Searching for Service and Satisfaction at Sears

I’m struggling a bit to fully explain the series of unfortunate events that transpired today involving my experience with Sears and, in the spirit of Festivus, I figured the best place to start was with an airing of grievances here on the blog.

So, Sears, I gotta lotta problems with you!

It all started innocently enough several months ago when Jenn and I realized we could purchase Sears gift cards at a discount, thus enabling us to purchase a new TiVo HD at a reduced rate. And before I get too much further I should explain that the situation I’m about to describe is most definitely a first-world problem/white whine but I’m OK with that since it illuminates, in my mind at least, a big disconnect between big businesses an their customers.

Anyhow, I went to Sears a week before Christmas armed with $300 in gift cards and the intent to purchase a TiVo HD – retail price $299.99. In the course of my shopping trip I also purchased a 6 foot length of Philips HDMI cable for $40.00, thinking it smart to get connectivity from the TiVo to the TV and not worrying too much that I’d find something cheaper later. A quick scan of BestBuy.com left me pleased that my truly less expensive alternatives were quite lesser in terms of quality so I kept both purchases – TiVo HD & HDMI cable – for Christmas day. I paid most of my Sears tab with the gift cards and supplemented the rest with a credit card reserved for holiday shopping excursions and didn’t give the transaction a second thought.

As luck would have it my in-laws knew of an online retailer – MonoPrice.com – with much cheaper cables; cheap enough to dissuade me of any lingering quality concerns and force me to purchase there and attempt to return my Philips HDMI cable to Sears. So this morning that’s exactly what I did; I ran in to Sears while the rest of the family waited in the car. It should have been a 5 minute affair of a post-Christmas return. It should have gone smoothly. It should have been satisfactory. Would I be blogging (or you reading) if it was?

I waited a while, nearly twenty minutes, in a line in the Electronics department behind a very nice couple getting help from a sales associate trying to find and HDTV. To her credit, she called several other Sears stores in the area trying to locate two separate models for these folks to no avail and, eventually, the husband insisted the associate help me since I’d been waiting patiently. I guess I’d missed the returns kiosk down one of the main corridors of the store, but no one had been manning the desk near the back entrance where I’d picked up orders and returned merchandise before. I’d assumed I should return the item to the department where I’d purchased it and I can’t fault Sears for my own failure to locate a return area.

Where I can fault them is the handling of return. After scanning my receipt and my merchandise the associate noted that she would be issuing me a gift card in the amount of $40-odd dollars and cents. I was puzzled and searched my receipt for a reason why:

  • she should be doing this
  • she shouldn’t be doing this

Several times I repeated verbatim this phrase from the receipt itself:

“REFUND WILL BE ISSUED IN THE ORIGINAL TENDER.” (Caps theirs. I’m just quoting).

My point, succinctly, was that the gift cards paid for the TiVo HD, which I wasn’t returning, and my credit card paid for the cable, which I was returning. Ergo, I should get my money back on my credit card. Simple as that.

If the transaction contained both gift cards and credit cards, she explained, the “computer” wouldn’t let her change the refund structure and would default to the gift card. There was nothing she nor her manager could do about it (I asked).

I left feeling more than a bit miffed and went to the car to explain the situation to Jenn. By this point we’d already exchanged multiple texts about the length of time I’d been in the store and upon hearing of the outcome the whole family proceeded to load out of the car and back in to the store to seek some better form of remuneration and satisfaction. None came.

Instead we found the appropriate service kiosk, explained our plight, showed our receipts, had a near identical explanation given to us and demanded the associate (a separate associate from the first) call her manager. Following a brief phone conversation to which we were only privy to one side, the associate reiterated for a now-third time that because the initial purchase contained some form of gift cards AND because the return was less than $50 (arbitrary?) that the entirety of the refund must be made via gift card. She went on to explain that had the return been greater than $50, HALF the amount would have been credited to my credit card and the OTHER HALF would have been done as a gift card which seems both MORE RANDOM and also immaterial to the situation at hand.

First, the entire policy seems silly based on my intent/intended use of the gift cards – the purchase of the TiVo HD. Second, what do I care about situations other than mine, especially when the “solution” to that new problem seems even more serpentine and illogical?

We left in a huff and talked about our options on the car ride between our other errands. We quickly decided the most prudent action we could take to receive the desired outcome would be to go back to Sears with our TiVo HD, return it (thus nullifying the entirety of our original purchase trip and returning the HDMI cable sum to our credit card) and then re-purchase the TiVo with the resulting $300 in gift card monies. Phew! That’s a lot of hoops to jump through just to get money back on a credit card, but it was the principle of the thing.

Why should Sears get to decide how the monies are apportioned? If I’m the one who decided how to pay them in the first place, why should they dictate to me how they’re going to refund me? I suppose they like the fact that they get me tethered to another potential purchase with that gift card, but I don’t. I’m the customer. I’m always right, right? Wrong. I was told that no one had the authority to override or change the system.

In the process of sitting out a brief rainstorm at a later point in our errand-running, I decided to hit the internet to see if I could find a customer service number to get things resolved better/more quickly than the plot I’d hatched. I didn’t feel like calling the Sears CEO (though I appreciate Consumerist) but I did think making a call to customer service would be appropriate. Two things:

  1. Props to Sears for having a very functional mobile site that auto-detected me on my iPhone
  2. Shame on Sears for not including some kind of link to a customer service (or any other) phone number from their mobile site. That seems like a huge no-brainer

I called 800-549-4505 and followed this track:

Press 1 for English
Press 0 until transferred
Press 5 for general customer service issue

Colleen answered the line and asked for some basic information – my name and phone number as well as the location of the store where I’d had my problem. After ruling out K-Mart stores and finding the Sears location I’d visited, Colleen set about divining the heart of my complaint.

When I’d explained the above scenario Colleen said what we’d heard before – that the associates and the manager had acted accordingly but – but that she was going to contact the store directly to discuss the situation further and could I wait a moment. I hung on for the hold music, trusting Colleen was doing what she’d promised, and waited for her return. Upon reestablishing our conversation, Colleen profusely apologized for my predicament but toed the company line for now the fifth time, letting me know nicely (but in no uncertain terms) that the policy was executed as it was written and that the return could not be processed to my satisfaction.

I immediately threw out my alternative solution – returning and then repurchasing the TiVo – which Collen agreed would end with me getting the monies reapportioned to my accounts as I saw fit. I told her that while I was happy the situation would eventually be resolved, I wasn’t happy with the manner in which I’d have to achieve my stated aims. It seems like an undue burden to place on me when, surely at some level, some person could have voided a transaction or overrode (overridden? That’s a topic for another blog post) the computer to make things right? Certainly people run Sears and not some cabal of robotic, mechanized, computerized overlords who impose their stringent logic for the personal oversight of living, breathing, compassionate human beings? Human beings who are also consumers themselves?

The only saving grace in all of this is the attitude and words of Colleen, the phone customer service associate. Even though she was explaining the same thing as the in-store representatives, her approach, demeanor and words were all sympathetic and she seemed to genuinely be trying to find a suitable solution for me as opposed to the indifferent and disinterested associates who stated “it’s the computer” or “store policy” as though they were words of power and mysticism that would stop me dead in my tracks and quash any further discussion.

In the end, I strolled in to the Sears store at 5:55 PM – 5 minutes before closing – walked my TiVo and my receipts back to the Electronics section and was processed and out the door before the clock struck 6 o’clock.

All I had to say was “I want to return this item and then purchase it again.” and I got no resistance and only one question: which of my (now) two gift cards would I like to use first. An immaterial question to be sure, but only a minor annoyance to an otherwise super-fast and stress-free transaction.

I now have ZERO gift cards, the amount of the purchase of the HDMI cables back on my credit card and the TiVo HD in my possession. I’m three-for-three.

Why blog then? Well, because I think Sears is ridiculous for a couple of reasons:

  1. Their return policy is poorly written on the front AND back of their receipts. At no point is this rigamarole is the point about gift cards and refunds make clear, nor is their a URL provided for more information.
  2. How does a mobile website not include a number of any kind especially one for customer service?
  3. It is never acceptable for a customer service associate to say “the computer won’t let me”. That’s code for me the customer to assume that you are too lazy or incompetent to find the real answer. Even if this is the correct answer, I should be shielded from the sausage-making of your point-of-sale system and a manager should be consulted or brought to deal with me.

What I’ve learned and will/won’t be doing in the future:

  1. I won’t buy or accept gift cards as gifts. Consider yourself warned.
  2. I won’t be shopping at Sears again. Despite the care shown to me over the phone and in my last transaction, unless and until the policies change regarding gift cards, I have plenty of other places to spend my cash.
  3. I’m always going to err on the side of trying to find a human answer. Sure I could have flown off the handle and gotten nasty in-person or over the phone, but what would that have achieved. Granted, I did Sears’ job for them to get the result I (and by extension “they” *should* have wanted), but it still beat blowing my top and getting nothing resolved. Plus, it shows that people will get satisfaction and route around trouble like water flowing to a low point or the internet routing around an outage.

There’s no great tale here of “Web 2.0” saving the day or helping resolve my problem, though blogging (in the form of this post and the Consumerist link) do fit in, it’s just generally “the internet” and old-fashioned phone support helping to grease the wheels of problem-solving.

I wish Sears had done a better job of solving my problem without so much effort on my part. I wish their mobile site were “better” in solving the actual problem I had – a number to call them. I wish for a lot of things, but mostly for them to consider changing their policy to be more customer-friendly and less customer disservice.

Surely this is a bit of an edge case. I could just as easily have done the TiVo and the cable as separate purchases on different receipts, but why should I inconvenience myself to make their internal processes work easier. Why should I have to know the intricacies of their systems beforehand to ensure a positive outcome after the fact?

As a customer, I don’t care or need to know about *how* things get done, just that they get done. And here, I know now that I can get things done even is Sears won’t.

In the end I’m happy that I got things resolved and I’m also happy that I’ve stuck Sears with 4 receipts to track one customer interaction. May they get lost in their own red tape trying to decipher just what I did (or what they did to me). Seems like they could have saved a tree and an accountant had they simply put the money back on the credit card like I’d asked. Less money on paper, labor, gas (my return trip) and on the phone call. There really is a price for convenience after all.

And just so you know that I’m not doing this to cause some kerfuffle or make Sears look bad (which I hope is pretty obvious, I’ve praised them where appropriate): I’m using their own site – SearsFeedback.com – to submit this blog post entirely AND I made sure that Colleen noted my general objection to store policy and not some one-time complaint about the associates or my transaction(s) specifically. She let me know that I would be heard and that Sears did review customer feedback in regards to their policies. Here’s hoping that I get some kind of response – one way or another – about my feedback. Because I won’t shop at Sears until such time that this policy changes, even if it never would affect me again.

Let me know what you think? Too much white whine?

Oh, and here’s a photo of my very dirty desk and the parade of receipts generated in this whole back-and-forth. If nothing else, Sears will have fun deciphering what I did to get myself service and satisfaction.

Sears receipts and TiVo HD

Happy New Year!

Yesterday’s Customer Service

I want to talk about customer service, mostly by way of the intercept or follow-up survey.

Here’s the briefest of rundowns:

TiVo – Scheduling a show @ TiVo.com
AT&T – Making a purchase @ the AT&T Store (iPhone 3G)
The AJC – Direct selling from a sweaty college kid

The first intercept of yesterday: TiVo.com.

I was just trying to schedule an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives featuring Atlanta’s own The Highlander and starring some of Jenn’s co-workers.

TiVo.com choked a bit on the fact that I tried to do this without logging in first, but other than that, online scheduling works as expected.

Survey was over-long (4 sections of about 10 questions each) but very thorough. I would have loved it if some of my history had been cookied to avoid having to answer questions about what I did, but getting at the “why” and “how good/bad was it” necessitates tracking, albeit self-reported.

TiVo.com recently got a redesign, but the self-help and schedule are still top notch. My one complaint: human-readable URLs.

So I give TiVo credit for getting a ton of information from me, but they could have done it a little more efficiently. Plus, since I had to login to complete my transaction (not the survey), why not offer me an incentive for completing the survey?

Minor quibbles. TiVo is great and they really seem to want to get better where possible.

The second intercept of yesterday: AT&T

Jenn & I finally broke down/came to our senses and ordered 3G iPhones via direct fulfillment (versus cold-calling AT&T stores checking for deliveries, as we were advised by AT&T) on Saturday.

Automated phone call from 912 area code. Bad reception. Numerical selection-driven.

Total time on phone: roughly 5 minutes.

Comments left via recording: 2

Highlights: Giving AT&T high(ish) marks for their cell coverage. This was the reason I gave for favorably suggesting AT&T to others. That and the iPhone.

Lowlights: I gave the behind-the-counter customer service person low(ish) marks because:

  • She swapped my mobile number w/ my wife’s
  • She failed to explain the pricing structure of iPhone 3G service
  • I caveated this in my msg as only a potential shortcoming since we’ll likely be given a more thorough walk-through when the phones arrive and are activated. Still, I suggested that she could have offered literature.

  • She was a little amused during our transaction
  • She was courteous and quick but had a case of the giggles, which is fine, but there were multiple occasions where she called me Mr. Black (I was buying the black iPhone) and she had some trouble keeping the process correct in her head.

    Always a pleasure to work with someone in a good mood, but she was borderline scatter-brained and I thought it bore mentioning.

Additionally, I bitched about the availability of iPhone 3G specifically as it regards what I consider to be bad/mis information about how I should go about acquiring one having missed the initial Day One window. It’s a good reminder to always deal with an actual customer service person and not the guy taking names at the door.

I also made sure to note, to myself, that AT&T seems very interested in feedback and information. Much more so than BellSouth Wireless or Cingular ever were.

Which is not to say I enjoy AT&T. They’re like the crazy ex-girlfriend who won’t stop calling. Plus, their billing and personal service aren’t really any better than their previous two incarnations, they just send more mail/email/voicemall.

But at least they care enough to let me know they want feedback and I rarely, if ever, refuse such requests. As someone in Marketing (transitioning to Customer Relationship Management via Social Networking; see previous post) I realize you’re always sending some kind of message and communicating with your audience/constituency/customers. Happy to help them better serve me.

It could have been a better call if:

They’d called my mobile phone
They’d called sometime other than after dinner
They’d called on a better line themselves
They’d identified themselves via caller ID

The third intercept of yesterday: AJC

I don’t take the paper. Never have. Never will.

I truly respect journalists, having a degree in the field myself and having worked for a paper (The Red & Black – no laughing) while in college, but I don’t read enough of it, I don’t think, to justify paying for it.

My media use is disjointed and haphazard at best.

I sometimes the cable news channels.
I never watch network news.
I visit CNN.com, but only rarely.
I read blogs A TON, but I’m not a deep-linker; I skim

More often than not I see some opinion articles, read a few political blog posts or follow what BoingBoing & Kottke are linking, but little else.

I do some deep-diving, but not on a general interest level.

I follow UGA Football news, Entertainment industry news (like Variety for the TV part of my job and NewTeeVee for the broadband part of my job) but mostly my peers (both work and social) drive my interest.

Anyhow, I’m babbling.

Dear AJC,

Sending out a sweaty college kid in the late July heat into a neighborhood which prominently displays a “No Soliciting” sign out front is not a winning proposition.

Sure, I take your quarterly free weekend edition – for coupons and sports and leisure and comics – and I read you online – sporadically for blogs or opinion, but I’m not a pay-per-view person.

Christian is great, but I only read him when he tells me to. 😉

Anyhow, door-to-door seems as 19th Century as a paper-based paper does. Had I gotten your site intercept or other digital communique, maybe I’d feel differently.

I read your free local competitor, but only there blogs and I only take their hard copy for This Modern World.

Sincerely,

Me

So there you have it. Three opportunities to solicit feedback (really just two), three places to market and learn and communicate and my reactions to all three.

Not sure if this little exercise had a point, since I clearly love TiVo, abide AT&T and am ambivalent to AJC, but I thought it worth capturing my thoughts.

How can your company (or mine, for that matter) do a better job serving you?

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