retail news in context, analysis with attitude

We got a number of emails responding to yesterday’s piece highlighting the Los Angeles Times column by Michael Hiltzik about what he described as a horrible customer service ethic on the part of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team.

MNB reader Tim McGuire wrote:

I fully agree with Michael Hiltzik's comments on customer service, and your commentary on the same - but surprisingly for a man addicted to the internet in all forms, I think you missed the root cause of the problem in this situation.  "The fiasco involves advance ticket packages. These come in the form of vouchers that have to be redeemed in person for seats in designated sections."

Why would any organization enable the easy part of the transaction online (buying a package of tickets) but then require the complex portion (choosing individual dates, games, sections and seats) to be completed in person?  Every one of those 7,000 fans could have easily done their selections in the comfort of their own home - at even lower cost to the Angels than staffing half the ticket windows - with a much higher level of customer satisfaction.  This type of transaction is why Al Gore invented the internet!

Excellent point.

MNB user Clay Dockery wrote:

I couldn’t agree more!!!!  Whether it is the airline industry or the banking industry, the conclusion is that their time is much more valuable than yours.  I was in circular hell with United last week.  I went to their website to change a flight and after putting in all requisite information, was told that I needed to call the 800 number.  I called the 800 number and again had to punch in the duplicative information.  After punching the keypad for about 4 minutes, the friendly recording told me that the volume of calls was too high and I should make the change on line.  Then the phone immediately disconnected!  Equally absurd is the banking industries practice of having you put account numbers, SSNs, date of birth, challenge questions, etc and then immediately upon being transferred to a live individual, asking for all of the information again.

The first company that can figure out that we contact them only when we have a need (and part of that need is QUICK resolution to a problem) and they address it quickly will have a business model built for success.

But another reader made what I think is a legitimate point:

In response to the article about the poor customer service from the Angels.  I have to first fully disclose that I am an avid baseball fan and a diehard Angel fan my whole life. 

You have to view the entire Angel experience under Arte Moreno as opposed to looking at one individual item and rendering a decision that they don’t care about their customers.  One of the first things Arte Moreno did when he bought the Angels was to lower beer prices, find an affordable hat for $6 that anybody could buy and make it affordable for the average family to attend a ballgame.  With these changes, the Angels attendance has soared since Moreno has taken over and continually ranks near the top in all of baseball.

The fans love Arte because he cares about the two most important things to a baseball fan…..the fan and winning.  Taking one incident and painting a broad stroke over the entire organization is not only inaccurate but careless.  I do not doubt the frustration the people felt about the ticket process, but one bad day does not make a bad person or bad organization. 

The real test is how the organization learns from a mistake.  My guess is you would want your blog to be judged by the entire body of work and not one isolated incident.

True enough. And I appreciate the context.

But...the sad reality is that we often are judged by the last thing we did ... especially if we screwed up in a really public way.

I actually think that it was perhaps the Angels’ biggest mistake was to be - in Hiltzik’s words - “truculently defensive,” as opposed to apologetic, when confronted about the situation.

Organizations and people can recover from mistakes. But the first thing you have to do is own them ... and then move fast to repair the damage.

Lots of email continues to come in about so-called “pink slime” in ground beef...

MNB user Stewart Sundholm wrote:

For me - the issue is the labeling. Product using that ammonium hydroxide process can be labelled as 'beef' - with no mention of the other ingredients used in the process.

Offer us transparency - and let consumers decide what we want to purchase.

From another MNB user:

I liked your comment on ammonium hydroxide being a natural ingredient. It made me recall that cobra venom consists of natural compounds and, depending on what the cobra eats, cobra venom may even be organic.

From yet another reader:

First, I am not in the beef industry, however, I can sympathize with their plight.

First, the chemical issue.  I  understand that Ammonium Hydroxide doesn't exactly sound appetizing,but it is a bit overblown.  Example--- Would you dare process your pasta by boiling it in a bath of di-hydrogen monoxide mixed with sodium chloride and then serve this pasta drenched in chemicals to your FAMILY for DINNER!???!!!  Incredibly,  this just means that you would boil your pasta in water with some salt in it.... but you can see how certain wording can turn anything into a PR nightmare.  Bottom line is that all chemical names sound abhorrent to us, but everything has a chemical name whether it is totally natural and organic or if it is poison synthesized in a lab.  If they came up with a non-chemical name for ammonium hydroxide like "salt" or "lime" or "talc" or "lye" it probably wouldn't seem so awful.  Did you know that canned peeled tomatoes are commonly peeled chemically using lye (aka sodium hydroxide) to melt the skin off?  I don't see any outrage over this 60+ year old practice.

Back to beef-- Well, it may not be the highest quality meat product, and the name "pink slime" is certainly not the most flattering, I do think that there is a place for this product.  They have found a way to utilize more of the animal and feed humans safely with a product that tastes good and is low cost.  Yes, it takes some processing and no one likes to see "how the sausage is made," but what is the alternative?  Throw this material out and waste it?  Feed it to animals? We have a growing world population, which is increasingly becoming middle class in developing countries, and demanding tremendous quantities of  protein-- and supplies are extremely tight.  So I believe we need to utilize as much as possible.  There is also a huge environmental impact of raising more cattle (carbon footprint is incredibly high), as well as the fact that consumers are already extremely strapped for money and may already be having a hard time affording burgers.  Bottom line-- I think the utilization of this material is quite a net positive in the overall analysis.  Sure, it's not Kobe beef, but then, I don't think it purports to be.

Of course, I wouldn't disagree with your general philosophy that there should be transparency and that in this case, it could be labeled something to the effect of-- "contains up to 25% processed beef scraps."

And, from yet another MNB user:

The whole ammonium hydroxide / pink slime discussion is a pretty good part of the reason why my wife and I don’t buy ground beef. Ever. From anyone.

We use a grinder (an almost forgotten part of everyone’s kitchen arsenal back in the day) and we buy beef. You put the beef in the grinder and you turn the handle and voila! Ground beef. Beef is the primary ingredient in our ground beef. The other ingredient is a modest amount of effort.

Ground turkey and chicken and a host of other things pass through the grinder from time to time. It is a compact metal grinder which can mount with a clamp on the edge of the counter and we have used it for some forty years. We make it up in bulk and freeze it in advance.

As we are both past 60 and turning the handle may be  a tad more difficult than it used to be, we are thinking about buying a motor operated grinder. They come in all sorts of sizes but cost a couple hundred dollars. So far it has been easier to just turn the crank once in a while.

If we just had a better group memory we would know that the nonsense that some companies use to squeeze out a few pennies profit does not mean we have to take it. Grow your own, grind your own – same attitude.

On another subject, MNB user Bob DeNinno wrote:

When I read your piece on Walmart putting in more self-checkouts, I was reminded of my previous career with convenience store giant, 7-Eleven.  In the early 90's there was a huge push to install Pay-at-the-Pump services (credit card readers)  on the fuel dispensers.  Initially, there was concern because the customer wasn't going into the convenience store to potentially purchase other things.  What we discovered was that many customers (me included) just wanted fuel and didn't want a Slurpee or a Coke or didn't smoke (so no cigarettes) and liked the convenience of pumping fuel and getting on to their destination.  Well, fuel sales, and inside convenience sales increased at sites where the credit card readers were installed on the fuel dispensers.  I think the same thing holds true with other retailers.  I like going into a grocer that has self-checkouts.  Generally, I know what I want, I get it and want to get on my way.  In fact, I am less likely to return to a retailer when my first visit indicates no self-checkout.

I think it also is worth referring to the New York Times we referenced above about how some retailers are using technology to provide more customized and personalized service. It all seems to be part of the same continuum...

Also regarding Walmart, but about another issue, MNB user Mark Morton wrote:

Just a couple of comments on Wal-Mart and their position on sustainability. I think Wal-Mart does a fairly good job in leading the industry on these issues by supporting sustainability on packaging and shipping material and supporting sustainable suppliers that by from/and produce products from outside the US. The support of a politician that does not "vote sustainable" does not mean the retailer isn't a supporter of 'sustainable principles". There is more involved with the support of a representative. Issues such as taxes and taxation, regulation and regulatory enforcement, and other issues. To frame the issue as simply sustainable or unsustainable is simply too narrow a frame to look through.

We continue to get emails about various kinds of customer service experiences.

One MNB user wrote:

We had what I thought was a small problem with what was probably a 2-3 month old Mr. Coffee coffee maker.

The "strong brew" choice apparently wasn't working and we were looking for what we had to do to correct it.

The net of the story was a pleasant Customer Service rep. told us, after asking a few questions, that we couldn't fix it, the machine was faulty. She arranged to send us a new machine, different than the one we had and probably better.

It arrived a few days later with Mr. Coffee paying shipping charges both ways - shipping us the new one and us returning the old one.

MNB user Donna Burns wrote:

In early winter a local dry cleaner (Urban Valet) in my city advertised they would clean Ugg boots and make them new again.($25 charge)  Considering these boots are a necessity in our town I decided it would be cheaper to get my daughter's Uggs cleaned rather than purchasing a new pair.

An important note to add:  I have never used this dry cleaner.

I dropped them off and they told me it would be approximately 10 days to get them back as they were sent to an outside company for cleaning.

They called 10 days later and told me they were ready for pick up.  I rushed down there as there was now snow on the ground and my daughter needed them desperately.  She wore them that night and when she came home she said there was a hole in them!  I checked and sure enough, on the seam there was now a gaping hole.

I called the dry cleaner the next day and was connected to the Customer Service Manager.  She was amazing!  So professional and helpful.  She apologized for the damage and said she would REPLACE the Uggs at NO COST!  Remember, it is not their store that actually does the cleaning service on these items.  She asked me to ask my daughter which replacement pair she wanted up to the retail cost of a new pair of Uggs!  I could not believe it.  Sure enough 4 days later we received a brand new pair of Uggs!

I have shared this story with all my neighbors and friends and now all of our dry cleaning will be done with Urban Valet.

Great customer service and locally owned!

Great story.

MNB user Art Martin wrote:

Some Big Box Store managers know how to act as if they were running their own, local store.

We recently bought a microwave and while having it installed, discovered something had been dropped on it and dented the top. The installer called the Home Depot where we bought the unit and they did not have an identical replacement, but another store did. I agreed to buy a new microwave at the second store and return the original where my purchase was credited.

In addition, the store manager credited my account an additional $100 for my "patience". That's the way to keep a customer coming back.

And, on another subject, from MNB user Matt Nitzberg:

I’m responding to the article on retailers wearing out their email welcome.

While overactive email campaigns are an issue for customers (and therefore, for marketers), email frequency is not the core problem.

The core problem is that the easy frequency provided by digital channels amplifies any underlying lack of relevance and respect.

In other words, if your company isn’t committed to a customer-centric marketing approach, increasing your communication frequency makes that even more obvious and annoying to customers.

As customers migrate from deleting individual emails (“I don’t want to read that”) to opting-out from companies (“I never want to hear from them again”), marketers face a significant risk:  Losing the ability to connect with customers.

It can be helpful to consider that customers are becoming CMOs, defining their own marketing mix and deciding which marketers and messages will make the cut.

In that onrushing future, only marketers who consistently put the customer first – in targeting, content, invitations, offers, and design – will be seen and heard.

MNB user Bobby Martyna chimed in:

I've often placed orders with e-tailers, resulting in getting on their list for an e-mail every day, sometimes more than one.   After realizing how much time I spend clicking the delete key,  I usually go through an unsubscribe exercise and kill off anyone that's been too annoying.

But here's something worth noting:  when clicking on one unsubscribe link, I got to a page that allowed me to customize how often I receive e-mails.  That's a big improvement -- so instead of unsubscribing fully, I clicked on the once/month option.  What would be even better would be if I could click on the types of products or promotions I'm interested in seeing, in addition to the frequency.

This is pretty easy to implement with modern e-newsletter and CRM technology -- and every e-tailer should step up to it.
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