Here’s a Yuletide tale to chill the hearts of brand managers everywhere:
One of the things I am most thankful for this year, is the gift of a new friend. Joanne came into my life when I was new to town, overwhelmed with trying to recreate a whole new support system – from doctors to hairdressers – and missing my long-time buds back in Boston. She is generous to a fault, and has a remarkable knack for calling just when I need somebody to talk to. The first time she and her husband got together with me and mine, she took us to a wonderful little chocolate shop in Soho called Marie Belle, where we had the most extraordinary hot chocolate.
To thank her for her many kindnesses this year, I wanted to get her a can of that very special cocoa. I work in midtown Manhattan; the shop is downtown — about 50 blocks away. So I hopped a subway after work last night, lugging my laptop and all my gear –notes, tape recorder, etc. — for working at home, in preparation for a long-anticipated transit strike in the morning. I got to the shop at – literally – 7:02, only to discover that the store had closed at 7 p.m. There were still 4 or 5 clerks milling about inside.
I banged on the door to no avail. I rang the bell, and got a shopkeeper who told me to come back tomorrow. I pled my case, pointing out that if the subways stop running, and I live and work uptown, I wouldn’t be able to get back. I noted that it was the Monday before Christmas, and this was a gift for a special friend. Her response: tough nuts. The registers were closed. I would have been happy to pay cash, if only they’d slip a can of cocoa out the door. Ring it up tomorrow. Don’t bother with a bag. No dice. I tried pressing my nose against the glass, looking pathetic enough to melt their frozen hearts. Scrooge couldn’t have been less sympathetic.
Here’s the question: When it comes to customer service, where should companies draw the line? I’m not one of those people who thinks the customer is always right. Customers who try to return once-worn party dresses with sweat-stained armpits to Nordstrom’s should be turned away. And I was appalled at Oprah’s diva demands at Hermes in Paris, particularly when she tried to cast her exclusion from the store as racism. But I also know that if someone had tried to help me last night, I would have been a customer for life.
Marie Belle does many things right. It has wonderful packaging, a superior product, a lovely shop. But all that investment is for naught if a devoted customer who has made an extraordinary effort to buy the product is turned away at the door.
As it stands, I’ll grudgingly buy the company’s hot chocolate for my friend if and when the transit workers ever return to work, but I’ll henceforth take my other chocolate needs elsewhere. As an astute passerby, sensing my frustration, suggested, “Try Vosges or Jacques Torres around the corner.”