Wednesday, September 06, 2006

An Open Letter to Sears...

Related to my previous post seeking a refund for a part ordered from Sears, a fellow blogger (thanks for reading, Ellen!) posted a provocative comment prompting me to take the next step: propose some solutions for Sears to improve their customer service. The old phrase, "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" comes to mind. In that spirit, I propose several actions Sears could take today to improve customer satisfaction:

#1 Assume a "One Sears" Attitude and Structure
I've always been impressed at the businesses Sears tackles: retail, installation, parts, contractor work, finance, etc. However, it appears these many aspects of Sears also creates fragmentation which further distances Sears from customers.

First and foremost, consolidate customer touch-points. Sears has (as far as I can tell) dozens of 800 numbers as well as local numbers. There are also contact points through the web site and email. Consolidate these such that any time customers contact Sears, they follow a consistent experience. I shouldn't have to maintain a PhD in research to find the correct department or phone number to use given my situation or need.

Related, Sears must improve its call-in Integrated Voice Response (IVR) menu system. I'm a systems person with information architecture experience so I consider myself adept at navigating IVRs. Not this one. It took me 5 minutes to find the correct path--and even then I needed to speak with someone.

Contrast this with Southwest Airlines. My wife had a question about refundable fares. I knew the number (the ONE number) off the top of my head: 800/I-FLY-SWA so I called. Within less than 5 seconds, I was speaking with a person! I didn't have to touch one button or say "Customer Service please" into the phone. Take a lesson Sears: THAT is good customer service. Also, SWA answered my question in about 10 seconds with a beautiful response: we don't charge a fee for changing your flight--the customer only pays the fare difference. Delightful!

Secondly, Sears must instill in its employees, a culture of "One Sears". There are no local offices. There are no corporate offices. The local office telling me to call the corporate 800 number is unacceptable. I'm the customer and I'm calling Sears. Period. I don't care if the local office doesn't have that system or this system. I'm calling Sears. And I want Sears to answer: collectively, cohesively, and effectively.

#2 Proactively Employ a "Reputation Deputy"
Hire someone today to peruse the Internet all day long looking for Sears complaints. Empower that person to make things right. End of story. I would pay this person a ton of money, give them a very powerful title, a small staff, and have them report directly to the COO or CEO. This department might "cost" a few hundred grand a year but I assert the good will produced would easily head into 7 figures. I can already picture it...

"Hi, Jeff, my name is Mary Smith, I'm with Sears. I work for the CEO. I saw your issue on your blog and have investigated. We're very sorry for consuming your valuable time with this issue. It's our fault. I'm right now posting a credit to your Visa for $56.84 and I'm also sending you a $100 Sears gift certificate to your home. We hope you'll reconsider Sears and forgive us for this trip-up. Is there anything else we can do to make your experience with Sears right again?"

No business is perfect. Mistakes are made. As a customer, I completely understand. I mess up all the time. However, these complaints are right in front of Sears' face. Customers without alternatives turn to the media to voice their opinions (the Internet, in this case). I wasn't able to punch through the Sears bureaucracy--I turned to the Internet. I handed them an issue on a silver platter. If they were to (or do) resolve it to my satisfaction, I will continue to shop at Sears and I will sing their praises. All I want is to be listened to!

Update: Guy posted Monday on this topic. I swear I didn't read it until after my post! My comment...

#3 Empower Customer Service Representatives
$56.84. Seems like a trivial sum for a company with almost $50Billion in revenue last year, huh? Assume for a moment my claim is bogus and Sears doesn't really owe me $56.84. How much reputation damage have I caused (not vindictively, of course)? I've told almost a dozen folks (personal acquaintances) my story. They've relayed similar stories. Will those folks return to Sears? I've published this story on my blog. I've commented to other blogs. All of this could have been avoided.

I spoke with Sears representatives 5-6 times. I pled my case. I did exactly what they told me to do. I waited patiently. No refund. The final time I spoke with them before "going public", I spoke with the highest authority I could find-a supervisor. Even she tried to go toe-to-toe with me. Over $56.84! Empower your people to make things right for the customer. I don't care if your warehousing/inventory partner can't find the return. It's not my problem. Admit you screwed up and make it right. A supervisor should have authority with no questions asked to resolve issues of $250 or less. Done. Happy customer. No bad feelings. No bad publicity.

#4 Improve Technology
I saved this one until last because it will be the toughest and most expensive to institute; that doesn't make it any less important. Every employee (local, corporate, mobile, etc.)
interacting with customers needs desktop access to the same Customer Relationship Management (CRM) suite of applications. An employee anywhere in North America (if not the world) should be able to reference a customer account, their order history, and their case history.

I abhor technology for technology's sake, but for goodness (and the customer's!) sake, enable the customer to cancel an order. I couldn't believe Sears lacks the ability to cancel a part order--the day after it was placed! Hello?! The '80's called and they want their systems back. I assume this relates to channel partnerships: order comes in from customer, goes out to (for example) UPS, UPS ships order to customer, etc. However, those systems need to communicate. Cancellations are a fact of consumer life. Don't make the customer jump through a bunch of hoops because your systems are inadequate.

Summary
Personally, I want Sears to succeed. This open letter is an attempt to help Sears improve customer service. Let me know if I can be of assistance. You all have a lot of work ahead. And right now, Lowe's is looking light-years better (but that's another post...)

Jeff...

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