To Serve and Protect

It’s on those windy autumn days, when just looking at the ice cold rain outside sends a chill to the depth of my bones, that I’m grateful we’ve managed by some miracle to keep our garage clear enough to pull the car inside.

Our garage door had opened and closed almost 20,000 times over thirteen years, far outlasting many of the other builder-installed add ons in our home, when even the most generous squirts of WD-40 would no longer silence the ear-splitting squeals of failing mechanics.  One day it refused to open at all.

Our new model came with an exterior keypad so we could open it without the ‘clicker’ by punching in a series of numbers (which I can never seem to remember).  I didn’t think we needed this feature and in keeping with my reputation for frugality, I tried to negotiate a better price to exclude the keypad.  What if rain causes a short circuit and the thing goes berserk, opening our garage door while we’re out one day?  The salesman reassured me that a protective cover on the keypad would keep this from happening.  The price was a package deal with no option to omit the external unit.

So you can imagine my dismay when I returned home last week, in the middle of a driving October rainstorm, to find the protective cover lifted and the keypad exposed.  A plastic bag containing a “Water Analysis Data Form” and a small plastic bottle had been hung from the unit.

I was alarmed by the prospect that there might be something wrong with our water.  But reading more closely I realized that this wasn’t a public health initiative.  It was a marketing ploy.

The form read like an official notice and carried a number of logos, including the Canadian Water Quality Association and the Better Business Bureau, along with instructions for collecting the sample.  A series of questions asked, ‘When was the last time you had your water tested?’ and ‘Is drinking water quality important to you?’

Looking beyond my own driveway, I could see that my neighbourhood was littered with these bags.  They were hung on garage door keypads, garage door handles and even the odd light fixture.

This kind of marketing really bugs me.

Years ago, while chatting to our neighbours we learned that they had signed up for a long term fixed price gas contract.  Debating the merits of fixed versus market pricing for gas, we quickly came to appreciate that this seemingly bright and well-educated young couple had entered into the contract with little thought.  The salesman had seemed official, and gave the impression that everyone in the neighbourhood was making the ‘obvious choice’ and signing on.  I had often wondered how these door to door companies stay in business; doesn’t everyone know to shut the door in their face?  Apparently not.  It’s not just elderly grannies who get duped.

At the very bottom of the “Water Analysis Data Form” there was a telephone number.

“Yes, I’m calling to complain about the marketing materials that your company has littered throughout my neighbourhood.”

“One moment please.  I’ll put you through to the marketing manager in charge of that program.”

Several minutes of on hold beeps gave my blood ample time to reach a rolling boil.  While I waited, I dropped the bag of marketing materials into the kitchen trash can.

When the marketing manager finally took my call, I gave her a heady blast.  I criticized the company’s marketing practices and called them unethical.  And I fumed about distribution people having the nerve to fiddle with my private property and expose my garage door keypad to the elements.

“I am so sorry!” she said.

She really sounded sorry.

“The delivery team should never have touched that.  It is most definitely not the way we want our materials to be delivered and I completely understand why you’re upset.  On behalf of the company, I want to sincerely apologize.”

Well, that really took the wind out of my indignant sails.

“I want you to know how much I appreciate you calling to let us know.  I’m sure there are many people in your neighbourhood upset about this, but it was you who took the time to pick up the phone and call us.  You see, we hire distribution companies to deliver the materials and although we give them instructions as to how this should be done, we would never know they weren’t following our instructions if it wasn’t for you.  Thank you so much for calling.”

I didn’t quite know what to say in response – you’re welcome?

“We’ve been in business for many years and have a reputation to protect.  I want you to know that we will make this right.  Can I ask your address so that I can contact the team responsible right away?”

This woman was AWESOME at her job.  In just a few minutes she managed to completely diffuse my anger and endear herself to me.  She was just the kind of authentic, empathetic and articulate person I enjoy working with and she was incredibly passionate about the company she works for.  In fact, I was so taken with her, that after I hung up the phone I reached into the trash and retrieved the flyer to look up the company name.  And I started to wonder, “Maybe we should get our water tested.”

Now, I’ve come to my senses since then.  I still think the best water out there is the stuff continually monitored by municipal water professionals that pours straight out of my kitchen faucet for practically nothing.  But I share this story because it’s an illustration of the power of fantastic customer service.  There is no more difficult job than that of the complaints department.  The people who do it really well have a special gift, and the potential to save a company from damaging word of mouth that can render marketing efforts useless for years to come.

I worry about the future of customer service in a world where it’s farmed out to faceless call centres.  It’s easy to tell when someone is reading from a script; there’s no heart baked into the words they say.  When customer issues become ‘transactions’ billed by the minute, with the objective to mark the issue closed as quickly as possible, the true nature of customer service is lost.

And marketing for these companies, gets a whole lot harder.

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