As I was writing an article for 1to1 Magazine--a piece about sales strategies that make price irrelevant--writer's block struck. The source of my difficulty derived from a nagging customer service issue; nothing major, but one of those sort of surprising service experiences: "Hmmm, I really didn't expect this company to behave that way..."
Happily, the moment I eventually got off the phone with the company's customer service representative, one of the most colorful comments from a source I spoke to during my article research echoed happily in my now-unblocked mind.
Here's what the source, a sales executive for a software company, said to me during our interview:
"I've always said that the relationship is paramount to price, especially in technology. At the end of the day technology will invariably mess up. There will be a time when somebody forgets to check a box, the server goes down, or something else goes awry.... If the quality of your relationship with that client is excellent, the client will chalk up that mistake to, '[Stuff] happens. Frank is a standup guy at a standup company, and we will live to fight another day.' That mess up may weigh on the client for a month or more, but they will stand by you because of the quality of your character."
Frank was absolutely right. Consider the source of my writers block: A week ago I placed my first order with Zappos.com, a company I had written about several times in the past five years due to the strength of their customer service. The online sneaker order qualified as a major milestone for me. I take my footwear investment very, very seriously.
As an active cheapskate who works at home, my kicks are paramount to my sense of well-being. I buy one pair of sneakers every 8 to 12 months and live in them. I work in them, parent in them, jog in them, mountain bike in them, wade creeks in them, wear them on dates with my lucky (i.e., long-suffering) wife, and crush the other neighborhood dads at poker in them. I truly wear the heck out of them.
Given their value to me, I've always purchased my one pair of sneakers from a brick-and-mortar retail store. Since I'm going to battle with these bad boys, I need to be absolutely certain the fit and feel is exactly right and that they are onboard with the punishment I plan to expose them to.
Recently, though, I found a brand and a model that I trust completely. So, rather than going brick-and-mortar shopping--a time-sucking, icky activity that pains me so much that I've managed to shop for everything save food, beer, and sneaks online--I clicked to Zappos.com. There, I quickly and easily found my kicks and placed an order. As I've grown accustomed to (being a loyal Amazon Prime member), my email dinged in receipt of an order confirmation the nanosecond I completed my order.
The automated response didn't contain an order number, which wrinkled by brow for a moment. Never mind, I thought, they'll follow quickly with a shipping ETA.
But they didn't. Not that day, nor the next day, nor the day after that.
I registered this only briefly each day. After all, it was Zappos. This was the company whose leading customer services practices I had written about. This was the company whose CEO has been on a globe-trotting tour touting a book he wrote about Delivering Happiness to customers, employees, and other stakeholders.
When I did think more deeply about my sneakers, I concluded that maybe Zappos had streamlined the communications process in some innovative way I could not yet comprehend. Either way, I trusted that the sneakers would be at my front door the next day.
A busy workday followed by a fun weekend took my mind off the sneakers. Then Monday came, and still no sneakers. I resolved to follow up on Tuesday, but didn't get to it.
Finally, on Thursday, that nagging sense started thumping, distracting me just as I was trying to complete the assignment on sales techniques. So, seven days after placing my order I called Zappos.com--from the conveniently listed phone number.
After a six-minute wait (yes, as someone who writes about customer experience I reflexively track and scrutinize every aspect of my own experiences), Mary greeted me happily and asked how she could help. I explained that I had not heard from Zappos since placing my order. "Oh, my," Mary responded, "I apologize." And she sounded genuinely sorry, which is quite disarming.
Mary asked for my order number, which I had never received. Ah-ha, she explained, there had been some problems with a warehouse system upgrade and order numbers had not been emailed to customers as they should be. She found my account via my phone number and let me know that my sneakers would arrive the next day, or possibly even today. Mary also explained how the process normally works (I should have received my Nikes in four to five days), briefly recounted the cause for the communications breakdown, and apologized once more.
I thanked Mary and we parted with mutual happiness. As Frank said, stuff happens. Not only do relationships trump price, they also trump warehouse systems snafus, and other mess-ups.
What is particularly cool for Zappos, I think, is that my relationship with the company developed before I became a customer or even a prospect. Its reputation gave the company the leeway to make a mistake, and let them enter into a new customer relationship on the right foot.
A belated, but happy ending:
I'm wearing my new Nikes, which (uh....) just arrived today, not last week as I was told. Still, a happy ending as I received a $30 discount for the delay.
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