Subway Misses the Mark on a Customer Relationship Opportunity

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Last week I got an email from a reader who wanted to share an experience she had with Subway restaurants. What started out as a positive experience turned into a negative one, and Subway really missed the mark on two fronts: customer service and involving customers in the decision-making process.

Last week I got an email from a reader who wanted to share an experience she had with Subway restaurants. Unfortunately what started out as a positive experience turned into a negative one, and Subway really missed the mark on two fronts: customer service and involving customers in the decision-making process.Kathy Garcia, a fan of Subway's tuna subs, sent an email to the Subway website to share how much she loves the sandwich, and suggested the company return it to the famed $5 menu. She expected nothing more than a "thanks for your email and suggestion" reply. However, the response she received from a Subway customer service rep left a bad taste in her mouth.

"Thank you for taking the time to contact us," the email says. "I appreciate the fact that you took the time and effort to share your insights and comments with us."

So far, so good. Until...

"The Research & Development team at SUBWAYR headquarters is always researching and introducing new products, as well as looking to improve the products presently offered. Unfortunately, it is our policy not to accept outside suggestions regarding products. This policy is in place as we must consider various factors, such as contracts with outside manufacturers, nutritional content, availability and cost, before considering a product change or addition.

Some products are only available for a limited time, some are available only at participating locations; while others are permanent items on our national menu. In any of these cases, only products approved by the SUBWAYR R & D Department may be offered for sale in SUBWAYR Restaurants."

Ouch. What was supposed to be a warm reception to a customer's inquiry turned into a "thanks but no thanks" response. And Garcia changed her mind from a Subway promoter to a detractor as a result.

"The least she could have done was thank me for the suggestion and made no promises," Garcia says. "I am still bummed as we were 2-3 times a week patrons until then." She adds that she forwarded the message to the president's office, but has yet to hear a reply. Also not a good sign.

This response represents two missteps on Subway's part:

  1. Over-communication by the customer service rep, which hurt the relationship. We at 1to1 Media usually advocate for empowered employees, especially in the customer service area. Instead of focusing on scripts or canned answers, in most cases a personal connection and the ability to solve a customer's problem should come before strict adherence to a script. However in this case, it seems that the agent took too much liberty and over-communicated Subway's position back to the customer.
  2. A lack of process for customer suggestions and input into the R&D organization. As consumers gain more control over their relationships with brands and companies, they expect to have a voice in the process. Subway's strategy (at least their assumed strategy from the email) is that R&D knows what's best, and the customer should be happy with that.

What surprises me most about that part of the email is that Subway's brand was pretty much built on customer and partner ideas. Everyone knows about "Jared," who 10 years ago lost 240 pounds by eating Subway sandwiches and exercising. An article in his college newspaper grabbed the attention of Subway officials, and the company launched its whole brand strategy around him, which is still in use to this day. And as mentioned earlier, the company's successful "$5 foot long" promotion was started by a Miami franchisee. Corporate saw potential success and ran with it.

Now I'm a Subway fan myself, and I even have some relatives and friends who work in the company's Milford, CT headquarters. So I approached the communications department for Subway's side of the story, mentioning that I planned to blog about it and wanted a balanced story. It's been a week and no reply from Subway. Which leads me to believe that the company's overall communication strategy needs some freshening up.

As the old saying goes, you're only as good as your last customer interaction. It only takes one bad experience to lose a customer. And Kathy Garcia is one less Subway fan. Subway, take note. Customer service is your face to the customer, and customers want to be involved in the company's evolution. Consider them as a strategic asset, or they won't consider you at all.

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