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Under-Promise, Over-Deliver: Amazon’s Dropped Ball

September 21, 2014
sad-face I have an admitted obsession with customer service. It all started in 1978 when, as a new college grad with a B.A. in economics, I worked in consumer lending. Half of my job involved building loan and mortgage business; the other half required me to hit the road in the company car to collect delinquent loan accounts. In those days, it was none of this current day harassing phone calls (I did that, too). If you wanted money paid back you knocked on doors and hoped you didn’t get the crap beat out of you.


I lasted two years. At that point we had a little girl and I was finding it really distasteful hounding single moms for their monthly family allowance cheques. I quit my job and went back to university to earn a Masters degree in economics. I lucked out during the nasty 1981-82 recession and bagged a job with the federal government, where I worked for three decades. My most challenging, rewarding and inspiring work was working in and managing service branches. Working in policy units in the nation’s capital, where I transferred to from a regional office after almost 20 years, was a soul searching experience.

I love customer service. And it’s why, after leaving government four years ago, I work in retail, the last year being in outdoor gear and apparel.

It’s a buzz helping people. They learn from me, and I learn from them. That’s the reciprocity of customer service; it’s not a one-way street if it’s done properly.

One thing I learned long ago was to honor promises made. There is nothing more frustrating than being a customer and being told that something will be done–guaranteed–only to discover days later that your item isn’t in, that an invisible employee forgot to follow-up, or that the call center rep didn’t input the notes into your file that she promised to do.

Always under-promise, and over-deliver.

ALWAYS.

Tom Peters, the ultimate customer service champion, emphatically tells you that. Follow this advice and not only will your job as a customer service champ be easier but your customers will hug you. Yes, I’ve been hugged–by guys– at work. Usually they just shake my hand. If only they knew how rewarding it feels to be acknowledged by a hand-shake and a sincere thanks. Money means nothing in this context. It’s about two humans connecting at a brief moment in time, one helping the other.

That brings me to a story. Yes, one of my many stories.

happy-face-sad-face As much as I try to patronize local stores, sometimes, for whatever reason, I’ll order online. I tried eBay a few times and the experience was good. However, more recently I’ve ordered from Amazon on several occasions. For specific, hard-to-obtain items Amazon’s pretty good. Just a few weeks ago I ordered two small items for my smart phone. I wasn’t going to pay Rogers Communications the outrageous prices they demanded.

Amazon has been bugging me for a while to try out their Prime service, which costs $99 per year and has a two-day delivery service. In the case of my recent small order, I could use Prime, free for a month, and get the two items delivered with no shipping charge and with a guaranteed delivery date. Okay, I’m in, I decided. Maybe the 99 bucks is worth it.

I placed my order at the end of the week and received an email which included the statement that my order was guaranteed for delivery on the following Monday. Pretty cool, I thought.

Monday rolled around and after Canada Post dropped off the mail in the afternoon I checked my mailbox. No Amazon order. What??? This was not life and death stuff, let alone of national importance. But a “guaranteed” delivery date is a guarantee. Period. You can’t negotiate that. Well, okay, maybe I’m being a bit rash. Had there been a tsunami I would have been more understanding. But I live 1,000 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean. Hurricanes? None that week. Tornadoes? Not in this neck of the woods.

So I emailed Amazon since I was curious what they would say. I received a number of replies, in what became a circular, mind-numbing loop. Here’s a sample of an email reply on Amazon’s failure to meet its Guarantee promise under Prime:

Hello from Amazon.ca,

I’m sorry to hear that your order didn’t arrive by the estimated delivery date.

We are aware that our choice of delivery services reflects on our business as a whole, and we understand your concern. I have passed your message along to our shipping department, as I know they will want to read about your experience.

In my experience, late packages arrive not long after the estimated delivery date. Please wait until end of September 9, 2014 before requesting a refund or replacement. Otherwise, you might have to deal with returning a package.

September 9 is just an estimated date to consider this order as lost. I’m sure that your order is still in transit, you can expect the order to be delivered soon.

We’re aware that our choice of delivery services reflects on our business as a whole, and our shipping department will take appropriate action against the carrier.

Unfortunately, in spite of all of our efforts, there can sometimes be unforeseen delays, and in this case we would ask that you wait a little longer.

We take full responsibility if any item become lost or damaged while being delivered and we’re more than happy to replace these items at no additional charge.

Occasionally, the carrier website does not display any information for a delivery confirmation number. But the vast majority of packages still reach their destination, even when no tracking information is listed online.

To ensure you receive this shipment, I’ll personally keep track of your package and send another e-mail on September 10. If you haven’t received your package at that time, I’ll make sure to get a refund or replacement for you.

One of our aims at Amazon.com is to provide a convenient and efficient service; in this case, we haven’t met that standard. I’m truly sorry, and I hope you’ll give us another chance in the future.

We look forward to see you again.

Best regards,
Priyadharsini S


Guy yelling at phone There’s a lot of mumbo jumbo in this email reply, in all likelihood a form letter with fill-in-the blank specifics. Indeed, it’s such a pathetic reply that I broke out laughing at one point, since every time Amazon sent me an email it asked for my feedback on three customer service points. Each time I responded honestly, which produced poor scores, which in turn prompted another email. It had the potential to become a never-ending loop, reminiscent of Bill Murray in the film Groundhog Day.

As I pointed out to Priyadharsini, he was incorrect in his statement on estimated delivery. Guaranteed means what it is: Guaranteed. There’s no room for Amazon to maneuver on this point. It failed to meet its Prime guarantee, and the company needs to be called out on this aspect of its service, which is usually quite good. And as I listen to online music stations I keep heating the Amazon Prime ads with the two-day delivery promise. And no, Priyadharsini never followed up as he promised.

The lesson for Amazon and any other company–small, medium or large–when it comes to customer service is this: Always under-promise and over-deliver.

Always.

It’s clear to me that Amazon has become so big that it’s losing contact with its customers. In that case, the company may already be over the top of the curve; all that’s needed is for an emerging service (competitor) to beat Amazon’s sloppy customer service.


Customer service is not something to be negotiated, debated or frittered away; it’s something to be nurtured 24/7.

– James Taggart


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