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Is Customer Service Scaleable?

Here's a tale of two customer service experiences. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Let's start with the bad.

More than a month ago, my 6-month-old refrigerator (purchased from Sears) broke. Since it was still under warantee, I called Sears customer service to get someone out to fix it. Two weeks later, a service guy shows up and says he doesn't have the right part for the repair. Guess when the next available appointment was? Three weeks later.

Advised by a friend to take to "the Twitters," I sent a Tweet into the universe on how badly Sears sucks. I was surprised to see that @searscares responded to me within minutes, and called me within the hour to give me my own dedicated customer service rep to usher me through the painful process of getting a refrigerator repair.

My case manager, Roy, was amazing. He should get a raise. Well-versed in talking people off of ledges, Roy seemed to make everything right by promising me a new, better refrigerator, to be delivered in two weeks.

That's where automation took over and ruined the love-fest.

I received daily (if not twice daily) phone calls telling me that a refrigerator was coming (but not when). When I called back and slammed the "0" button until I got a live person, they had no idea why I was getting phone-spammed. And now that my refrigerator has arrived, I now recieve phone calls multiple times per day asking me to take an automated 10-question customer service survey (with no way to opt out). I am not taking the survey just to see how long this charade continues.

To contrast this experience quite starkly, I ordered a ring last night from Gemvara, a Boston-based custom jewelry website. (Full disclosure, I know someone who works here, but ordered the ring regardless of this fact.) When I saw that the ring (a birthday gift) was going to arrive after the actual birthday, I called the customer service line (at 9:30 pm on a Sunday). Not only did I get a live person, but she was sympathetic to my situation and expedited the delivery time by two weeks. She was also very personable and we chatted about the piece I chose. #Customerservicewarmfuzzies!

These two experiences got me thinking. I was frustrated that a big box store had cut corners with automated services after attempting to give me a personalized experience. Does that mean personalization just doesn't scale? Consider the potentially thousands of customers that are disgruntled with Sears worldwide, every day. Say they feasibly give anyone who complains on Twitter a dedicated case manager (expensive!) But then squander that regained trust by automating the crap out of the relationship, until it's ruined again. What a shame.

Here's the deal: the consumer is paralyzed by options. One bad experience can fend someone off for life. The tradeoff for burning a bridge is high, especially when you're dealing with big-ticket items, like a kitchen full of appliances. Or a loudmouth like me. So why even waste money on personalization if you don't go all the way?

Let's hope the more personalized approach that Gemvara takes is built to last, even as they scale. What do you think? Anyone had a more positive experience with a large retailer? Do you think personalized customer service is scaleable?



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  • Steve Curtin

    I had a great experience with Amazon's customer support team last year. Although Amazon works hard to leverage technology by offering cost-effective on-line chat support versus publicizing an 800 number to access more expensive telephone reps, I found it to be pretty painless. Even though my problem was not completed solved via on-line chat, I was given the option to be phoned directly by an Amazon rep. I input my number and was called within minutes and my problem was then completely resolved.
    My hunch is that: Amazon doesn't make a lot of mistakes to begin with. (I've been ordering from Amazon regularly since its inception and have experienced two problems that I can recall.); When there is an issue, it's completely resolved via on-line chat; and the balance of issues are addressed/resolved over the phone or perhaps via USPS if the customer is so inclined.
    While my personal preference would be to call an 800 and speak with a friendly person (e.g., L.L. Bean), I understand the economics of Amazon's decision to strike a balance.
    Steve Curtin

  • Sears Cares

    Dear Ms. Orthmann,
    I am so sorry to hear that you are being plagued by calls after the delivery of your refrigerator.  The situation you’ve detailed is out of the norm and certainly not acceptable for any of our customers.  I will be forwarding this information to your case manager Roy so that we can get these automated calls stopped for you.  Thank you for the opportunity to help and again, I apologize for all the inconvenience.
    Thank you, Laura D.Social Media ModeratorSears Social Media Support