Last year at dConstruct in Brighton, Kelly Goto (in a rather rushed, though charming, presentation) mentioned that we were reaching a point where user experiences were now, generally speaking, easy-enough to use. Not brilliant in most cases, but at a sufficient baseline that it was hard to find atrocious examples of user experience.
Perhaps in North America. I recently went to Canada for the first time in many years and was instantly reminded on my first night there with Deb and Naomi, that the tipping-culture of the colonies is such that customer service is just consistently better. The simple motivating economics of working for tips begets a better experience. Here, not so much.[Be warned, what follows is a definite White Whine/First World Problem].
Stovax for example. I’ll try and keep this short. 2 Years ago we had a wood burning stove installed. I bought it online to save money, I had it installed by a local company. I think it now needs a service. I think this because I’m risk-averse and conscious that there are things like CO2 that can leak (possibly fatally) if not checked.
So, I start the process of trying to get it serviced. I start with the manufacturer, using their site to locate authorised resellers and service agents in my area. That was painless, their site allows me to see those offering service too, so I don’t need to bother retail-only outlets. But then it unravels. Each shop I emailed said they wouldn’t do it. Nobody would come out for a small fee to make a potential future customer happy. It begs the question why they would even say they were service agents. I got short shrift from all of them:
Galleon Fireplaces in Surbiton (Stovax’s preferred retailer) – Would not service a stove, despite it being less than 2 miles from their store, as it was not purchased from them. But they never responded to my email asking, I had to call in to be told, bluntly. In fact in all the dealings I’ve ever had with them to buy accessories they’ve been incredibly surly and rude on the phone and in-store.
EcoFires in Fleet – Despite selling us the stove, and despite several emails, Peter Hillier and Phillip Edwards never responded to my enquiry at all.
The Original Grate Expectations – Did respond by email but would not service a stove they didn’t install [despite me being told by Stovax they would].
The Fireplace Shop, Guildford – Neither Max nor anyone at the shop ever responded to my email
Croydon Mechanical & Electrical Service – Never responded to my email.
Cast Iron Fireplace Company – Listed on HETAS as a service agent for stoves yet Maureen was quick to respond to me to say “we do not carry out any servicing”, when I pointed out that they’re listed as such, she passed the buck and said it was not their site and they’d simple ‘suggest they change their wording’.
Kindle Stoves – Teddington, Did respond and Clare actually explained why they wouldn’t take on a small job like that during their peak installation season, providing some financial justification and pointing me at a possible solution.
By this point I was exasperated and chased it up with Stovax pointing out that its dealer network was failing customers. And yet again, it’s just a poor generic response.
It took 
17 days to respond to my email and when they did they simply said they don’t service (I wasn’t asking them to), then saying their dealers do (well, they say they do but they don’t). It took another 12 days after I replied that they said [paraphrased] ‘not our problem, blame the retailers’ and in doing so were entirely not bothered that I was unhappy and that their product was unusable. Instead they just blindly pointed me at more retailers that I’d have to ring/email. They passed the buck and instead acted as a reluctant and largely unhelpful directory service. In the end it was nearly a month after my original website enquiry that the chain of emails with Stovax Customer enquiries ended without a single apology for the delay in responding, the poor service from the dealer network they rely on or an acknowledgement that their emails had all the human tone of an automaton. Their website still suggests the same retailers. And this from a company that paid one of their directors nearly £500k in 2010.
Email customer service has allowed the agents to filter and respond in their own time, to not have to listen to a frustrated customer and to hide behind anonymity and stock responses.
What I just don’t get is that it’s not hard:
1. Respond quickly – email isn’t an excuse to sit on a problem until you can be bothered to get round to it, if you don’t have the time, employ more staff, change your working practises, don’t make the customer bear the burden.
2. Be personal – stock responses feel horribly generic. Named customer service representatives are much much better, it helps customers feel they they are being treated as a human being.
3. Always, always offer a solution – Several of the emails from the retailers and the manufacturer basically just stated the situation ‘we can’t help’ missing the irony that this itself is not helpful. Even if you can’t help, try to offer a solution where somebody else can so that the customer can at least associate you with some goodwill.
This stuff seems so obvious, common courtesy, manners even. Sadly, to suggest we’ve reached a baseline of good experience in the face of evidence like this is naive in my opinion. Small British business like those above you would think would be chasing every customer tail going in a time of financial prudence. Instead they’re sitting-on and mismanaging communications with potential new sources of revenue. They’re now in a situation where their reputation for at least one customer is permanently online, searchable and on-record as a bad one.
I’ve never had a strong urge to run a small business but I’d like to think that, if I did, I’d at least manage the customer experience from sale to service a damn site better than most of this lot.
UPDATE 17:57 25/Jan: Credit where it’s due, I have heard already this afternoon from Alun Williams at HETAS (industry regulator) and Stovax both of whom have be conciliatory and, in the case of the latter, are investigating.