Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A Tale of Two (Well, Three) Customer Experiences: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Erica Marois

Two years ago, after an 18-month stint as Connecticut residents, my husband and I boxed up our belongings and made the journey back down south, landing in Richmond, VA. Unlike our move to Connecticut, we hit the road with significantly fewer belongings. If you’ve ever lived in New England, you might be able to guess why. The cost of living is high, and the closet space in the beautiful historic buildings tends to be rather sparse.

Fast-forward a year, and we were ready to move into our newly built home in Virginia. There was just one problem; because we downsized in Connecticut, we suddenly found ourselves in need a ton of new furniture to fill up the bigger space. Now, as much as I love to watch HGTV and daydream about decorating, I’ve never particularly enjoyed shopping for furniture. Mainly, for two reasons. One: furniture is expensive! Two: I’ve had so many bad experiences buying furniture over the years--from poor quality to poor service to nightmare deliveries and high-pressure sales staff. To me, furniture shopping is about as enjoyable as car shopping.

Alas, we needed a new sectional and new bedroom set, so we set out on a quest to find the perfect pieces for our new home. Did we get what we needed? Ultimately, yes. But the journey there was complex. We encountered a tale of two, then three, customer experiences. Whether you work in retail or not, the stark contrasts between these stores offer a few lessons worth gleaning.

A Tale of Two (and Then Three) Customer Experiences

Several months ago, motivated by a closet organization spree, my husband and I set out to find a new set of dressers for our bedroom. The set we had was just too small. Remembering a browsing excursion we’d taken a few weeks earlier, I suggested we head to Haverty’s to check out their options. The last time we’d gone there, I thought their selection was impressive, and the store was nice and clean.

When we walked through the door, a kind gentleman named Bert greeted us. He asked us what we were looking for, pointed us in the right direction, and let us loose to browse without interruption. Pretty quickly, we found a set we both loved, and Bert helped us place the order. He explained the payment options in detail, went over warranties, and made friendly conversation while we waited for some of the back office folks to complete their paperwork. It was a pleasant and no-hassle interaction, which I appreciated. To make it even better, Bert let us know that we could have the set delivered to our home just two days later, and we would receive SMS updates on the day of delivery, including a custom link we could use to track the delivery drivers in real-time to find out exactly when they’d be arriving. Furniture stores are notoriously bad about giving you vague delivery windows, so this shocked me. I’ve spent many a day waiting for deliveries that never showed up at the promised time. I was cautiously optimistic that this would be different.

Luckily, it was. The day before our delivery, I received a text letting me know that our furniture would arrive between 4:00 & 6:00 the next day. As promised, I got access to a link I could use to track the delivery team on their route--I could see that they had nine deliveries scheduled ahead of ours, and I could even see the other zip codes in which they’d be making stops.

At 3:00 on delivery day, I got a text letting me know that the drivers encountered a delay at the stop before ours, so it looked like our delivery would be closer to 6:00 than 4:00. I appreciated the proactive update! By 6:30, everything was in its place and drivers were on their way.

All in all, we couldn’t have been more pleased. Not only do we love the new furniture, but we appreciated how easy and transparent the entire process was. And as a pleasant surprise, we received an email from Bert a few months later--he wanted to check in and make sure we were still enjoying our furniture.  Ironically enough, that email came just as we were dealing with a very different experience involving one of Haverty’s local competitors.

Customer-Centricity at the Competition? More Like Customer-Chaos

Four or five months after we bought our bedroom furniture, we realized new living room furniture was the next priority. With family coming to visit for the holidays, we wanted more seating. While I loved the experience at Haverty’s, they didn’t have the size sectional I wanted at I price that I could stomach, so I was open to looking elsewhere for a good bargain on an oversized sectional. After being lured by some convincing TV ads, we stopped by a local chain to see if their holiday deals were as enticing as advertising.

After “winning” 20% off our purchase at their one-day sale event, we decided to go ahead and buy a gloriously soft, cozy, and spacious sectional. While they didn’t currently have the one we wanted in stock, our salesperson assured us that they were expecting one to arrive any day, and said he thought we could have it delivered within the next week.

A week passed. We didn’t receive a phone call. I finally decided to call the store after Christmas to see if I could get an ETA on delivery. The customer service representative let me know that our sectional had arrived over the holidays and she went ahead and set up a delivery time for four days later. I was excited!

Fast forward to the day before delivery. My phone rings, and I see it’s the furniture store. I’m expecting that they’re calling to give me my delivery window, but instead, they called to tell me that they discovered our sectional was damaged, so they needed to reorder and reschedule our delivery. At this point, I was starting to get annoyed, but I also appreciated that they didn’t send us a defective product. Unfortunately, from here, things just spiraled more and more out of control. I never got a call back to give me an update. After another week of no word from our salesperson, I called the store again, and this time a manager told me they wouldn’t have another sectional in for at least six weeks. She did offer to refund the delivery fee, so I decided to wait it out.

Six weeks, then seven weeks later, we never heard from anyone at the store. We called three times, and could never get a straight answer. Each person we talked to tried to pass the buck to someone else. Finally, one of the managers told me they had no idea if or when our furniture would arrive. After a visit to the store, and a few more frustrating phone calls, we finally canceled our purchase and got a refund. To me, the most frustrating part of the ordeal was the lack of proactive communication, or really any communication at all. And ironically, this company is now running an aggressive TV ad campaign touting its focus on customer experience.

Rooms to Go for the Steal

The weekend after we got our refund on the sectional that never arrived, we decided to stop by Rooms to Go, just to browse. I’ll be honest, I had a few mediocre experiences with them in the past, so my expectations were low. Much to my delight, the shopping experience was low-pressure, pleasant, and incredibly easy. As soon as we walked in, a friendly salesperson named L.T. greeted us, explained their current sales, and then left us alone to browse. My husband and I were debating between two sets, and we asked for his opinion. He offered up his thoughts, and we got to chatting for a bit. When we were ready to check out, he used his iPad to tell us exactly when he could get the new sectional to our home. Much to our delight, he said us we’d have it within 48 hours. And guess what? We did! The delivery team was incredibly courteous and professional, and we love our new furniture.

The icing on the cake? Two weeks later, we received this note from L.T. in the mail.

Bringing It All Together

I didn’t write this post to vent or shame (in fact, that’s why I never revealed the name of the second store). Instead, I hope this real-life example serves to illustrate that customer experience really does trump price; and if you’re going to market your products on the basis of customer experience, you better be able to back it up. Like it or not, the experience that other brands deliver impacts the expectations that customers have for your company. What can you do you to make sure you don’t fall short? What could furniture store number two have done to deliver better service?

Here are two quick tips:
  1. Keep your promises! If you can’t, be transparent about why, and offer an alternative. I’m not an unreasonable person. I understand that things go wrong--and sometimes it’s nobody’s fault. However, as service professionals, we have to be creative problem-solvers. Furniture store number two could have found a way to keep their promise: they could have offered to give us the floor model (which they clearly had in stock) at a discount. They could have offered to have us pick another sectional that they knew they could deliver within a reasonable timeframe. Rather than trying to work out another solution, they chose to ignore that there was even a problem in the first place.
  2. Communicate proactively! Don’t make your customers reach out to you for updates. This one seems like a no-brainer, but plenty of brands still struggle to do this effectively. The good news? You don’t necessarily need any fancy or expensive software to keep customers in the loop. Free email marketing services like Mail Chimp are an excellent solution for small businesses or budget-strapped teams. Setup automated emails to let customers know what’s going on with their order, what to expect next, or how to reach out with a question/issue. Or, utilize simple calendar reminders. Have a customer order that’s set to go out next week, but you don’t yet have an ETA? Setup a reminder to take the 5 minutes to check for an update and provide the customer with more information before that week is over.
What advice would you add to the mix? How would you have handled things differently? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments! For more insights on meeting customer expectations, check out this useful advice from Brad Cleveland.

Erica is the Content Manager at ICMI, an Informa PLC company that helps business elevate the customer experience through training, events, consulting and information resources. A passionate connector of people, Erica is a customer and employee experience enthusiast who loves helping others find unique solutions to their biggest challenges. Outside of her day job, she's also a community organizer for CX Accelerator.

You can connect with her on
Twitter and join her on Tuesdays at 1:00 ET for #ICMIchat.


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