In My View by Eric Musgrave: Service not included

Eric Musgrave
Eric Musgrave

The phrase I have heard most often from business leaders I have interviewed in the 40-plus years I have worked in the industry is: “We pride ourselves in giving great service.”

No one has ever said to me: “We give appalling service, but we just don’t care.”

Who is to say what constitutes good, bad or indifferent service? Surely the consumer must be the ultimate arbiter.

I wonder how many companies have a service manual that explains to all relevant staff what is expected of them in providing service to customers. What checks are put in place to ensure the policy is adhered to?

How many senior executives bother to do a bit of discreet mystery shopping themselves to see how their precious service actually manifests itself?

Using recent personal experience, I would like to pose a few pertinent questions to the readers of this column. As always, I look forward to their responses.

For background, I am a big fan of high-quality English-made footwear. One advantage of the classic Goodyear-welted style from the manufacturers in Northampton is that the soles can be renewed several times to prolong the lifetime of the shoes.

I have a favourite pair that today retails for £790 (yes, really!), so having them resoled at the maker’s factory for £140 represents good value and good sense.

On 4 October last year I posted the pair to the factory, To Be Signed For, enclosing a card that asked whether the original leather soles could be substituted with Dainite rubber soles that are far more suitable for wet British winters. As well as my home address my email and mobile number were on the card.

Tracking my parcel showed it had been delivered on 6 October. Concerned at the lack of response I called the factory the following week and spoke to a woman who confirmed they had arrived and, yes, rubber soles could be fitted.

Question: Is it reasonable for a customer to expect an acknowledgment that items for repair have been received, especially as a specific request had been made about the refurbishment?

On its website, the company states renewing the soles could take 6-8 weeks “depending on demand” but the time could be extended to 12 weeks. My contact was slightly vague in how long the process would take, giving the impact COVID-19 was having on the factory rota as the reason. She told me I would be contacted when the shoes were finished so I could pay the bill before despatch.

Some eight weeks passed with no communication from the company. I called again and spoke to the same woman, who again was perfectly pleasant on the telephone. She told me my shoes were nearly finished and, when I asked, confirmed that Dainite soles were specified on the company’s repair system.

On 9 December, about nine and half weeks after the shoes had arrived, she called me to tell me the shoes were ready for despatch. I paid by card over the phone £152.50, comprising £140 for the repair and a rather expensive £12.50 for shipping. It had cost me only about £6.60 to mail the shoes to the factory, wrapped individually in bubble wrap in a robust plastic mail bag. On the website the company merely states that P+P costs will be added, without giving a figure.

Question: Is it reasonable to apparently ramp up the P+P costs when returning repairs toa customer? Would a precise figure or range of figures on the website be more “transparent”?

The shoes arrived the next day, in a smart standard shoe box that I would almost immediately throw away. Imagine my disappointment, however, when I saw they had been fitted with new leather soles! Just what I did not want!

I called the company yet again and the woman apologised, confirming Dainite soles were specified on the work system but admitting she had not checked the shoes herself before they were sent back to me. Stupidly, I did not ask for a refund of my £152.50 – after all I had not got what I ordered yet.

Question: Is it reasonable for a customer to expect an immediate refund when an order is mis-delivered, in preparation of paying again when the right thing arrives?

I posted the shoes and the shoe box back to the factory on 11 December with a new note, requesting that I be informed how long the second repair would take. These are heavy autumn-winter shoes and that season was moving along.

More than three weeks later, I still had heard nothing from the factory about when I might receive my shoes, for which I was £152.50 out of pocket. Exasperated, on 4 January I wrote a letter to the company’s CEO outlining my problem and my severe disappointment at its so-called “service”. I posted it to the factory by registered mail.

In conclusion I wrote: “The situation is that I have not had use of my shoes for three months. I paid you £152.50 almost a month ago. I have no idea when the shoes will be returned to me. Apart from calling me for payment, I have had no contact from your company.

“Is this normal procedure? Do you not respond to customers’ questions or even acknowledge receipt of repairs? Is there not a simple checking procedure in place to ensure requested repairs have been correctly carried out before the shoes are returned to the customer?

“To say I am surprised at my recent experience is a huge understatement.”

I have not met the CEO but I mentioned in a postscript to my letter that I have had a valued professional relationship with his firm – and with his long-serving predecessor – ­ for many years, as well as being a regular customer for decades.

The following week I received via email a business-like letter from the CEO, who disappointingly did not respond to my specific questions. He, however, “would like to offer an apology for the unfortunate experience that (I) encountered…”.

I learned they “take customer service extremely seriously and it is of greatest importance that we offer an exceptional and unique experience to all our clients.”

Moreover, “In this case we have taken on board your feedback and are looking into the details of what occurred and using this as an example for process improvement and training of what should not happen.”

As well as referring to my experience as a “slip in performance”, he mentioned, to my surprise, that the company undertakes an astonishing 12,000 to 15,000 refurbishments a year, which only made me think “Well, you ought to have better systems in place by now.”

As the CEO promised in his letter, the head of customer service team called me the same day, also offering his apologies. He quickly confirmed that my £152.50 would be reimbursed to me, along with the cost of me having to send my shoes to the factory twice.

The shoes arrived – with the correct Dainite soles – a couple of days later, more than 14 weeks after I had sent them to the factory, but alas they were still not perfect. One lace was fraying because the aiglet – the little plastic band at the end of the lace – was broken.

I really would have thought my shoes would have been carefully checked before despatch.

I sent an email to the head of customer service requesting replacement laces. He apologised yet again – of course he did! – and said he’d put some laces in the post.

Curiously, he asked in his email “…apart from the lace, I hope you are happy with the outcome of the repair.”

Well, no, I thought, I am not happy because I cannot wear a pair of £790 shoes with a frayed lace, can I?

A few pairs of black laces duly arrived but they were no good as my shoes are brown. Yet another email was sent. Another apology was proffered.

Some brown laces arrived on 8 February, so my refurbished shoes were ready to be worn, some 18 weeks after I had despatched them for routine resoling.

Question: Should staff be trained that quality control checking deserves a bit of time?

In an unexpected postscript to this unhappy tale, about a month later I received a follow-up email by another company executive, with a PR contact included, who yet again apologised for what had happened.

I was not sure why this was done but the upshot was that he invited me for a tour of the factory in Northampton “in order to reinstate your faith in our brand and show you our regular way of working”.

I do love a factory visit but Northampton is a very long way from where I live near the Scottish border, so it might be a while before I can take up the offer.

As for another bout of resoling, luckily, despite its eccentric attitude to customer service, Church’s makes very good shoes and Dainite soles last a long time, so I should be OK for some years yet.

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