a cross-border study in contrasts of customer service styles

In the past week, I’ve had interesting transactions with two companies due to customer service issues with wildly different results.

The first was with Canadian bookstore giant Chapters Indigo.  The second with American musical instrument Manufacturer NS Designs.

As many people know, I am a voracious reader and buy a lot of books.  As a result, one of the best gifts I can get is a gift card for Chapters Indigo bookstores as I have an ongoing wish list that I’m constantly adding to.  This past Christmas, I received a number of gift cards and placed an order on Boxing Day.  On this order were two books, one scheduled for immediate delivery – in fact I had it before New Year’s Day – and one scheduled for delivery in 1-2 weeks’ time. 

Last week, I received an email from Chapters Indigo’s customer service which read:

We would like to provide you with an update on your chapters.indigo.ca order.  Unfortunately, the following item(s) is temporarily out of stock and has been reordered for you. We expect to receive the item(s) shortly, and it should ship to you within two weeks.

Please note: if we are unable to ship your item(s) within a reasonable timeframe, we will cancel this item(s) from your order. Please rest assured; any remaining item(s) in your order will not be affected.

I reviewed the item in question on their website and noted that in no less than seven stores within an hour’s commute of my home, there were over thirty copies available.

The next day, I received another email:

At Chapters Indigo Online, we strive to ensure that you receive your shipment as quickly as possible. We realize you’re experiencing a delay with [title deleted], and we apologize for the inconvenience.

In an effort to rectify this situation, we are in contact with our distribution centre to confirm this item’s availability to ship. We will contact you via email as soon as we’ve determined the availability and shipping status of this item, typically in up to 2 business days.

I contacted Chapters Indigo customer service via telephone and asked about the possibility of picking the book up at one of the retail locations and was told that this would be impossible due to warehousing differences and the fact that the book was $32.00 in the store and only $21.06 online.  I noted that they have had my money tied up in this book for over two weeks at this point and confirmed that I understood the difference between costs of online fulfillment versus the overhead costs of a brick and mortar store, however noted that I would wait until further notice regarding shipping occurred.

The next day, the following message arrived in my inbox:

Upon researching the status of your order I have found the following:

The item has been on order with our vendor for some time but regretfully we have not yet received this item from them. I have contacted our vendors to find out what is happening with the item. Unfortunately, the item is on back order with our vendors with no due date.

Please be sure that as soon as our vendor receives stock, they will send the item to us and we will then ship it to you. If you feel this will still be too much of a lengthy wait, you can choose to cancel the order, please let me know and I can do so on your behalf.

We apologize about the delay in sourcing your order and we appreciate your patience. Please know that we are doing our best to source your order for you.

In essence, we don’t have it in our warehouse, the publisher does not have it and we don’t know when it will arrive again.  So your options are to wait or cancel your order.

A quick check online showed that this book was “in stock” and would ship within 1-2 weeks.  I called customer service and once again floated the idea of picking up my purchase at a local store and was shot down.  At this point, they offered to cancel my order, refund my money and I could go buy the book (at full price) at the store.  I asked to speak to a manager, however was informed that there was no manager or supervisor available.

I called again the next day and was informed that a manager was not available again, however in addition to cancelling my order and refunding my money, they would give me another refund of $15.00 to my online account.  What I would then have to do is drive to a brick and mortar store, pick up an empty gift card, come home, transfer my online balance to the card and then drive back to the store and buy the book, at full price.

HUH?  They have had my money for weeks at this point.  I just want my book to read!

So I check the website, see that the book still shows “in stock” and shipping in “1-2 weeks” and send the following email:

I find it interesting that this item still shows as of 1:13pm today as shipping within 1-2 weeks on your website, despite the most recent email stating that it is out of stock and replenishment of this stock is still unknown.

Even more interesting that there are well over 30 copies in stock in various stores around me, I cannot go and pick up a copy despite they’re being locations of your company.  I understand the difference in online stock versus brick and mortar stock, however in rare cases such as this, I believe that an accommodation could be made for me to pick up one of the many copies available in a location close to me.  This is a brand new book that has been written up in various newspapers and magazines and obviously of some note to warrant copies of this book being available in stores.

If I ordered a book on line to be shipped to a retail location that had several copies of the same in stock, would you seriously ship a new copy to the location in question?  How does that make sense?

Even more interesting that on a Tuesday at 3pm and a Wednesday at 1pm when I call the customer service line, I am unable to talk to a manager as there apparently isn’t one on staff.  Would it be possible to have a manager contact me directly regarding this situation as opposed to calling and finding out the front line customer service staff is unable to help me resolve this

I’m trying to support a Canadian company here, but this is hard for me as a person who works in customer service to understand.  I have had no problems with my orders in the past, and have done a fair amount of ordering from you as well as frequenting your brick and mortar locations as I am a voracious reader.

The emailed reply was:

I contacted the vendor this morning as they only show 2 copies available however we have open orders that exceed the 2 copies and they do not have stock at this time to fill our open orders.

The Coles in Limeridge Mall is holding one copy for you and the address is 999 Upper Wentworth Street. Is this location close to you?

The issue that we are running into is that online has the item for $21.06 retail.  Store price is $32.00 and irewards $28.80. What I am able to do is credit your online account $15.00 and should you cancel this online order your account will be credited $21.06.

So again, I have to wait for my refunds, go to a store and get an “empty” gift card, transfer the balance and then go back to the store to buy the book.  They have my money already, it’s the same company – how does this make sense?

However this email gives me a direct dial number that is not the toll-free number – I call it and immediately request a customer service supervisor.  After the front-line staff reviews my order history, he agrees to transfer me.  The supervisor noted that this is an unusual circumstance, however does occur and yes they can arrange to have me pick up my book at the mall due to the unusual delay in shipping the product.

She noted that while front line staff are persuaded to avoid store pickups due to obvious reasons (the overhead costs of brick and mortar retail, versus online shipping) in occasions where items are indefinitely backordered with stock in store, a manager can authorize a pickup.  She arranges for it and asks me to go to the store the next day.  I did and the book was waiting for me with a sales receipt indicating it was fully paid for.

Thanks to that manager after over a week of dancing with customer service bureaucracy!  I am currently enjoying the book and loving the story.

My second customer service story is with NS Designs, who makes electric upright basses and other violin family instruments. 

I have one of their mid-level upright basses, which is no longer in production.  I went to set it up for a gig and the stand which it mounts on broke, sending my instrument (and my heart) crashing to the floor.  I take a picture of the broken stand and send them an email which read:

I was getting ready to gig with my WAV this evening when the stand snapped (see attached picture). I guess I’ll be playing my fretless p-bass tonight… Can I purchase an end pin for it, instead of a stand?  What dealers are there in Toronto Canada – to order such a beast?

Their reply:

As the product manager for the Canadian distribution of NS Design instruments, I received your email this morning concerning your tripod stand.  It is possible to purchase an end pin for your bass but unfortunately we are only going to be receiving those into stock in February.  We would, however, be happy to provide you with a free replacement for your broken tripod stand (that is actually the updated design of this stand which has had many fewer issues among customers).

I provided him with the name of my local dealer and received this response:

I just wanted to let you know that [local dealer] has been made fully aware of your situation.  The replacement tripod stand has been sent to them for you (at no charge) and they are now fully informed on the end pin.  If you indeed would like to have this reserved for you when stock arrives in Canada, just place your order with them and we will make sure to get it arranged here on our end.

The same day, I receive an email from the local dealer:

I understand you are having an issue with your tripod stand.   The rep is sending us a replacement and I will contact you when it arrives. He also mentioned you were looking for the end pin stand.  We sell the for $145 and ordering one should be around 1.5 weeks.

Let me know if you have any questions, otherwise I will contact you again when the tripod replacement arrives.

I provide him with my phone number and two days later, I am contacted to tell me the replacement stand has arrived, to bring in the broken stand and make the exchange.  Reminder, this is a product that is over 3 years old, no longer under warranty and not in production any more.  I went to the store the same day and got my new stand, which is stronger than the original because it was made for NS Designs’ newer product.

I have since sent an email to NS Designs thanking them for their commitment to customer service and also linked a copy of this blog to them.  I am also extolling the virtues of their customer service to fellow musicians everywhere.

Too bad I can’t do the same for Chapters Indigo.  However I have found this attitude with a number of Canadian companies, particularly those in a monopoly-type situation.  I challenge all large Canadian corporations to compare their customer service strategies to what is happening south of the border and ask why they cannot provide the same level and quality of service their American counterparts do?

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