • by Leigh Duncan Wed Mar 21, 2007 via blog

    Thanks for pointing that out, Damon. As a point clarification, I had gently coaxed the item from its packaging and plugged it in to see if it worked, only to find out it was the wrong model. I then neatly tucked everything back in to the half-opened eggshell packaging... (I hate that stuff!) When I said the packaging was intact, I meant that it was still in very good condition. However, it would have still been considered an "opened item". Based on my understanding of the the 30-day policy, however, it wouldn't have mattered if the item were opened. But again - I was operating outside of policy, and some employees are not prepared to deal with those realities.

  • by Leigh Duncan Wed Mar 21, 2007 via blog

    Claire, Yes, I wondered abut the common sense factor. This was especially true considering the fact that while I sat there for 20 minutes, two of their more senior staff members were milling about in discussion, ignoring the mounting line of customers in back of me. Perhaps an incident localized at this store, compounded by many factors including interpersonal attitudes. However, this illustrates an important point: it's imperative that we mentor and train employees to think from the customer's perspective and respond responsibly based on the data that is readily available - from the customer, from the evidence - from the CRM system.

  • by Elaine Fogel Wed Mar 21, 2007 via blog

    Great story example, Leigh! Don't these make excellent fodder for your training sessions? I never run short of them as there's always a fresh supply. Claire, I am touched! Thanks for your compliment.

  • by Damon Billian Wed Mar 21, 2007 via blog

    Hi Leigh, Thanks for the clarification! As someone that once worked in the retail industry for electronics, the policies are generally in place to prevent people from "renting" the items for free (you would be surprised at how many returns happened after people went on vacation for things like cameras & video cameras). However, this was obviously a simple mistake with an accessory that should have been resolved quickly. "it's imperative that we mentor and train employees to think from the customer's perspective and respond" This is probably the hardest skill to foster in employees (putting yourself in the shoes of the customer).

  • by dg price Wed Aug 1, 2007 via blog

    What if an item, under similar circumstances, was the very first item I ever bought in the store? If I were then blown off by the "dulleye" in such a dismissive eye-rolling way I would take my future PC and TV purchases elsewhere.

  • by Leigh Duncan-Durst Sat Feb 23, 2008 via blog

    Good point, DG. This happens all the time.

  • by jaya bhawnani narayanan Wed Feb 25, 2009 via blog

    thanx leigh for your gr8 post... many timez in e past, i'v come across very unhelpful customer service personnel... dis givz good insight on wat 2 do wen sumthin similar happz... :)

  • by velieseapsexy Mon Jul 13, 2009 via blog

    Hi, I used to application only google

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