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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Apple Seed

I take full responsibility for the fact that my kids are late adopters of technology.  And while I’d like to say this is because I’d rather them play real sports than wave wands in front of a television screen, the truth is it’s because I’m cheap.

I’ve always been tight with a dollar but when I quit my corporate job the household budget came under new scrutiny and my frugal tendencies kicked into full bloom.  I became the electricity police, trailing behind family members unplugging devices and turning off lights.  I began to consider whether expiry dates might be a suggestion rather than a rule.  And I made every effort to ensure that my kids knew the full cost of things.

“Why can’t we have a pool?” they asked.

“We could have a pool, but Mommy would have to go back to work in order to pay for it.”

Today, Jack and Taylor stroll home after school with their friends, enjoy a homemade snack and plop down in front of the television.  Comparing this to the alternative of a YMCA after school program where chaotic groups of ill-behaved kids amuse themselves until their work-weary parents arrive to pick them up, my point was crystal clear.  A pool wasn’t worth the price.

To drive home the point that life’s extras need to be earned, Craig and I insist that Jack and Taylor save their allowance to purchase their own big ticket items.  Jack eventually saved enough to buy an iPod, and thanks to an infusion of cash a couple of Christmases ago, Taylor was able to purchase her first Lululemon sweater.  But something as expensive as an iPad was out of reach.

That is, until one day a leaflet fluttered out of our community newspaper advertising jobs for carriers in our area.

For a whole year, every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Taylor lugged bundles of newspaper and flyers from the base of our driveway into the house, where she assembled them.  Inky fingerprints dotted our foyer walls and elastics found their way everywhere.  Through all sorts of weather she dutifully delivered papers to 51 houses in our neighbourhood, encountering yappy dogs, terror-inducing bees and a cranky old man who declared, “This rag isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on!”

But when the iPad3 was released this spring, she was finally ready to purchase.  It was a proud day for all of us.  In short order, Taylor accumulated a stunning library of music, photos and unflattering video clips of her family and friends, and mastered a plethora of apps.  She was rarely without her iPad by her side.  It came to Jack’s hockey games.  It went on sleepovers.  And on a family camping trip this summer, she even took it to the beach.

But it’s risky to take a fragile device everywhere you go.  A couple of weeks ago, in a split second of carelessness, Taylor leaned on her precious iPad and sent a spiderweb of cracks across the screen.  She was furious with herself.  Horrified.  And grief stricken.

The web is full of tales of woe from iPad owners who have experienced similar mishaps, and Taylor and I were pleased to discover that many had received remarkable service and sympathy at their local Apple store.  Some even claimed that Apple had replaced their device for free.  Well, what could be more sympathetic than a 12 year old girl who saved for a year to purchase her own iPad, only to have it meet this untimely demise?

So off we went to our nearest Apple store, conveniently located 35km away, to plead our case.

The store’s sleek design dazzled us, as did the table groups of Apple devotees raptly absorbing information from user tutorials.  Employees strode purposefully past us, and Taylor and I paused for a moment in the midst of all this activity wondering what we should do.   Was there some sort of secret signal we were supposed to make to indicate that we needed service?

We cautiously approached a rectangular table at the back of the store where a number of employees were talking to each other.  After some time, I found a break in their conversation and interjected.

“I’m wondering if someone can help me.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“What?”

It had never crossed my mind that I’d need an appointment to ask a question in a retail store.

“I really just wanted to speak to someone about my daughter’s iPad.  She cracked the screen the other day.”

“You need to see someone at the Genius Bar about that.  We don’t have any appointments today but I could fit you in tomorrow afternoon.”

Genius Bar?  Really?  I mean, I know Steve Jobs was really full of himself but isn’t it a bit of a stretch to start calling the guys who work here geniuses?  What do they make; maybe $15 an hour?  I began to wonder if I might be on some kind of candid camera show.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware I’d need an appointment… and we’ve traveled a bit of a distance to get here.  We can’t come back tomorrow afternoon; my daughter will be in school.”

“You could try the Burlington store.”

“I guess I don’t understand why someone who is here right now can’t answer our question.”

With a heavy sigh, he turned to one of three employees next to him, who were leaning idly against the table.  “Can you deal with these people?”

In the end, I suppose we got the information we needed.  No free replacement.  No interest in hearing our tale of woe.  No sympathy for the little girl who saved for a year, only to see the fruits of her labour damaged in a split second of poor judgement.

The cost of repair was close to the cost of a new iPad, and came with a stern warning that we really should purchase AppleCare to protect us from such mishaps, and a ‘tut tut’ that we didn’t do so the first time around.  The sad fact was that Taylor didn’t have enough money in her bank account to pay for the repair that Apple offered, never mind the extra cost of AppleCare.

The whole experience left us feeling somewhat sour.

A non-Apple repair shop is a less expensive option that Taylor has enough money for today, but with a bit of time to think it over she’s not sure it’s worth it.  Right now she’s thinking she’ll keep her money in the bank and work around the cracked screen.

My tree.  My little apple.