I'm trying to keep my business, my triplets, and my waistline under control. I excel at one of those, fail at another one of those, and one is a work in progress. Which is which is day dependant.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Customer Service, or Customer Servants?

In my experience, Australia does not have a fantastic service culture. People are nice (which is just part of who Australians are as a whole), and they'll treat you fair and well - but it's rare that a company would go above and beyond to truly provide you with exceptional customer service. Those that do are generally Australian outposts of American companies, where the service culture is alive and well and concept that "the customer is always right" prevails. I decided from the get go that a big part of my company is the service culture - meaning we go out of our way to give people a great experience, whether their order is $50 or $500 makes no difference to me. Each person gets treated with love, respect, and care and each product does, too. The same amount of love will go into a single cupcake as in several hundred of them, if we're making it for Joe Citizen or if we're making it for the Queen.

I like to think that we can give this kind of service - and clients can expect to get it - because they are dealing with a small business, where the name of the game is personal care and service. Small businesses, by nature, should be (I'm generalising here) much more able to do the hand-holding, the lovey-dovey, the really detailed personal attention stuff which customers want. I'll even say that I'm quite happy to do all of that - I really appreciate the relationships I develop with customers, and I rely on those relationships to drive the formation of other relationships. That being said - is there a situation (or more than one situation) where the customer's requests are unreasonable? Are there situations where the customer is NOT always right? Are there things people ask of us because they KNOW we are a small business, but they would never dream of asking the same of a larger company?

I'm going to share two recent customer experiences- and I'd love it if you could take the time to tell me if you think I got it right or not. I know hardly any of you comment normally but I'd appreciate it - and yes, I realise I'm opening the door for you all to beat me over the head with a large umbrella. C'est la vie, I'm really wanting to know what you all think.

Situation One - we are holding a course later in the year which is really costly to hold, and pretty costly to attend. It involved a fair amount of financial risk for us, so when we opened enrolments we made the rules pretty clear: course fees are non-refundable. We allowed payment plans, and we allowed people to on-sell their own spots OR send someone (a friend, etc) in their place - but whatever money they paid us was non-refundable.  The enrolments opened (and closed, it was a wildly popular course) 15 months before the event. A couple of people needed to give up their spots (for valid reasons - eg pregnancy, etc.). There is a waiting list for this class, but what we've found is that when we've needed to sell a spot, it can take a half dozen or more calls, emails, etc before the spot gets sold (because people on the waiting list got caught up in the excitement, but panicked when confronted with the actual cost of the course). It's a bit of an administrative nightmare. Those who had to give up their spots knew the terms and conditions and most of them were fine with it, but one or two totally raked me over the coals for refusing refunds (they did so personally AND online, god love social media!)

Here's my take on this:  If I bought a ticket to a concert or a flight a year in advance and I knew it was non-refundable, and then I couldn't go, I'd never call Ticket Master or the airline to ask for a refund. Why buy a non-refundable ticket and then complain when it's non-refundable? Surely if I knew the Terms and Conditions - and agreed to them - I'm stuck. Small company, big company, makes no difference.

Situation Two: We ran a course recently which needed one more spot filled in order to meet the minimum enrolments to run, so in order to avoid cancelling it (and disappointing those already enrolled), we offered a special deal in the 3 days before the course ran -unusual for us, but I thought it was a good way to get the course happening. I then got an email from an existing enrolee who said, "I saw you offering this course as a special deal, I assume this means you will extend the deal to everyone who is in the class?"  I politely told her we would not, that it only applied to those enrolments we got after we announced the deal, not existing enrolments. Her reply was, "So I'm being penalised for booking early? That hardly seems fair."

Here's my take on this: Theatres often have half price last minute tickets on the night of the show. Hotels have last minute booking deals, and airlines do too.  If you'd seen any of those businesses advertising last minute booking deals, would you go back to them and ask that the discount apply to you, too? Would you really expect them to agree? Small company, big company, makes no difference.

I'm not going to tell you - yet - what I did in either case (and you might be surprised to hear what I did do in both of these cases). Both of them highlight for me the part of small business which can be frustrating, because on the one hand, OF COURSE I want to give my clients the absolute best experience I can. On the other hand, just because I'm a small business, why do the rules we set (and are very open about) not expected to actually apply?

For what it's worth, I have no problem with the person asking the question in the first place - you don't ask, you don't get - but I have a problem with the ensuing shit storm which followed.

What says you, internets? (Indulge me. Seriously.)


Danielle said...

No refunds, and no discount. You are running a business! Kinda like going in and getting a hair cut, then once it comes time to pay, you ask for a discount? Wouldn't happen, would it? I assume you would have already ordered material, hired staff, etc, etc a few days before discount lady asked? I would have politely said this, and you needed to cover costs, so had a discounted spot, and she was quite welcome to get mum, sister, friend to buy discounted spot, and split the savings? And then I would have NOT entered into any further argument with her over it. I really hope you didn't cave on either examples!

Rachel said...

Situation one: I think you are absolutely right - if you specified there are no refunds then there are no refunds. By trying to sell on unwanted spaces you are already going over and above your obligations.
Situation two is a little trickier - I can understand why your customer may have been a bit cheesed off. Like you say, some companies offer discounted last-minute spots, but there are also others that offer "early bird" discounts for booking early. Maybe you could put something in your t&c's stating that any places still unsold 72hrs prior to the event will be sold at a discounted rate? That way, the customer will know where they stand and it's up to them if they want to risk waiting for a cheaper place or losing out? (If it was me, I wouldn't want to risk it!)
For me personally, if it's in the small print then I may not be happy about it, but I would accept the consequences. As much as customer service is important, you ARE running a business, and you have to cover your costs.
R x

Anonymous said...

I have been reading your blog for a while now and you have a way with words!

Situation 1 : This one is pretty clear - no refunds means no refunds! But since its a small business people do expect more; so, may be you could have offered a spot in some future course if they were able to find some one else to take up their current spot.

Situation 2 : I understand your stance but I totally empathize with the customer - you don't want to be penalized for doing the right thing by booking early! May be you can let people know that there might be last minute deals - then its up to them, whether they want to wait and take the risk or book early!

Hope that helps :)

Poppet's mum said...

I'm just going to comment on situation 2. The difference between what you have done and the seats sold cheaper at the last minute is that what is usually provided last minute is not quite as good as what you would get if you bought it earlier. For example, with a show you would get whatever seats are left, possibly with a big post in front of you and you are taking a risk. With a plane ticket you are also getting the "leftovers". In the case of you course the person getting it cheaper is getting exactly the same as the person who paid full price. I understand why you did it but you need to add a sweetener to those who paid early or a penalty to the one who fills the place.