Sunday, August 22, 2010

Special Orders DO Upset Us -- Alienating a Customer for Life in 1 Easy Step

Every now and then a customer asks for something that's outside your normal business process. Special terms. Special handling. Customized products or services. And you endear them for life if you say yes, right? Maybe not -- you could be asking for some real trouble. Special requests only please customers if they're fully supported by your own business processes. If not, you're asking for trouble -- perhaps an alienated customer for life, or even worse, one who's likely to tell others.

I had a recent near-textbook experience involving two vendors -- one of which I'm a raving fan and the other with which I'll never do business again. In May, I got a call from a nationally-known source of mailing lists, Hoover's, owned by Dunn and Bradstreet. A very capable sales rep named Adam understood my resistance -- that I wasn't ready to sign up for a 12-month subscription to a mailing list service because my experience with mailing list vendors has been universally terrible. The lists are lousy, they miss a huge number of companies that ought to be included in your query parameters, and they're not (as claimed by the vendors) verified or validated.

So, I told Adam I'd be willing to subscribe only with the option to cancel within the first 30 days of the agreement if I wasn't satisfied with the quality of their lists. That's where the fun started. That provision had to undergo legal review, and they actually sent me a multi-page contract to sign. In that agreement, they worked in a 10-day cancellation notice, effectively making it a 20-day cancellation option. I objected, and Adam couldn't make the 10-day notice go away, but he was able to make it a 40-day cancellation privilege with a 10-day notice. A preview of coming bureaucratic attractions, it now appears.

I signed up, agreed to pay two months in advance on my AMEX card (Adam assured me he'd credit the 2nd month if I cancelled), and started pulling lists. Their lists were not only lousy, but lousier than lists I'd gotten elsewhere. As many as 5 people were listed as President of the same company, in several cases. Sometimes with different names, other times with slight variations on the same names. So much for "validation" of the data that's being provided.

At 20 days into the agreement, I'd pulled the agreed-upon number of names for the first month and discovered that my fears were confirmed -- that their lists were no better (worse, actually) than anyone else's. I emailed Adam that I was canceling, and why. He gave it a decent recovery attempt, then agreed by email to process my credit for the 2nd month's deposit (about $300). Then the real fun began. I was watching my AMEX statement for the credit, and imagine my surprise when a third month's charge showed up! Not only not cancelled, but still billing me. And then the same the following month. After several email exchanges, I was escalated to a Vice President named Amy, who insisted on a phone call so we could read the email thread together from the start. Amy said "I'll need to research this and call you back". That was 3 weeks ago, and the last I've heard from Hoover's.

AMEX, on the other hand, handled this with their typical efficiency and consistency. They processed the disputes on the 3rd and 4th month's erroneous billings and issued me credits -- one phone call each. After no response from Hoover's on the 2nd month's credit, I finally called AMEX and filed a dispute for the prepaid 2nd month, and I expect they'll handle that similarly.

So, I have a major vendor with whom I've had not just a bad experience but a terrible experience. I had to go to extra effort to get almost $1,000 in over-billings back, due to their non-responsiveness. Thankfully, I had AMEX on my side.  I'm still a Raving Fan of those guys. 

Hoovers' mistake? Promising a customer a non-standard agreement that they clearly had no mechanism by which to deliver. They're set up to take an order, take 2 months' subscription fee upfront and automatically bill the next 10 months. They do that well. They would do better to just disqualify customers who want something different.

In this environment of hard-to-get orders, are you tempted to comply with special customer requests? Are you setting yourself a minefield by doing so? Perhaps it's worth making sure special requests have their own special approval channel, where someone can ensure that your company really has a business process that's flexible and bulletproof enough to handle them.

If you've taken special orders you wish you'd never heard of, please click "Comments" below and share that experience with others. 

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Terry Weaver

Chief Executive Boards International

Chief Executive Boards International: Freedom for business owners & CEOs -- Less Work, More Money, More Freedom to enjoy it

1 comment:

  1. Terry,

    Great post...great examples. You really made the point. Thanks!


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