Zach Ware

The thing about service

A few weeks ago I bought something from a startup. The company is two years old but thanks to a big bump in exposure was surely seeing an unexpected surge in orders.

The website noted that the product would ship around the 25th of February. Checkout, handled by Stripe, didn’t include many details and neither did the order confirmation. This was fine.

By February 29th, nothing had come. The website said would respond to customer emails within 30 minutes. So I emailed the company asking for an update. About 24 hours later I received a response.

The response was poorly written and the agent pasted the current expected ship time from today’s website to explain why my product purchased a month ago had not shipped.

I replied explaining that I bought it a month ago and expected it to ship in February and just wanted an update so I could plan. About 24 hours later I heard back. Nothing would ship until late April unless I wanted to change my order to a totally different product but the agent’s explanation of the options was poorly written and hard to follow.

I still haven’t decided what I want to do. And in the process of explaining why the item is delayed to two friends, I’ve somewhat unintentionally shared negative reviews of the company.

Something similar happened a few months ago with one of our portfolio companies that normally ships within 24 hours. A week passed and nothing arrived. The products are the kind for which there are dozens of alternative sources, one of them is Amazon.

When I emailed to ask about my order I got no response instead receiving a mass email the next day noting general delays and including a coupon for future use. I still didn’t know when my order was shipping. When I inquired to cancel my order I was told I couldn’t and then, magically, the order appeared that day. I received a shipping confirmation two days later.

This company didn’t break a promise. They offer no guarantees around the speed of shipping. But my dozen previous orders shipping same or next day. So while there was no explicit promise, the company’s past actions created an expectation. An expectation, given no explicit information to contrary during checkout, is the same to a customer as a promise.

Neither of these experiences is surprising. Commerce is hard and things break. It’s normal.

What’s not ok, no matter how young your company, is delivering bad service. We live in a world that expects immediate responses. Customers are increasingly less tolerant of delays. You can thank Amazon for that expectation.

When delays happen we expect information. Humans seek clarity and, in its absence, do irrational things. Humans also have a bias towards avoiding uncomfortable realities. So when we’ve acquired the customer and failed to deliver, we hope that if we just focus on getting the order out, that will solve everything. That thinking is flawed.

When you break a customer promise you start a clock. Every minute that passes is a minute the customer could be and likely is sharing her negative experience with friends. Bad news is more conversation-worthy than good news, unfortunately. And so while the customer may share her frustration with ten friends, she won’t call all of them back later and tell them she received her product and loves it.

If you can’t deliver the primary thing the customer wants: what she ordered. Then you deliver the next best thing: information about when the customer will receive what she ordered. If you can’t deliver that, you deliver acknowledgment that a problem exists and a timeline for when you will have a certain date of delivery. If you can’t deliver that, you deliver a timeline for when you will next send an update the customer.

Make no mistake, a missed customer promise is a crisis. Your goal in a crisis is to minimize uncertainty. People do crazy things when they are uncertain. They cancel orders, they write insanely negative reviews, they tell their friends.Conventional wisdom says that business can be the best at price, quality or service, and only one. Unfortunately, in today’s commerce environment while you might not be able to deliver incredible service, you can’t get away with delivering bad service.

Conventional wisdom says that a business can be the best at price, quality or service, and only one. Unfortunately, in today’s commerce environment while you might not be able to deliver incredible service, you can’t get away with delivering bad service.

First published on March 2, 2016