This Christmas season was a challenge for every successful retailer—with success comes numerous orders, strains on staff, hardware or software outages, increased fraud, and challenges related to getting temporary staff up to speed as quickly as possible.

There are inevitable lapses in quality, late hours, and frayed nerves.  At the end of it all the hope is for reduced inventory, happy customers, and a big fat bonus check.

So, it turns out the hardest part of that equation (to absolutely nobody’s surprise) is the happy customer.  Is there a key to customer happiness that gets overlooked in the furious insanity surrounding the busy season?  I think so.  I think it’s setting and managing achievable expectations.

I remember a long time ago in the early days of ecommerce I was working with a client who not only wanted to offer overnight shipping on every customer’s order, they wanted to do it for free. They figured out how to average the cost across all orders, and since price engines weren’t quite as ubiquitous as they are today, they figured the marginal price shift would go relatively unnoticed behind the smoke of marketing.

It was an immediate and runaway hit—for about a week.  Turns out customers thought they’d get the product in 24 hours from when they’d bought it and fulfillment alone took this client at least 24 hours. That meant every customer was getting their order in two days—a full 24 hours later than they thought they would.  Expectations busted.

As a customer, I had four significant retail frustrations over the holidays, each of which was resolved differently and has left me either singing the praises of said retailer, or scratching my head trying to determine whether I need to find a new vendor.

The Christmas Card

Like most of my peers, the weeks leading up to the holidays are spent negotiating which family photo or photos will adorn the annual Christmas card we send to family and friends. Once the photo has been agreed upon, a design accepted, the cards are sent to print.

Any of you who’ve done this know that this has become a pretty simple process.  The vendor I’ve been using has a fabulous selection of card designs, great papers, and high quality printing.  Their site is well laid out, easy to use, and strongly branded.  While they don’t make a promise on when you’ll get your cards, from experience I expect it to take a little more than a week.  So I planned to have everything done to give us 3 weeks to send out all our cards.

When the cards hit the floor through our mail slot, we tore open the box expecting to start addressing cards that very evening.  The cards were beautifully printed, card stock was excellent, the photo of our girls was adorable… but wait. Who’s name is that?  Really?  They printed them with the wrong family name and greeting? How does this happen?

Since I work for an ecommerce platform and services company, I’m used to daily stories about how a client will call up and blame us for something that’s frequently something they did wrong. I long ago vowed to never be that client. I diligently went to my account on the vendor’s web site, checked my order, verified that the preview image had the correct family name on it, and promptly became annoyed.

I have zero transparency into their fulfillment or order management system, but I know just enough about on-demand printing to guess that someone threw the database out of synch.  If that’s the case, I’m not the only one who dealt with their failure this season—it probably affected a whole boat of people.

I asked very nicely for help, explaining my situation as briefly as possible and got a very quick response with an apology and a promise that a reprint had already been arranged with the right family name and they’d have them to me by the 17th.

I’m an understanding customer. I know that “stuff happens” and to me, what separates good companies from ones with whom I no longer do business is how they make it right.

In this case, while I had asked for an explanation on how it happened and not received one, an apology and offer of reprint was enough of a resolution to carry me through the holidays.  Even though they delivered my “reprints” a day late.

After the holidays I followed up with their customer service to see if I could figure out how this had happened.  If I was going to use them again, I’d want some sort of assurance that it wouldn’t and that if it did, I’d get more than a simple canned apology.

The reply from the printer was formal, and uninformative.  I was told that they’d forwarded my note of displeasure to the appropriate division and that they already have significant safeguards in place to ensure that these things don’t ever happen.

The Stolen Credit Card

Have you ever finally finished shopping having spent over an hour figuring out the perfect item(s) for your loved one only to get through the checkout line, swipe your card and have it denied? One might ascribe this kind of experience to poor planning on my part (insufficient funds) but that wasn’t the case.  I knew I had plenty of money in my account.  It was a check card. I’d just been paid.

At that point a sinking feeling starts in the pit of your stomach and the realization that someone may have emptied your bank account while you weren’t looking sets in. As it turns to panic, and you have to bite back the urge to whip out your smart phone and quickly check your account balance, you notice the line of tired and impatient customers behind you.  You calmly pull out a credit card and cross your fingers.

Pfew.   It worked.

But now I have a balance on my credit card I didn’t want to put there.

Worse things could happen, right?

As we’re completing the transaction, the cashier offhandedly mentions that this is something that happens all the time.  Apparently this department store doesn’t take any chances with potential fraud and simply rejects most out of state check cards for purchases over a certain amount.

Wait, really?  This is a customer friendly solution?

15 minutes later, my bank calls my cell phone and asks me to verify some purchases.  Apparently a retailer has indicated that a purchase using one of my cards was suspicious.  You know, for my protection.

While I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure that this policy is actually for MY protection.  In fact, after my conversation with the cashier, it feels like it’s more for the protection of the establishment.  Not that I can blame them, really.  It’s obviously solving a very real problem they must have since it’s a pretty blunt solution they’ve landed on.

The Tiny Record Store

Those of you who know me in real life know how much of a total music nerd I am. I’m a total sucker for live music and yes, I’m one of the last people on the planet who still buys physical versions of my music—preferably on vinyl.

Over the holidays I visited a very small, very specialized record store. It was one of those places that’s only open during certain hours and is in one of those parts of town you’d never go otherwise. I’d been looking forward to this trip all week since it would be my one opportunity to buy my Christmas present: a couple of (hopefully) rareish albums recorded live on site from some of my favorite musicians.

I wasn’t let down. I rang the bell for entry and my wife and I walked into one of the best examples of unique store and record label branding I can think of.  The cashier was friendly, and there were a couple of other patrons milling about in the small 3 room shop.  I set to work on the ridiculously small collection of vinyl while my wife checked out some of the other attractions.

While we were browsing, we could hear growing frustration behind us at the counter as the cashier calmly took every single card offered by a customer and kept informing him that it seemed like her credit card terminal was having problems, that it really wasn’t his card.  He kept producing more, and to her credit, she kept trying them. I can imagine it would have been far easier to lose her patience and snap at him.

This put a damper on my level of enthusiasm. If the credit card machine was non functional, did that also mean my debit card wouldn’t work?  Was it the machine, or was it the network?

Nevermind.  I threw myself back into digging through the well-organized stacks of albums.

After selecting a few singles and a couple LPs I made my way up to the counter.  It was close to closing time, so either this transaction went through or we wouldn’t be getting these albums.

The cashier looked and me and smiled sadly.  She gently apologized and said that she’d rebooted her terminal twice and can’t get it to work.  If I wanted her to try my card, she’d be happy to, but she was pretty confident it was broken. What she could do is wrap up my selection and put my name on it.  It would be held until I came back tomorrow.  She felt like it was a temporary glitch and should be resolved by the time I came back tomorrow.

I thanked her.  I asked about the price of a couple of items behind the counter, sucked up my disappointment, and we left the store empty handed.

The next day my wife showed up with my albums. They were ready and waiting as promised when she walked in the store.

The Missing Books

I have two daughters who are the most adorable creatures on the planet.  No really.  Far cuter than yours. I have proof… see, here look at these books.

I’m sure the last thing (well, maybe next to being attacked by raccoons) you want to do is spend an afternoon looking at my annual family books spanning the last 7 years of our parenthood.  Cute or not, these are artifacts that capture time that’s meaningful within a pretty small family circle.  Let’s say there are about 7 of us.  4 of us are married couples and can share our books.  That’s 5 books.  Each child gets a book created around her birth year and we have 2 girls—that’s 10 books total.  Each book is $50… well, that’s a pretty big Christmas investment from a single source.

Over the course of each year I diligently photograph major events, small misadventures, hilarity in the back yard, hikes through the woods, first steps, final days in high chairs.  Because I’m me, I shoot everything in RAW format and offload the files to an insanely organized system of folders on my hard drive where they sit until I have time to process them.

That means some time in mid November I realize that it’s been almost a year since I’ve processed photos of the girls.  My how time flies.  Jump forward 3 weeks and you’ll find a red-eyed exhausted version of me swearing off the prospect of seeing another RAW image again in his life.

Each event results in anywhere between 50 and 500 individual shots.  First I do a quick content edit that takes me somewhere around 20-30 minutes that whittles the selection with an average of 1 in 10 shots making the cut.

Then I find groups of images taken under the same lighting situation, select one, process it, and copy those settings to the other ones in the group.  From there I open each file and process it as though it were being printed and hung on the wall.  That means burning, dodging, adjusting horizon, removing chromatic aberrations, color balancing, compressing (or expanding) the dynamic range, and applying the right amount of sharpening to compensate for the softness typically introduced in the offset printing process. I then save out a jpeg for iPhoto and move to the next image.  Each event takes around an additional hour plus to process.

All in, I estimate that it took me 30-40 hours to create the first edit of photos from this year.

From here, I open up my book making software and go to work.  I used a pretty simple system this year… from each event I took at least one photo, usually I did a spread of two.  I went for quality rather than quantity this year… I used exclusively full-page mostly full-bleed images.  I limited myself to 80 pages.  Limits help drive faster decisions which is critical when these things have to get out the door.

After a few more sleepless nights of arranging and re-arranging and haggling over image selection with my wife my books were done.  Oh, and look!  There’s a coupon!  Awesome.  Yes!  I will pay the extra money to guarantee that these books will be in my hands before I leave for the holidays.  Make my books!

Confirmation received.   Awesome.  On to the next thing.

I used to use a different company for my bookmaking.  I’ve been at it for around 10 years.  Actually, this is my 4th vendor.  The first two had issues with black and white images (which I shoot a lot of) that I found unacceptable.  I was very happy with a company for many years until I started getting sad emails from my mother informing me that the binding on my books had started to fall apart. I had also been using them for professional lookBooks as part of our marketing at Virid and been disappointed with the quality of printing I’d been getting from them recently.  So I found someone new and this company had been stellar every single time I used them.

Well, except the last time, though I told myself it really wasn’t their fault.  At the last minute I asked them to change the address of a shipment so it would end up at a tradeshow for my sales team while they were there rather than double ship it.  For some reason the address got screwed up and it ended up at the event a day later than expected and the front desk never delivered it to my team. Enough blame to pass around.

Nothing prepared me for what happened though.  A few days before I was leaving for my trip, I got my ship confirmation. I looked up the shipment on the shipper’s web site and it was listed as arriving sometime the day I left for my trip.

Ummmmm.  No.

I paid extra for it to be delivered the day BEFORE I left.  I still had to break open the box and ship out my books to everyone so they’d be under the tree for the holiday.

I immediately got in touch with customer service who apologized up and down and seemed genuinely at a loss as to why they’d been shipped out late and at a slower rate than required to get my order to me on the promised date.  She proactively got in touch with the shipper and gave me great news.  Apparently she’d been able to have the books held at an office near me where I could go pick them up the morning I was supposed to leave.  They promised they’d be ready by 9 am.

I delayed by departure and drove the 40 minutes out to the office.  I showed up at 9.  They apologized profusely when I got there, yes there was a hold on the shipment but it hadn’t even been logged at the facility yet.  They didn’t have my package.

I left feeling completely dejected, feeling like I let down a significant portion of my family, angry with the bookmaker, and getting the creeping feeling that these holidays weren’t going to be quite so good after all.

We spent a week away and upon returning home, we discovered that the box had been sent back to the bookmaker (no surprise there) and that we’d be waiting an extra long time more for our books to arrive.

I sent a note to the bookmaker who was extremely apologetic, knocked a hefty percentage off my order cost, and told me she’d get the order back out to me using “the fastest shipping possible” the minute it got to their offices.  I should expect my books to be in my hands the following Monday.

I tracked the books back to the maker and waited.  And waited.  After 2 days I got back in touch.  I was informed that the person who had been handling my account would no longer be doing so.  I was curtly told that they’d send my books back to me that day.  Which they did—using 2-day delivery rather than overnight.

Broken Promises

Like I said earlier, “stuff happens.” What separates good companies from ones I no longer do business with is how you handle the “stuff.”

The card company started off strong.  They apologized and reprinted my order no questions asked.  They shipped it to me overnight, and while they promised it would be to me a day earlier than it was, it was obvious they were working at capacity and really couldn’t do much more than they were.

Things fell apart after that though.  The last time I heard from them was 2 weeks ago, and I really don’t expect anything more in terms of an explanation or refund.

They set the expectation that I would get my cards right and on time.  They weren’t right.  They set the expectation that the reprint would get to me when they promised.  It was late.  I gave them an extra opportunity to make it right (a discount, a coupon, something along with an explanation on how it happened the first time) but was rebuffed.

The department store either has a policy in place that rejects debit cards under certain circumstances or it doesn’t. Either way, the cashier told me that it does, so that’s what I have to go on as a consumer. The cashier was nice, but my overall experience with the retailer wasn’t.  I’m left feeling like I shouldn’t ever shop this retailer outside my home zip code. Which is ridiculous.

When I go to a store and you tell me that you accept check cards as a form of payment, I don’t expect that you will choose to honor that only when you’re comfortable with the transaction.  Busted expectations.

The small record store wouldn’t let me buy my selection when I wanted to.  But they were clear why, apologetic, and set an expectation that they could meet—come back tomorrow and we’ll check you out.  While they had an initial problem, they set a new expectation that wasn’t optimal… but was honest.  It was also clear that the issue was a 3rd party problem.  Even though it was never stated.

The bookmaker?  Where do I start? I expected that my books would be in my hands on time—especially since I paid extra for it to happen.  I expected that I’d be able to pick up my books at the shipper’s offices.  I’d expected that when the books got back to their offices that they’d be overnighted back to me. Absolutely none of these things happened.

While the bookmaker was the most generous with their partial refund, they refused to explain why or how any of this happened and their final communications with me left me feeling like the only thing they care about is putting this horrible experience behind them.

The Ramifications

I will likely never use the card company again.  There are simply too many of them out there with decent products, many who charge far less for the same product.  I don’t feel like they really care about me as a customer, I feel like they care about keeping me from complaining.  There’s a big difference.  And in the world of ubiquitous and instantaneous communication via social networks, damage control often takes precedence over actually caring

I will only ever shop at the department store when I’m near home and I can’t go anywhere else for the same things.  I was never a big fan to begin with, and this kind of thing makes me feel like they only care about money—certainly not me.  So, no, you don’t get my money.

The record store?  I love that place.  I may have been disappointed, but I know it won’t happen again, and if for some bizarre reason something did, I know they’d do their best to make it right.  They keep their promises—as minor and disappointing as they may initially be.

The bookmaker?  This is where things get complicated.  I have a long track record with this company of great success.  I’ve experienced the competitive landscape and found most of them technically lacking.  There are new players in the field and none of them come close to the features or likely the quality of the product I get from this company.  They broke more promises than anyone else here, though they did it with grand gestures, apologies, and (I believe) good intentions.

I think I’ll use them again.  But they have two strikes.  They only get three.

Lessons Learned

Yes, this is a very lengthy posting leading to a very simple synopsis. If you’re going to make a promise you better follow up on it.  And if you can’t, you must be clear on why you can’t and how you’re going to fix it.  If “stuff” happens, you MUST come through on the fix.  No excuses.

Is it that simple?  No, nothing ever is. As I’ve indicated above, I’m an outlier on even my own lesson.  A follow up on this synopsis should remind that every retailer that customers view their relationship with you on a personal level and as a real relationship. If it’s sporadic and impersonal, they’ll drop you in a heartbeat at the first sign of trouble.  If it’s got a long history of great times, amazing experiences, and you’ve done a great job of developing an ecosystem of products, services and brand that the customer has bought into, you may just earn your forgiveness in advance.

Or at least the opportunity to keep trying.