Customer service is what makes or breaks an organization. As a consumer, I am acutely aware of good customer service. As a business owner, I’m also aware of the investment necessary in good customer service, and the cost of bad customer service.

Customer service is like an insurance policy. It’s good to have, but not required, and you will first regret not having one (or a bad one) when something happens.
I’m an author, and I own my own publishing house. In this capacity, I have to deal with suppliers, one of them being Barnes & Noble (B&N) and their NOOK devices. Just like Amazon, Apple and the rest of them, they have a store to sell e-books for their devices. As publishers, we upload our book files to their servers so that our readers can read their books on their preferred device, whichever it may be.
Sadly, while the technical aspects work fine, as my tech experts assure me, their business end is lacking, and their customer service is dismal. I recently received an e-mail of a payment (and as you know, when money is involved, so are book keepers and eventually your equivalent of the IRS.) The payment was duly processed and put on our books, but then, a couple of days later, another e-mail came, informing us that the payment had been refused by the bank and had been returned, apparently a wrong bank account number.
Here’s the deal: when you first enter the account number on B&Ns website, it’s validated against the bank and only accepted when everything is okay. So how would they then return a payment if everything is okay? I contacted B&N with that question only to receive (a few days later) a standard reply to the above: reenter the account number, it will be processed and validated, you’ll get your money at the next payment cut off.
They hadn’t even read my question, and certainly not replied to it. Because I have a hunch that the payment was made out to my company. However, the account is (and it’s entered this way online) in my sister’s name (as my company was not able to open a bank account in the US! Long story…) I suspect that the bank returned the funds because the beneficiary may (or may not) have been my company. I emailed again and again, only to receive similarly worded standard phrases. No one had cared to a) read my questions properly, b) check into it and c) send me a ‘human’ response. And you can’t call and talk to a human being either. Very frustrating and very unsettling. This is not how you deal with your clients.
As a business owner, I’m aware of the cost of educated people vs. uneducated ones or – who knows – even a bot that responds automatically. But what about the cost of blog posts like this one? What about the cost of a bad reputation? Particularly for a company already fighting for its survival?
The second example is not B2B, but B2C, my grocery store. They are part of a large chain and they want us customers to use self-scanning when we shop. You scan all your wares and drop them into your shopping bags and when you exit, you pay. Easy, quick & relatively convenient. There are pros and cons as a consumer of course:
+ No waiting in lines when you’re done shopping (ideally, as they only have four check-out stations)
– The actual shopping takes longer, as you have to scan every item yourself, and sometimes you have to weigh goods and really look for the barcodes.
– when the scan doesn’t work, you have to have it entered manually anyway
– Any adult item (e.g. medications) will require a cashier to check you out
Sweden’s largest food store chain. We shop at ICA Focus in
Two weeks ago, my husband was shopping alone and got caught in a “random” control. This meant that he had to empty all four shopping bags (much larger than your average US bag), all items had to be scanned again, individually. NO help was offered in repacking. Needless to say, my husband was furious, having to spend an extra 20 minutes unpacking and repacking all our weekly groceries while our baby son was waiting.
Last week, we were shopping again, and got caught in another control. Another wasted 20′, even though I was present to help, and the shop attendants did yet again nothing to help us, and they had no explanation as to why we were checked twice in a week. 
Needless to say, yesterday, we went back to the old way of shopping. And we were out in half the time it took us last week. We’ll never use those hand scanners again. I can certainly understand this practice from the store’s point of view. These days there’s only one or two check out lanes open, so they save on staff, but they don’t pass on any of those savings to me as a regular consumer, quite the contrary. I get all the drawbacks, because we’ve timed ourselves and the wait & process at the check out is nowhere nearly as long as the time it takes us to hand scan everything on our own, not even mentioning all the bugs and malfunctions we’ve run into.
Worst of all, the bad customer service. No apologies, no one really cared. Yes, the chain of grocery stores is huge, and yes, our store has the best assortment of food in the city, so they are safe for now, we have no reason to swap. But it does leave a bitter taste in my mouth, and it reminds me of what it means to be a trapped customer. Those are not the ones you want, because they won’t give you good feedback or recommendations.
Could this be avoided? Yes. I’ll grant you, checks are necessary or people will eventually start to skip scanning stuff to save money. Seems part of human nature. But what they should do is call for a second attendant to help repack (at least) when they do those checks. Because again, we don’t save any money, but it costs us a lot of time doing their job, so this is the least they could do. Alternatively they could start giving us a five percent discount on self-shopping…
As for B&N, it’s a question of training their staff. They’re not the only ones sending out standardized replies, and I see the allure (from e.g. a legal point of view), but at least make sure the reply is to the point. Or provide a phone number to call a real human in your first reply so that a case can be escalated. Apple (with all it’s issues on the book side) works really well here.
Hans M Hirschi
The author of this post is author, trainer, blogger, business executive & partner at Yāree AB, a consulting firm in the field of interpersonal communication et al in Gothenburg/Sweden. He appreciates feedback & comments, and can be reached through his websitee-mail or Twitter.

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