Don’t Put Your eCommerce Customer Service Inside a Policy Prison

Don’t Put Your eCommerce Customer Service Inside a Policy Prison

We recently had … well, let’s just call it a “customer service experience.” And the entire process was so frustrating that we simply shook our heads in disbelief. It made us reflect back on other times we’d experienced things like it. Anyway, here’s the story and – more importantly – here’s how to avoid those same tragic mistakes.

We had SiriusXM Radio as a service in our vehicle for a while and we were happy with it. All was good and we happily paid the monthly subscription. The time came to buy a new vehicle and we wanted to make sure that it had a SiriusXM Radio because … hey, we were happy customers.

We went to switch our SiriusXM account to the new radio and were told that we automatically received a new free-trial period with the new radio purchase. We could switch it over at the end of the trial and save a few bucks in the meantime. We thought, “cool.” Literally what could be wrong with that, right?

The free trial goes by and we are now set to transfer our SiriusXM Radio plan over and … Bam! We can’t. It seems that by accepting the “free” trial we gave up our right to our old plan, even though we didn’t ask to cancel it in the first place. That previous plan, the one we were so happy with?  It seems that they no longer offer it – and … drumroll please … the new plan is 40% more expensive than the old one. 

Here’s The Real Problem

We’re business folks in the technology industry. We completely understand pricing models and designing a plan. And we are not telling anyone how to do any of that for their business. Obviously, the pricing plans that they have at SiriusXM Radio are designed to “pay” for promotions and free trials. We get it.

But in a series of conversations with phone agents and supervisors, it became impossible to get them to understand what was also obvious – we were a loyal, happy customer who just made a very expensive purchase with one of their partners, got accidentally caught up in one of their promotional “policies,” and we were going to end up hurt a bit by the process.

Policies Are Not Prisons – Or At Least They Shouldn’t Be

Yes, sometimes companies do this kind of bait-and-switch thing on purpose. We’ve seen cell-phone carriers try to trick customers out of being grandfathered in older, less-profitable plans. And a lot of us have experienced the eternal creep of cable TV rates and they attempt to gouge out a few more dollars here and there while blaming the increases on the networks or government fees or some such.

Companie Trick and Steal and Manipulate to Get Your Money Sometimes

But if we give SiriusXM the benefit of the doubt here – as we try to be as objective about this as possible – the phone agents and supervisors we talked to just didn’t have the power of incentive to look at this with fresh eyes and say to themselves, “Darn … no one did anything really wrong here, but the customer is kind of getting screwed in the process. Let’s make it right.” 

They were imprisoned by their policies. I kept hearing, “There’s nothing we can do.”

This is the point. Remember at the beginning of the story how we went into purchase a new vehicle and we specifically wanted one with a SiriusXM Radio inside? I just can’t help but think that next time we upgrade, getting a SiriusXM Radio won't be as high a priority for us as it was before.

What Does This Mean For All Of Us?

We have helped customers set up their shipping and return and exchange policies hundreds of times as a part of our work. We have even helped them write them at times to make them more clear. These are vital. Not only do eCommerce sites need to have these policies, but they need to be easy to find, fair, and written in easy to understand language. That way everyone comes into the transaction with their eyes wide open.

But policies are not prison bars. We would never tell anyone to be wishy-washy or to let a self-centered customer push you around. But it can be far too easy to over-rely on policies to the point that we become blind to the one or two customers that might have a legitimate special case.

These days, everyone is all concerned about the robots taking their jobs. If formal policy alone dictates customer service, then customer service jobs will be the first ones to be automated because all we’ll need is a series of databases and checkboxes.

Customer Service Automation - Rise of the Machines

The reason we still need human customer service people is that there are just too many variables. Once the basics of life are mastered, human’s reach their peak when they manage the things that cannot be anticipated by a mathematical model or computer algorithm.

Sadly, the rigid grip of policy is far too common. If we thought about it some more and asked around, we could probably write a book of customer service horror stories. But there are plenty of great customer service stories too.

Forbes reported about a customer who ordered a pair of $200 shoes online from Nordstrom. They were delivered in a rainstorm and the box was left in the weather. A salesperson on the phone immediately took charge, handled the damage claim with the shipper, and immediately sent a replacement. That Forbes report also mentioned another customer who – while moving – packed his wife’s jewelry into a box that she was using to make a product return. So the jewelry was being shipped back to Zappos with a purse. The phone agent had the package rerouted to his desk and he personally delivered the valuable jewelry back to the customer.

These are solid wins and we can’t help but think that the level of customer loyalty in those cases has got to be through the roof. And it is a culture of customer service that consistently lets L. L. Bean rise to the top – being named Customer Service Champion three years in a row and beating out Amazon and everyone else. The point is that none of that success comes by way of “policy.” If customer service is a part of your business culture, your best employees are far more powerful than any policy.

So let me ask you a couple questions.

  • If you had a 30-day return or exchange policy, would you enforce it if the customer had been deployed to military service and was in the Middle East during that window?
  • If your customer ordered a time-sensitive birthday gift that was not delivered properly, would you make them wait for a replacement until UPS had wrapped up their investigation?

What you would ultimately decide in these three circumstances isn’t what’s important. If you had to pause for a moment to try to decide what to do, you are proving the point that policy alone is not enough. Customer service is supposed to bond you closer to your customers, not be a wall to keep you separate from them. Humans and humanity are still a vital component of customer service … and always will be.

Thanks for reading.


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