Sunday, June 27, 2010

Customer Service: Weighing the Options

Knowledge of—and confidence in—a company's culture empowers employees to make decisions and to seek out creative solutions to problems.

After 5 years of delivering newspapers as a kid, I got myself  a "real job" in a high-volume supermarket. I worked for that chain through most of college, and for a couple of years later on as I was getting my music career started. By then, I was a department manager, and had responsibility for minding the store one night a week and a weekend or two a month. As a bagger, cashier, and service desk worker, I had learned the company culture with regard to Customer Service: Stick by the store's reputation, do what you can to please the Customer, don't be afraid to give refunds - but be reasonable. Sometimes Customers are not reasonable, and we cannot help them. Escalate as high as you need to, including the owner of the store, and know that we trust your judgment. Now as a manager I would sometimes be tested.

One evening I was in the front office of the store, making sure the front end staff took appropriate breaks, making sure the shopping carts were collected from the lot, that cashiers got their rolls of quarters, and so on. Suddenly, a couple came in and slammed a package down on the counter in front of the woman who was on the desk that evening. "This is what you sell here?" the woman in the couple roared. "I wouldn't feed this to my dog!" I scanned the security cameras and the front end to make sure this was not a diversion, and then stepped forward as the woman at the desk turned toward me.

I unwrapped the package as I said something like, "What seems to be the problem?" The customer repeated her invective as I got a look at the contents of the package - a few hunks of cooked beef fat. The woman told me how their dinner was ruined by the amount of unusable meat had been in their roast. I thought it was quite a lot of fat until I looked at the sticker on the used wrapper. They had bought a very large roast, and should not have been surprised by this amount of fat. So, I applied my cultural lessons.

  • Stick by the store's reputation - I knew we had one of the best meat departments in the chain of nearly 200 stores, and had huge respect for the master butcher who ran the department and bought the meat. We sold good meat.
  • Do what you can to please the Customer - I immediately grabbed a pad of our refund forms. There was little doubt I would give the customer a refund. But I did not want to do so at the expense of our reputation.
I had a flash of an idea: I picked up the store PA microphone and paged a bagger to the office. I handed him the "package" the people had returned, after removing the price sticker. While I was writing up the refund, I had the bagger go over to one of the produce scales and get me a printout of exactly how much fat had been returned. He quickly came back with a weight that indicated that the fat was less than 3% of the weight of the beef roast. I spoke this finding out loud to the customers has I asked them to sign the refund form, taking extra care not to be accusatory or condescending.

The message: I know you're pulling a stunt to get your money back. You'll get your money back, but I'm telling you that we're better (and smarter) than you think.

The customers wound up thanking me for the refund (of course they did—they got a free roast out of the deal), but left quickly and somewhat sheepishly. I had spent the store's money, but protected our reputation. Having an unhappy, vocal customer on a busy evening was not my idea of good PR.

I wrote up the incident for the store manager, and wound up getting a pat on the back for being imaginative from the store owner a few days later when he visited. We had a conversation about it, and I told him why I thought it would have been the wrong call to refund the people only the price of the fat—it would have been an insult from their point of view, even though they were "putting one over" on us. He agreed. And that, for me, was enough.

Knowledge of—and confidence in—a company's culture empowers employees to make decisions and to seek out creative solutions to problems.

Give it some thought.


  1. Great post on culture of empowerment.

  2. Thanks, Will - Knowing where you stand is what lets you take a step--in any direction. Having to guess 'what the boss will say" is paralyzing.

  3. "Having to guess 'what the boss will say' is paralyzing." Well said. Nice post. The customer is not always right, we just need to do our best to make sure they're satisfied, or if unreasonable, that they get satisfied somewhere else next time.


  4. Hi Roy,

    You handled the complaining customer very smartly!

    The value of such 'pain-in-the-neck' customers needs to be measured and a decision made on whether they are worth keeping:

  5. We would not want to lose customer over one incident; that's why the full refund was made. I have, however, been involved in cases where a consistently problematic customer was asked not return because they were "scamming the system.. You do have to weigh a customer's overall value in some cases.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, Charles!

  6. Nice! The challenge would have been announcing that in a way that didn't appear accusatory. Good for you for managing it!

  7. Thanks, Tema. Its was a very tricky situation.