Here’s a New Year’s resolution for Canadian companies: Fix customer service

January 2 2008 by Ellen Roseman

Maybe this will be the year that companies realize they can gain a competitive edge by offering excellent customer service.

In an example of what I hope will be a trend, Lowe’s Canada is using a customer-focused approach in advertising its three giant home improvement stores opened last month in the Toronto area. The TV ads point out how shoppers can summon help quickly with call buttons all over the place.

I did a tour of the Brampton store last week. I was impressed by the bright lighting, ease of navigation, broad selection, informative signs — and, of course, the call buttons. There’s a storewide announcement after you ring. Then, there’s a ding-dong sound when the staff know your request is fulfilled.

The ads make you think, without really saying so, about the inferior service you get at home-grown rivals such as Canadian Tire.

“We take ownership of customers’ needs and accountability for meeting them,” says the statement of core values at Lowe’s website.

“Customers drive our business. We will enhance our understanding of customers and their needs through continuous learning.”

It’s too soon to say whether this company will live up to its lofty rhetoric. But I know of many others that don’t.

Check out the Dell complaint I got today, where a reader has been waiting many weeks to get a refund on a cancelled order. The company’s core values were not observed.

Also, check out the response from Future Shop’s vice-president Mike Chuback about the Boxing Day sales controversy — computers advertised at one price and sold at a higher price. He’s really trying to take accountability in this case.

18 comments

  1. Jamie

    Jan 4 2008

    Future Shop may be trying to take accountability in this case, but this is in no way typical of how they react to other cases. If this had been a problem at one store, affecting a few people who didn’t know to contact Ellen Roseman, they’d likely still be banging their head against the wall with the call centre, never having heard of Mike Chuback, let alone being able to contact him.

    The complaint procedure seems deliberately set up to frustrate customers. The call centre is the only contact point and the staff there has no power at all but to send your complaint to the store you are complaining about.

    This lengthy thread on one customer’s plight with their service plan is typical of how they pass off complaints. The issue was only resolved after it went to number one on Digg.com and the customer started copying Best Buy the emails he was sending to media: http://www.redflagdeals.com/forums/showthread.php?t=393838

  2. MM

    Jan 4 2008

    Jamie – you may very well be correct that many individual concerns with Future Shop get overlooked. However, I do feel that the Future Shop did their very best to rectify this issue right away.

    The internet has basically put consumers in charge since anyone is just a few mouse clicks away from telling their story anywhere that they want to. Companies are taking notice of this more and more.

    Many companies now have people out their full time just wandering the web looking for complaints against their company and then trying to do what they can to minimize the damage as quickly as possible.

    No company likes bad PR, especially in a paper. When it comes from a reporter as news, then there is a substantially higher legitimacy to the issue. In addition, one bad article tends to lead to more articles and even more complaints.

    The bottom line, in my opinion, is that the Future Shop acted quickly and acted well. They may very well have felt that they did nothing wrong and were acting only in damage control mode, as opposed to acting in a true spirit of doing the right thing. The point is that they were very smart in acting.

    It also served as a reminder for them and other companies that on occasion they can get punished.

    My complaint with them was about getting cut off during checkout on their website. I felt that the items I had in my cart were rightfully mine, since I got on right away and wasted 90 minutes going through checkout only to have their system shut down. That was their fault – not mine.

    I called their 800 number and got nowhere, other than being told to write letter to head office. When I read Ellen’s article, I had a name that I could call. I left voicemail and let him know I assumed he was the correct person to call. My voicemail was returned promptly and I was assured that I could go to any Future Shop and get a similar item to what I was trying to purchase online for the same price.

    Without the article, I would not have known who to call and may have been passed around. But the bottom line is they resolved things right away.

    My suggestion for others when you have an issue is to post it on the company’s discussion forum first. Next, I would call their media relations department. If these don’t work, then I would look to the actual media or write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper.

  3. ckarram

    Jan 7 2008

    Customer Service seems to have been forgotten over the last few years, and it appears that “transaction” focused business is the new norm.

    I can’t help but think of Starbucks when it comes to customer service, and as such, I read a book entitled the “Starbucks Experience”. I would recommend this book to any Business Owner, Professional, or Sales Person looking to understand how to better focus on and serve their customers needs. This truly was a great read.

    Love the post Ellen, definitely a topic that needs to be exposed!

  4. Max Factor

    Jan 13 2008

    Can customer service go too far?
    I think this is a good article and that customer service should be looked at as a competitive advantage and as a value added benefit to consumers. Though, is it the role of customer service to accommodate the every whim of customers in face of compromising the company’s own business ethics and/or corporate identity? Why not, it simply means another sale to be made! Isn’t selling what it is all about? When customer preference sways to want a product or service which compromises the company’s corporate image, or perhaps tempts the company to tear away at regulations, shouldn’t customer service accommodate this for more sales? Consider a regulated substance which is to abide by recognized industry standards in it usage. Your customer loves it and will keep coming back to you if you continue to put that little bit extra in each product they buy. Shouldn`t customer service accommodate this want for the sales to be generated? There is always some extra inventory laying around. Does customer service go too far in accommodating such scenarios? After all its sales that keep the business going, not regulations and corporate identity.

  5. Karen L

    May 10 2008

    When a Warranty Isn’t a Warranty:

    On 30 December 2006, we purchased a new battery for my car. This battery model comes with a 2-year warranty.

    In December 2007, I started having problems with a dead battery on a regular basis. Our other car is a hybrid, so we can’t use it for jump starting another car.

    We took the battery to the Canadian Tire in Pickering to have it checked. They said it was fine and this meant there was something wrong with my car. So we took the car to the dealer, who ran tests and kept it overnight to see if something was putting a drain on the battery. They sied that nothing was wrong with the car and that they had fully charged the battery. They told me that the battery was defective, as it would not hold a charge and that I should have someone follow me home until I could get a new battery.

    The next day, I drove my car about 45 km for an all day meeting. When I tried to start it, the battery was completely dead. I called CAA, who came out and tested the battery. Their tests showed that the battery was not charging, even with their charging device. They gave me a printout of their tests and said since it is still under warranty and I should have it replaced. They followed me for a while to ensure that I could get home — something they don’t have to do.

    I drove straight to the Canadian Tire on Rylander in Scarborough. I asked to have the battery checked and replaced. I showed her the two tests done on the battery and told her that I had both the dealer and CAA tell me that the battery was defective.

    This is where the scam comes in to play. In order to have the battery replaced under warranty, the woman at the service counter informed me that I would have to pay $89 + tax plus a small service fee (she wouldn’t be able to tell me beforehand how much it would be) to have it tested again. If the battery passed their tests, which I would not be provided results of, she would not authorize a replacement.

    She said that in her several years of working at both the CT Rylander and the CT in Pickering, she had never seen a battery under warranty fail the test. She said that in order to have a battery replaced under warranty, I’d have to pay $37 to have it installed by them. She said that no battery would be provided “for free” because they have to make up for the money they lost in replacing it.

    So let’s do some math:

    New battery from a competitor (CAA) = $110, delivered, installed, with the old battery taken away

    Canadian Tire test to see if they want to honour their warranty = $89 + $7 tax = $96, but according to the woman, no battery has ever failed this test. I could be out $96, have a non-functional auto and still have to buy a new battery.

    She also said there was a good chance that even if the battery were to fail the test, that I wouldn’t be able to get a free replacement because I had my car serviced at other locations than Canadian Tire (CAA and my dealer). She said those two organizations are known for intentionally breaking CT products in order to steal their business.

    Let’s now say that a miracle occurs and the battery fails the test *and* the woman agrees to replace it under warranty. That’s $96 for the test, plus about $40 to have it installed, for a total of $136 for another battery that most likely will fail again in less than 2 years.

    When I told her I didn’t think it was legal to charge me to make use of the warranty, she said that she was a lawyer and that it was legal. Very good that Canadian Tire Rylander has legal staff manning their service desks, but I suspect that she wasn’t being completely honest with me.

    I asked her to show me on the warranty paperwork where all these required charges and limitations were mentioned, but she refused. I asked her to call the roadside assistance number for me because I was going to go to another Canadian Tire to get assistance. She said that I was not eligible for roadside assistance because I had not paid the $96 for the test. I asked her again to show me where that is on the warranty, which has the terms for roadside assistance, but she just couldn’t find it, but she knew it was true.

    I asked her one more time to test the battery for replacement under the terms of the warranty and she said I would have to pay — that all customers pay for testing for all Canadian Tire products, even the ones out on the regular store shelves. She said that companies cannot make money replacing defective merchandise.

    When I asked to speak with a manager, she said that this particular Canadian Tire has no managers.

    While all this is happening, other service desk staff have gathered around her to see why she is getting louder and more upset with my refusal to pay to have the warranty honoured. When I ask the question about the manager, she says there aren’t any, but one of the other service desk staff grabs a card from his till. He handed to me as we left, saying I should definitely call the manager as I was not given the correct story.

    So what I’ve learned from this woman at the Canadian Tire Rylander:

    – Canadian Tire does not offer warranties in the real legal sense.

    – It makes no sense to purchase Canadian Tire items because they are more expensive to replace than to buy brand new from a competitor

    – that the terms written on their warranty paperwork are useless because Canadian Tire Rylander uses licensed legal professionals to give legal advice to customers telling them to ignore the paperwork (I know this really isn’t true, but I get such a laugh when salespeople tell me they are lawyers and even though they work for the other party, they are allowed to give me legal advice).

    – that doing business with Canadian Tire, even though they are all franchises and run by different people, is not something that intelligent customers want to do.

    – that “car stuff is really, really scary for women like me,” according to this service desk staff member.

    – that getting your car serviced at other places invalidates your warranty (also not true)

    – that the roadside assistance that is guaranteed with the purchase of a battery is not actually available to customers unless they want to pay $100 to have their battery tested (again, not true, but this is what this woman wanted me to believe).

    So instead of dealing with this Canadian Tire or the one in Pickering again, I decided to get back to reliable transportation by calling CAA, who sent out a truck within 10 minutes with a brand new battery. They installed it and gave me a written warranty that I believe will actually be honoured. At least, I know the terms of their roadside assistance for certain.

    Even though the woman insisted that no battery has ever failed, a miracle has occurred right here in Scarborough because my car has been starting fine for the last two weeks. I guess it repaired itself.

    My calls to the Service Manager have not been returned, but I believe it was the crazy woman at the desk on that night who took my messages.

    And the Canadian Tire store we used to visit on a weekly basis has now lost all of our business to the competitors. The thousands of dollars we spend every spring on landscaping, household and maintenance items is now going to be happily spent at other retailers. I know it will not make a dent in this franchisee’s books, but at least I won’t ever have to deal with the scam artists there ever again.

    The stories I heard while waiting in line were outrageous. Stories of “it’s against the law for us to sell you tires without an inspection” and “we aren’t allowed to sell you tires unless you buy the extra warranty”.

    This is one terrible Canadian Tire store, staffed with a legal expert who doles out “legal advice” to her employer’s customers, with no manager in the entire store. Amazing.

  6. Karen L

    May 23 2008

    Just wanted to update my story: The Canadian Tire miracle is still ongoing. Replacing my CT battery has meant 4 weeks of perfect starts, even though the CT Rylander store told me that it could not be defective.

    And we have not set foot in the Rylander store since then, nor do we read the CT ads.

    I guess both CT and I feel we have been a good riddance as former customers, as I have not heard back from that store despite making several calls.

  7. Karen L

    Aug 25 2008

    And we are still seeing the miracle of the self-repairing car. I am now going into 3 months of perfect starts on our CAA battery. And I’m sure that the crazy woman at CT Rylander is still doling out legal advice for free.