John Lewis undersells itself on customer service with too many Waitroses

Last week we ordered two cases of wine from Waitrose with the offer of a five per cent discount.

They arrived but it was the wrong wine so a call was made to Waitrose over the weekend. That’s when things began to unravel. First off the person on the phone said the discount didn’t apply as we had ordered it from a different part of Waitrose – very confusing. Then there was further confusion when the person said they couldn’t help as we had called Waitrose.com whereas the wine had come from Waitrose Direct. We had however ordered it from the Waitrose.com site.

What emerged was a real own goal on the part of Waitrose. If you go on to Waitrose.com, click on wine, it takes to you to a different site which is Waitrose Direct even though there isn’t any indication that a shift has taken place. The design and graphics of both sites are identical and of course as a customer we just believe we are dealing with one Waitrose.

After further calls, and increasing anger from she who must be obeyed, we were eventually told Waitrose.com and Waitrose Direct are different companies! What? Apparently Waitrose.com is Waitrose whereas Waitrose Direct is in fact ultimate owner John Lewis. Based on all of the advertising for both brands they obviously recognise their customer base is reasonably intelligent and quite likely to query mistakes. But to add further anger to this confusing, time wasting process, it was inconceivable that an offer made by Waitrose would not be honoured due to their own internal structure.

In the end it was a vist to a Waitrose store, all of the above explained. The person dealing with the discussion did not believe two different companies existed behind the Waitrose brand first of all but after a few phone calls she was horrified to have this fact confirmed; and that was an employee of Waitrose. A bunch of flowers were produced by magic and then an email turned up telling us we were about to receive some vouchers as an apology.

This experience demonstrates the fragility of a brand reputation because the devil is in the detail. How can brands such as Waitrose and John Lewis, currently swelling their coffers with the proceeds of the better off, get something like this so wrong? The experience was a very bad customer service moment, the person in the first call basically kept telling us we were in the wrong. As we all know reputation of brands can be ruined or improved by these experiences. Try calling HMRC for an awful customer experience!

Top of the Pops from my point of view at the moment on the customer experience perspective are Vodafone and Amazon. Vodafone folk at their call centre are pleasant, chatty and very helpful – they always solve any issue I might have. Amazon react in a nano-second towards any query.

I have given advice so often to others based on ‘don’t make the other person wrong’ as a starting point. This advice should be drilled in to people at call centres, given we all deal direct with almost all of the people we buy things from and/or transact with in some way. Our response is directly linked to that one call, it’s either good or bad, there isn’t any middle ground. One bad experience could easily mean shifting our business elsewhere.

In Peter Jones (also owned by john Lewis) last week I was waiting in their technical services section with a minor problem and in front of me was an older gentleman who had bought an expensive flat screen TV. He bought it with an offer of a free tablet with the purchase. His TV was delivered but no tablet so he called Samsung. They told him he didn’t qualify because his TV was a 2011 model not a 2012 model. He wasn’t a happy man. Not only did he not get his free tablet he had also been sold an old model. He had all of his receipts and the pamphlet covering the offer. There was a young chap dealing with him who kept telling the customer he had the wrong serial number, i.e. the customer was wrong. But clearly the customer was smart, intelligent and had already called Samsung who held to their position.

As the customer said several times “I always shop here because I trust you and you claim never to be undersold” yet here he was, having been mis-sold. The stupid reaction of the sales guy was wrong; I was gagging to offer advice as the solution was simple. They should have honoured the original offer, collected his TV and replaced it with a 2012 model. Simple and the customer would remain a loyal fan.

Having seen the latest John Lewis TV spot numerous times I’m getting a little cynical as the ‘never knowingly undersold’ claim is tarnished based just on two experiences. The key proposition in the ad, that some things never change, doesn’t hold water.

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About Paul Simons

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Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.