Once again, I find myself flabbergasted at service levels in the midst of the worst recession most of us have ever seen.  In my post How not to make a sale, I describe how a retailer drove us from a physical establishment after we had committed to buy. But it appears that direct retail operations are also not immune mistakes in organization, job design and incentives that result in lousy service. 

The story

For some time my wife and I have been looking for window treatments: online, and in specialty, home improvement and furniture stores. However, we hadn’t quite found the right combination of style and price and, of course, it was a challenge to imagine how something would look from a brochure or website.

Thus, we were delighted when we got a flier from a well-known retail chain that offered high-end blinds from a national brand, at a substantial discount, with rebates to boot. Still not cheap, but manageable. We went to the website, found what we wanted, and called the 800 number, where we were put in contact with a local sales agent for the brand. She was pretty busy (a good sign, we thought) so it took several weeks to get an appointment for her to come by with samples and measuring tape.  We made our selection and she diligently, it appeared, filled out the paperwork.

Within the promised delivery time, we got a call from the installer who said he had received the shipment, and set an appointment. The only day we could get was Thanksgiving eve, because he was so busy (at this point, we’re relieved to get them in time for the holiday and, again, thought that busy-ness is a good sign…). Just before his arrival, I took down the existing blinds, as agreed.  He shows up within the appointed time window, unloads the blinds and gets ready to start installing.

So far, so good.

There’s always a ‘but…’

But, as we reviewed the order, I noticed that an entire room of blinds is missing. He claimed to know nothing about it. So I called the sales agent, getting a chirpy voice wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving and informing she will not be back until the following Monday. I called the 800 number and they tracked down the order and inform that it in fact has been delivered to the installer who, again, claimed ignorance.

I put him on the phone with the call processing facility – turns out that these blinds had been delivered to him just today (he had set up the appointment over a week ago), after he left on his rounds.  He explains that the order must have been split into two shipments, and blames it on the retailer and manufacturer – clearly not his fault! This is abysmal supply chain management – I’ve been around long enough that I know you sometimes have to split orders. But whenever I’ve done that, I’ve always made it VERY clear to everyone involved, and especially my customer, what is going on.

Regardless, they still have a chance at victory – I asked the installer if he can get them and come back that evening (they are in the next town over, perhaps 20 minutes away). ‘Oh no, that would be at least 9 o’clock tonight,’ he said. ‘I’ll be here,’ I replied. ‘No, sorry, I’m not coming back with these tonight,’ he retorted.

I told him I had set this time based on his availability, had spent the afternoon removing old blinds, per the agreement, and that I really wanted to get them in that evening, particularly with the holiday. All to no avail. The best he was willing to do is come back on Saturday. Seeing he was not going to budge, I reluctantly agreed.

It gets worse

In a bit, I heard an ‘excuse me sir’ in a little more subdued voice. ‘Yes,’ I responded. ‘Sorry,’ I learned, ‘but one of the blinds in the other room has has been mismeasured and will need to be reordered.’

Frustration mounting, I glared at him and called both the sales agent (same chirpy message) and the retailer again (this time a voicemail), left my phone number and messages that this was no where close to the buying experience I had been led to expect, concluding with an unmistakable ‘I’m not happy.’  Thursday and Friday come and go (no follow up phone calls on Friday) and the installer returned on Saturday, a little more sheepish than on the prior visit.

He installed the part of the order that had been missing, informed me that he had reordered the mismeasured blind and as he was cleaning up, I tried out the blinds. One of the blinds, as I pulled on the cord, simply dropped and I couldn’t pull it back up. He looked at it, determines that it is a faulty retracting mechanism and unsuccessfully tried to reset it in the up position (which I could’ve lived with for a while). This one will have to come down and I will have to – again – reinstall the old blind while awaiting the replacement. The installer’s body language borders on something between embarassment and shame.

Once again I called the sales agent and the retailer, leaving messages for both.


As I try to comprehend what led to this, I investigate. The blinds manufacturer seems to get consistently high ratings. I call on the head of our Retail practice, who informs that the retailer is very much a do-it-on-your own organization and it has had historically a good reputation. In other words, they don’t take advice, and that has worked for the – so far.

So a couple of things may be at play. Here’s my take:

From an organization perspective, make sure the organization, job design and incentives are aligned with the strategy. It might seem like going to the store with your measurements then ordering the blinds wouldn’t be much different from calling the 800 number and arranging for someone to come to your house. In fact, you might think that this might increase customer satisfaction, since you could actually see the samples in the environment where they’d reside, and you’d have a professional to make sure the order was done properly. I certainly did, and was even willing to pay a premium for it. However, the fact is that once you centralize elements of the process and outsource others (i.e., to the in home sales agent), problems can and likely will ensue.

  • For example, I never received any notification from the retailer after I signed the paperwork – even a simple email confirming the order would have undoubtedly alerted me to the fact that there were two shipments involved, which I could have discussed with the installer when he called.
  • Further, if you are going to outsource elements of a process, make sure you redesign the jobs and that everyone understands their new roles – here, though both the sales agent and the installer now had responsibility for customer service, by their actions, they clearly did not see it as part of their jobs.
  • Nor is it likely they are compensated for it. Had, for example, the installer simply said the first evening, ‘I’ll come back later tonight to do this install the missing blinds for you,’ I would have been ecstatic, and my view on the mis-measured and defective blinds would have come from a completely different perspective. But with no incentives – or penalities – he had no interest in coming back.

From another – brand – perspective, make sure you frequently review ALL possible customer touchpoints and ensure the incentives reward the desired behaviors, which MUST be specified. Can you really fault the sales agent? After all, she did what exactly she was paid to do, demo the product, get the measurements and complete the paperwork. You might argue that she has some incentive for repeat business, but I’m not so sure. I’d need access to repurchase data for this brand, but her behaviors indicate that is not top of mind when she is trying to close the sale.

In hindsight, on the initial call she asked whether I knew what I wanted and when I affirmed, she asked if I had the measurements and was ready to order? I said I would prefer that she come out (this was a premium brand after all, and I wanted to get it right). After the fact, I recall that she didn’t listen particularly well during the visit – when she got ready to write up the order, I had to correct her several times on the models and features that we actually wanted (we had discussed several options), and that should have perhaps alerted me to do one final check on the measurements.

But I had assumed I was dealing with a representative of a premium brand, which would have specified desired behaviors, and – unfortunately – discounted my cognitive dissonance. I, of all people, should probably know better, but it does show the impact a brand can have on buyer perceptions…

The downside for the brand, of course, is what occurs when expectations are not met.

Do these people want your business?

Of course they will say they do.  And probably they believe it. Yet, I am a dissatisfied customer, and I didn’t have to be. There were a number of times throughout the ordeal that an effective organization, well-designed jobs and properly aligned incentives would have resulted in satisfying me, even with the errors. One could argue that since the recession started retailers, especially, have been under extreme duress. Unfortunately, when people or organizations are stressed, they circle the wagons and just focus on survival. But there are two sides to the coin, as the Chinese understand: the character for crisis is a combination of two other characters: danger and opportunity. But taking advantage of an opportunity requires open-minded inquiry.

So, I conclude, they really don’t want my business. What they really want is to do things the way they’ve always done them, because that has worked in the past. Unfortunately for them, they will never actually be confronted with this reality since not only do they appear to be immune to outside influence, but I will do what almost all customers do once exasperation sets in – tell my friends.

I leave you with this: do you really want your customers’ business?