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Pain at John Lewis – a lesson in awful customer service

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Ian Brodie

Ian Brodie

Ian Brodie teaches consultants, coaches and other professionals to attract and win the clients they need using "Value-Based Marketing" - an approach to marketing based around delivering value, demonstrating your capabilities and earning trust through your marketing.


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Pain at John Lewis – a lesson in awful customer service

One of the prerogatives of being a fairly well read blogger – especially of a sales related blog – is that every now and then you get to rant about a bad customer service experience you've had.

This is my time.

And it's a doozy.

I've just spent the best part of an hour being grilled by the security staff at John Lewis in what I would describe as a deliberately (policy driven) accusatory manner. I've been a very valuable customer for them over the years and they've just lost me for life.

I went to John Lewis today to buy some stuff – a solar charger for my iphone and a new wallet. For those outside the UK, John Lewis is a well known national chain of department stores – they usually have pretty good items at good prices – and they have a good reputation for customer service. They're fairly unique in that they are owned by the 69,000 employees (or partners as they call them) and were voted Britain's favourite retailer in 2009. Well, they're certainly not my favourite now.

After I'd bought the solar charger I started looking at wallets. The reason I wanted a new one was that although my current one works well in a jacket pocket – it's just too big to slip into the pocket on a pair of jeans or trousers if I'm not wearing a jacket. I wanted a nice looking one – but the main criteria was that it was small.

In order to find the right wallet I spent quite a bit of time at the stand testing them out. There were some very small ones – just big enough for a few credit cards, and some slightly bigger ones which allowed more stuff to fit in them. I took my existing credit cards and tried them in the new wallets, putting the wallets into and out of my jacket and trouser pockets to test. At one point I went to the counter to buy the very small one – then had second thoughts and tested it with some extra cards I have in my wallet and found it a very tight fit for them. So I went back to the slightly larger ones – some nice Ted Baker branded leather wallets. I “umm'd and ahh'd” for a bit over the choice of a black leather one matching most of the other stuff I carry, or a cooler brown leather one. In the end I went for the plain black leather one.

I tried to check out the prices of the wallets – but struggled to find any price tags (I later found out the tags are usually inside the wallets – I was looking on the boxes). The wallet I wanted was next to two empty boxes – one with a price in it and one without (to be honest with all the swapping and moving I have no idea which box it was originally in) – but both were Ted Baker boxes.

I put the wallet in the box with the price tag and took it to the counter. When I got served, I specifically asked the assistant to double check the price of the wallet as I wasn't sure I had the correct box and I wanted to make sure I was paying the correct price.

He disappeared for a few minutes and then came back and confirmed the price on the box was correct – a relatively cheap £35.

So I bought it, and after fiddling with my iphone for a bit, left the store ready to head home.

Outside the door I was confronted by three big security guards. One asked me to show him what was in my pockets, which I did (I actually had the new wallet in my hands at the time and was busy transferring my credit cards into it as I walked). After confirming that, of course, I didn't have an extra wallet anywhere, they said they still wanted to take me to the security area so I was escorted back through the store into the private room they have.

When there I told them I wanted to record the conversation we were about to have on the voice recorder app on my iphone (it would have made a fun podcast!) – they disappeared for 10 minutes and came back saying that they had been told by group security that in would be “inappropriate” to record it on a mobile phone (!?!).

They then took my name and address – and then told me that they suspected me of something called “ticket swapping”. Apparently this is where someone swaps the price tag on a high priced item for a lower priced tag.

I explained how I had been selecting my wallet and trying out sizes and that I understood it may have looked strange. I then explained how there had only been one box with a price on so I had picked that but had deliberately asked the sales assistant to confirm the correct price so that I didn't under or over pay. I checked with them that they'd spoken to the sales assistant and confirmed this had happened.

“OK I thought, that's that cleared up. They're only doing their jobs – but now they understand what happened I'll get an apology and it'll all be over with”.

But no.

I did get an apology of sorts. The main security guard offered his apology saying “there's been confusion and mistakes on both sides. On this occasion we're prepared to let you leave right now.”

I did a double take. What did they mean “mistakes on both sides” and “on this occasion” – what “occasion” is this? Me buying for and paying for goods and taking extra steps to make sure I paid the right price.

So I checked with him: “Are you agreeing that you were mistaken and that I made sure I paid the correct price? Or do you still think I was up to something?”

He stated that in his view “A ticket swap was attempted – but I (the guard) intercepted this and made sure the right price was paid”.

I couldn't believe it. I checked again. “Look, I specifically asked the assistant to check the price and make sure it was right. There's no way I could have been trying anything. Think about it – I deliberately made sure I was paying the right price.”

But he wouldn't back down.

“Are you still accusing me of trying to do this ‘ticket swap' thing?”

“Yes”.

Unbelieveable. I go out of my way to make sure a mistake isn't made – and I get accused of trying to steal something.

Well, that was it for me.

As it happens, I am absolutely scrupulous about honesty. If I get undercharged for things or get an accidental refund I will point it out and pay the right amount. The flip side of that is I am absolutely relentless if someone accuses me of dishonesty.

Despite his apologies he was not going to admit he was wrong. He was still accusing me of theft.

Obviously I called for the manager – I was furious.

To his credit, the manager listened to my story and apologised. He said all the right words – but it still hurt.

I wouldn't leave until the security guard backed down and admitted I was clearly innocent. Maybe it's just me but I couldn't leave there knowing that someone – for whatever foolhardy reason – thought I was guilty of something. It just seemed so obviously wrong to me.

After they backed down I went downstairs with them just to make sure – for my own sanity – that I hadn't been undercharged. I didn't want to walk out of that store thinking “perhaps an accident did happen and I've paid less than this is worth”. And of course, the assistant confirmed I'd paid exactly the right amount. Of course I had – I'd asked him to double check originally.

The guard walked out of the store with me. (Eventually) he was apologetic. But even then I couldn't help thinking – “Is he just saying this because it's ‘good customer service'?” “Does he really believe he was right all along?”.

I'm still thinking that now – and I hate it. I can't bear to think that out there someone thinks I've been dishonest and “got away with it”.

I'm not naming the individual security guard. I really don't think it was specifically him. Clearly guards are trained to be suspicious – to distrust. They need to do so to do their job. My issue is with the procedures they followed.

The problem was that the whole procedure seemed designed on the assumption I was guilty. So even when
it became startlingly clear that I had in fact gone out of my way to be honest – the guard just couldn't accept it. The words he'd been trained to use – apologising without admitting a mistake; then admitting a “partial mistake” but still claiming that I was guilty. Then trying to close the issue (by “letting me go this time”) without resolving the mental turmoil that any genuine customer would have been going through.

And what if I hadn't gone the extra mile and asked the assistant to double check the price? What if I'd just done the perfectly reasonable act of picking the nearest box to the wallet and taking that to the checkout? Would they ever have backed down? I'd probably still be there now. I'd never have got any mental resolution to the issue of being under suspicion. And my God, it was so painful to be treated with such suspicion – that was a real revelation for me.

A simple step for them would also have been to check my name against their customer records (they had plenty of time while they were “checking with legal”). While having spent thousands with them over recent years isn't a guarantee of my honesty – it would have told them what they had at risk, and that maybe they should proceed carefully and try to ensure that the process was as painless as possible for me.

And their procedures let them down with follow-up. When they thought I was guilty they wrote all my details down. When it became clear I wasn't, they gave me back the sheet to prove they were keeping no records of the incident. But they have also kept no records in order to redeem themselves. They have no idea who I am or how to contact me. Now they can't follow-up to apologise or do anything. Their much heralded John Lewis Customer Service has no chance of working.

So what have I learned from this?

Well, firstly it's reminded me that blogging is a pretty cathartic experience. I feel rather better for having written about this. Perhaps I should have written this as a letter of complaint rather than airing their dirty laundry in public. But – bah! I'm a blogger Goddammit.

Secondly, it's really driven home like a nail just how important customer experience is in selling.

I've spent literally thousands of pounds in that John Lewis store over the years. From prams for the kids when they were born, to toys, tons of electronics, some artwork and home furnishings, right through to some lamps last week. They're a good store with good products and excellent value – I know that rationally. They have good principles – I've seen them, and I know people who work there and they're lovely people. But right now I cannot imagine myself ever shopping there again. This incident has cost them many thousands of pounds (not counting the bad PR from all the people I inevitably rant to – and the people who read this).

We all talk and advise our clients about the importance of good service and making amends when something goes wrong. We all know it rationally. But you never know it fully until you experience it yourself. I'm still fuming over an hour later. My pain will be rekindled later when my wife gets home and I tell her about it. As I said, I can't imagine ever shopping there again.

Now let's put this in perspective: I haven't lost a loved one, been detained illegally for years, or been beaten for being somewhere in the vicinity of a protest march. I've just had a bad experience. But it shows how something as rationally small as this can have such a huge emotional impact on customers.

Finally, it's highlighted the importance of making sure you have a way of making amends properly. They let me walk out of that store with no way of contacting me again. Now sure, I might not have wanted to give them my details – but they didn't ask. As it happens, even requesting my details so they could follow up, perhaps do a “post mortem”, would have made me feel better. What I really want is for them to review their policies so that innocent customers aren't made to feel like criminals like I was. But I'll never know if that's happening and they have no way of telling me if it is.

Well, rant over. Thanks for staying with me. Hopefully we learnt a little along the way about how to treat customers and how to make sure you have an avenue for making amends.

If you have a similar painful story to share – drop it in the comments below – it might help you feel better!

Ian

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Ian Brodie

Ian Brodie

https://www.ianbrodie.com

Ian Brodie teaches consultants, coaches and other professionals to attract and win the clients they need using "Value-Based Marketing" - an approach to marketing based around delivering value, demonstrating your capabilities and earning trust through your marketing.

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