Wednesday, April 01, 2009

What do Facets and L.L. Bean Have in Common?

I love Facets. Having lived in Northern Illinois for 10 years, I can't imagine what would induce anyone to want to live in Chicago, except maybe Facets.

So I was thrilled that they started offering a Netflix like rental membership via mail. The market advantage? Facets has hundreds of rare, OOP VHS films that members can rent via mail with a membership.

Now the catch is that you do have to pay the shipping on VHS rentals (not on DVDs) and there is a $200 claim against a lost or damaged OOP VHS film, so treat those rentals like the valuable commodity they are.

If I were President Obama, here would be my stimulus plan. Give everyone a free Facets membership. They'll end up spending money on shipping because its so darn tantalizing to finally be able to see Red Desert, or Greed, or The Bitter Tea of General Yen, or This Happy Breed. Yesterday in the mail I got Joseph Losey's The Go-Between.

Aside from just making you all mad with envy and my cinephelic bliss, I post this for another reason. Facets is having some growing pains going from essentially a store to a by mail rental service. Those of you who have read this blog before know I love to rag on companies with poor customer service (I'm looking at you Blockbuster) or deceptive practices (I'm looking at you Time Warner Cable). So it was stunning and refreshing to send an e-mail complaint about problems I was having with my Facets membership and get...gasp...a response. Not only was my problem corrected, but I was given a small bonus for having to put up with them getting the kinks out.

This would be as good a time as any to review some principles for approaching customer service issues to maximize your possible results:

1) Keep a record of who you contacted and when. Letters and calls that say, "I've called three times and and spoken to x, y, and z" tend to get more attention than "I've been getting the run around!"

2) Know who you are speaking to and what they are authorized to do. There is no sense arguing with someone who is only paid to record information. Ask to speak to a supervisor if you are not satisfied with the response. All they can do is say "no."

3) Know what you want. This would seem self evident but it isn't. By the time most people get around to calling customer service, there is a problem and they just want to vent or complain. Before you dial (or boot up e-mail), ask yourself what you want out of the exchange? A refund? A credit? An upgrade? A change of practice? An apology? Too often we approach a business with a complaint and expect them to guess what we want or just start lobbing things in our direction. Chances are, though, they are going to peg you pretty early in an exchange as a potential customer who can be kept or a complainer who wants to vent. The company's purpose in dealing with the former is to win you back. With the latter it is to finish the transaction as quickly as possible and move on.

4) Compensation is better than vengeance. It may be emotionally satisfying to say "I want whoever helped me fired..." but, hey, that's probably not going to happen. There is time and money invested in advertising, hiring, and training, even for call centers, temps, or customer service. Good managers really take a cost assessment approach to customer service, and part of that is making concrete what something is going to cost (in terms of money or time) to fix. Uncertain costs scare us as consumers, but they scare managers as well. If a delivery person shows up late, you are much more likely to get a manager to waive the delivery fee than to fire the delivery person or agree to pay lost wages or your baby sitter. The former is a fixed cost, the latter tend to be expenses that they may not know what they are agreeing to.

5) If someone gives you good customer service, go back there. I recently returned a backpack with a lifetime guarantee to LL Bean. They replaced it at no charge. Some stuff at Bean costs a little more, but I go back because I want to reward companies that give good service not just punish those that don't.

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