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Customer service? More like torture

October 14, 2007 12:35 am

CUSTOMER SER- VICE. Have a question or concern? Customer service is there for you. "Our customer service is second to none!" That's what we're told, anyway, as businesses seek a competitive edge in our consumer-driven world.

You'd think all companies would recognize the importance of good customer service and make it a priority from the boardroom to the checkout counter. But far too often, customer frustration and dissatisfaction are allowed to prevail.

The tale I'm about to tell took nearly 20 months from start to finish, but I'll try to take you through it a bit quicker than that.

It was January 2006, and my daughter needed a new pair of sneakers. She was 9 years old then, and on the cusp between children's and women's sizes. She was old enough to know immediately if the color and style were right, but fit and comfort do not lend themselves to snap judgments.

We tried a few stores without success. It was getting late, but we decided to try one more place that carries athletic shoes and apparel. We found a pair that might work, but she wasn't quite certain about the fit.

I wanted her to be certain, because they cost $65. I know that's ridiculous. I know. But it was late, and we'd all had about enough.

Go ahead, wear them out of the store, the sales associate said. Wear them for two weeks if you want. If they aren't right, just bring them back.

"We wouldn't want to sell you a pair of uncomfortable shoes," he said.

We'd never heard of a policy like that before. Are you sure, we asked. No problem, he reiterated. Just bring them back.

She wore them out of the store that Saturday night, and to school the following Monday. By then she'd determined that they didn't fit quite right.

Back to the store we went that night. We want to return or possibly exchange these shoes we bought the other night, I told a different associate, who turned out to be the store manager.

"I'm sorry, sir, we can't take these shoes back," he said. "They've been worn."

I told him we had only done as the sales associate had suggested.

I'm sorry, he said.

But the other guy said she could wear them and then return or exchange them if they weren't right.

"Hearsay," he called that.

I was displeased with this turn of events. I think I said "damn" under my breath. I promised that he hadn't heard the end of this.

He told me to leave the store or he would call security because I had cursed and threatened him. Untrue.

I admit I was furious at the prospect of being stuck with $65 shoes. But I was careful to restrain myself, especially because my daughter was with me. I also believed this would be rectified because we hadn't done anything wrong. We left.

I e-mailed customer service. They suggested I call customer service to explain the situation.

Which I did.

A week or so later, no response. I called back, explained the situation again, and was put on hold. Fifteen minutes later the representative came back to say that she had called the store, and because of "my conduct in the store" they wouldn't be able to help me.

What? Who is the aggrieved party here?

Somehow I came up with the name of the company's director of customer relations and wrote her an actual letter explaining what had gone on. I said the store needs to get its policies straight. Mistakes are made; problems arise. But we should deal with them and move on. That's what "customer service" is about. Among my points was this:

"[T]he issue here is not me, but your salesman who, right or wrong, insisted the shoes be worn out of the store, and your store manager, who apparently expected me to accept tossing $65 out the window. Instead, the store manager should have accepted my explanation and dealt with his worker later, rather than cite my alleged conduct as an excuse to avoid doing the right thing."

I eventually received a photocopied form letter of apology and a $75 gift card.

I gave the card to my wife because I vowed never, ever to return to that store. On occasion, she would stop in to shop for something for herself or the kids. But there was never anything she wanted to buy, until last August--19 months later--when she found a pair of shoes she liked for herself. She handed over the gift card.

It wouldn't work.

The funds were on the card, but they wouldn't "come off" the card. They tried again. They called their own customer service. There wasn't anything anyone could do. The end of this nightmare had been in sight, but it was a mirage.

The associate agreed to keep the shoes behind the counter until the problem was worked out.

I re-entered the picture because, at this point, I already had a lot of time and energy invested in the matter. I called customer service and was told they would take care of it, and I should go back to the store in a day or two. Which I did, despite my vow never to return.

The card still wouldn't work.

The music in the store was so loud that conversations had to be shouted. That's the volume "corporate" wants, I was told. The sales person couldn't simply replace the faulty card because "corporate" had issued it.

I went home and called customer service. They promised to figure out what to do and get back to me soon. Right. A week later I called back, and they could find no record of my previous calls or my problem.

But this time, I had a feeling that the representative, Katrina, was sympathetic. Maybe when you share the name of a hurricane you can tell when people have been put through hell. She took down my name, address, and phone number, and promised a new card would be issued. She actually called back to confirm that the information had been passed to the proper hands.

A week or 10 days later, the new card arrived, enclosed with the exact form letter apology as before, telling me how important I am to them.

Please, spare me.

I went back to the store to buy the shoes. The card worked. I brought the shoes home. Satisfaction was ours, in the-torture-has-finally-stopped sense, three days shy of 20 months later. It was a marathon, but we finally crossed the finish line.

My wife says the shoes fit well. Good thing, because we're never, ever going back.

Richard Amrhine is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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