We’ve been getting great feedback on The Answer Guy’s Customer Service Wall of Shame. And in a globally-driven, social networking-centric world, customer service looks more and more like the best way to make your business stand out.

But what happens when nobody can agree on what customer service is?

Remember the example of Constant Contact? When I decided to leave them, Constant Contact kicked into customer service mode by making an offer that I found insulting. But then a highly-placed Constant Contact employee reached out and did something simple that felt good: he asked what would have made me happy.

Of course, you remember the example of Customer Service at Nissan of Manhattan; they stole from me and called it customer service.

One example of bad turned better, another of bad turned worse. A couple of days ago I experienced customer service that just . . . confused everyone.

I was in the ShopRite supermarket in Fair Lawn NJ. In the Deli department I came across a basket containing literally a pile of fresh mozzarella cheese, packaged, as fresh mozzarella often is, in approximately one-pound balls wrapped in plastic wrap. The wrappers all read clearly “Biazzo Fresh Mozzarella”. Immediately above the basket was a sign proclaiming a special price on Biazzo Fresh Mozzarella at $3.99 per pound. I picked one up and continued my shopping.

When I checked out, the Biazzo Fresh Mozzarella scanned not at $3.99 per pound as per the sign, but at $7.49, the regular price. I pointed out the error to the cashier. She had me retrieve the sign, agreed that the item had scanned incorrectly, and then . . . I wished I had never picked up that cheese.

Five employees came over. All agreed that a mistake had occurred. Then the store manager came over, examined the issue, and said “sir, that’s the wrong item for the sale, but I’m going to take care of you”.

Oh boy.

The manager went away for a few minutes and returned with my ball of Biazzo Fresh Mozzarella marked down to $3.99 per pound. At this point I told him that because ShopRite has a policy (it even has a name; ScanRite . . . get it?) of giving you an item that scans incorrectly for free that I didn’t feel as though he had taken care of me at all. In fact, I was a bit insulted; beginning to end I was caught in this game for close to fifteen minutes. And the manager—the manager—of the store had decided to make the magnanimous gesture of giving me four dollars rather than eight?

That’s not management. It’s not customer service.

Let me be clear about a couple of things:

First, there are three different Biazzo Mozzarella products sold at ShopRite. Here they are:

Biazzo Fresh Mozzarella

Biazzo Fresh Mozzarella

Biazzo Packaged Mozzarella

Biazzo Packaged Mozzarella

Biazzo Fresh Packaged Mozzarella

Biazzo Fresh Packaged Mozzarella

This conversation isn’t abut that item in the middle. That cheese is machine packaged for an extremely long shelf life. This is about the two on the ends.

The one on the left is the item I picked up, and wanted. It’s fresh mozzarella, and stops being food after about ten days. The one on the right is . . . well, I honestly don’t know what it is. It’s packaged, it carries a shelf life somewhere in between the other two, and while the way it’s produced and handled might suggest that it’s somewhat “fresh”, it isn’t really fresh at all, it’s packaged. And it’s the item that was “supposed” to be on sale, but wasn’t anywhere near the big sale sign.

Second: this isn’t about the $4, nor about the $8. It’s about the way the manager made a customer feel when he wasted his time, mine, and that of several of his ShopRite employees offering to value my time and effort rather than A) just doing the right thing, customer-service wise and B) honoring his store’s official, written, public policy.

So what IS great customer service?

The truth is, every one of the employees at ShopRite worked hard to try and keep me happy. They can’t be faulted for that. But when the manager of a store doing many millions of dollars in business wastes the time of a customer to make him a $4 offer (thereby saving the store the other $4) rather than just do the right thing and honor his store’s customer service policy . . . well, that’s when effort stops being a meaningful delimiter.

The business of business change is understanding when you need to stop doing things by the book and instead making management decisions. And that’s where great customer service comes from, too.

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