Ho Ho Ho Hum Customer Service Has No Place at the Holidays (or Any Time)

14 Dec Ho Ho Ho Hum Customer Service Has No Place at the Holidays (or Any Time)

The holiday shopping season is an ideal time to gauge companies’ customer service skills. The swell of crowds in the stores and the rush of online shoppers trying to hit “complete your purchase” before that long sought after sale item is out of stock (this year, for me, it was a weighted blanket that my wife wanted) provide litmus tests for the way organizations deal with their customers. A good customer experience during this stressful and joyous season can help organizations gain a customer for life, whereas a bad experience can leave a black mark that’s difficult for a company to erase.

Curiously, this year I’ve experienced both cases–at the same store.

As always, I’ve been doing a lot of my holiday shopping at Target. I generally like how they do Black Friday and Cyber Monday, with a well-organized store layout, a relatively smooth online shopping experience, and some of the best deals around. Most of the time, it’s been a pleasant experience. But this year, things got a little wonky.

Towards the beginning of the week after Thanksgiving, Target’s computerized payment systems hit a glitch that, surprisingly, went relatively unreported. For several hours, online and in-store shoppers were unable to complete their purchases, leaving all of those hot items (XBox One, holla!) stranded in shopping carts around the world.

Now, that’s obviously bad, and horrendous timing, but it’s also pretty understandable. Perhaps the system was overwhelmed. Things do happen.

The unfortunate thing was not that the system had crashed; it’s that Target chose to not really respond to customers’ inquiries about what was going on. Despite outreach via irate customers through social media, the retail behemoth declined to respond to inquiries and acknowledge the issue.

What’s up, indeed. What’s up with Target not responding? It’s not difficult to say “We’re experiencing some technical difficulties with our payment system, and are working to resolve those issues. We apologize, and thank you for your patience.” Perhaps the social media and customer support teams were overextended trying to deal with other issues (it was the biggest shopping period of the year, after all).

But that doesn’t seem to be much of an excuse. When you’ve got a fire to put out–especially one that can easily go viral, as this one started to do–you put as many resources as possible into taking care of the problem. The lack of response to this person and to others was a bad look for Ebenezer Target.

Even with that, though, I’m still a Target shopper. Want to know why? Look no further than my positive in-store customer experience on Black Friday.

Every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, Target runs an in-store only promotion where, if you buy an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, they give you a gift card for either $250 or $300, depending on which phone you buy. This year it was time to upgrade my wife’s phone, so I got up at 5:00 a.m. and stood in line in the cold until the doors opened at 7:00 a.m. (Yes, I’m nuts, but I enjoy it. Don’t judge me.)

Everything went smoothly until it was time to actually perform the upgrade. For whatever reason, my carrier’s system wasn’t properly communicating with Target’s system, making it impossible for the salesperson to complete the sale. Not only was this frustrating for me, but it was undoubtedly maddening for all of the other people in line that I was holding up as the salesperson attempted to figure out a fix.

That salesperson could have thrown up his hands in frustration and said, “Sorry, I can’t help you.” Instead, he said, “Don’t worry, we’re going to get this done for you.” He called up Sprint and sat on hold with their customer service (another story for another day) for nearly 45 minutes and got the problem fixed. Then, he apologized profusely, even though it wasn’t his fault. I walked out of the store with my wife’s new phone and a newfound respect for Target’s customer service capabilities.

It’s interesting to note the dichotomy between the online and offline experiences here. One would think that Target would have been able to use social media to quickly and personally address its customers’ concerns, but instead their team was, at best, slow to respond or, at worst, unresponsive. On the other hand, my in-store experience, where I worked directly with a real person who could empathize with my plight was frustrating because of the problem, but, in the end, much more pleasant because of the employee’s efforts.

What does this say? I’m not quite ready to draw too many conclusions. But my initial impression is that, when it comes to customer care, the human touch still matters. That human touch could come from real-life interactions, but it can also arise from a customer service representative directly reaching out to a customer online. One-on-one service can take many forms, but it has to take a form.

The same lesson applies to PR. Despite all of the different technical resources at our disposal, at the end of the day, PR is and has always been, about connecting with people. Maybe that’s through an article or website copy. It could be via social media or even an infographic. The point is, every time that we do something, we need to keep in mind that connecting with customers is priority number one. We need to make those customers feel special, cared for, and that they are the only one we are talking to. We need to listen, respond to, and engage with them, sometimes in real-time.

That’s a practice we must continue to remember and value, all throughout the year.

Pete Larmey
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