The Power of First Impressions

Service nightmares. As customers, we’ve all been through them. And as service
managers or agents, we may have even participated in one or two of them. But whether
we’re on the receiving or giving end of one of these situations, the important thing is
that we learn something from the experience.

If you are a service fanatic like me, then you understand the old adage that you never
get a second chance to make a first impression. Doing things right the first time out is
so important. And if perchance a mistake is made on that initial encounter, then by all
means, the problem should be resolved at the first complaint. (This is the rare instance
where you actually do get a second chance at making a first impression!)

One of my favorite service horror stories involves the web site division of a prominent
retail establishment. Decorum prohibits me from naming them, but you’ve all seen this
store’s colorful, over-the-top, perky, retro ads on TV. My parents recently moved to a
new area, and I first visited one of these stores shortly after my folks moved into their
new apartment. I was impressed with the quality of the merchandise, and the very
reasonable pricing, and considered this store to be quite a find. The fact that is was
located minutes from my parents’ new home meant that there was a good place for
them to shop that was conveniently located. I tucked this information in my mind, to
be used a month later at Christmas.

Knowing that my parents needed to furnish and decorate their new home, I decided
that a gift certificate at this store would be a perfect Christmas gift for them. With love
and generosity in my heart, I logged on to the Internet, and quickly found this
company’s web site. Lo and behold, there were options for gift cards at various
amounts – just what I wanted! Knowing my folks were on a limited income, and pretty
tapped out after their move just a couple months earlier, I decided to spring for the $200
gift card. There, that ought to help them outfit their new home.

In order to purchase this gift card on the web site, I needed to give the company some
information about myself, and my credit card number. No problem there; I am a
veteran of e-commerce, and I trust secure web sites. This company did not ask for
anything out of the ordinary in order to facilitate this purchase. In fact, the online form
had asterisks next to the necessary information fields, and while they asked for some
other information, it was clear that giving that info was optional.

While I have no qualms about using credit cards online, I do not like to give my phone
number out. Like most people, I hate being bombarded by telemarketing calls. But
luckily for me, the phone number field on this info form was not asterisked, therefore it
was optional, and I opted not to give them my number.

This is where the nightmare began. Since I am a notoriously late holiday shopper, I
made this online purchase a week before Christmas. But not to worry! The web site
offered expedited delivery of purchases, including gift cards. So I gladly paid the
surcharge so that my folks would have their gift card on Christmas Day. However, as
the days grew closer to the holiday, I kept asking my parents if they had received a
package delivery. Each time, they replied they had not. I followed up with the
company, via email. No reply. Christmas came and went, and the gift card was never
delivered. I forwarded my previous email inquiry to their “service department,” and
this time I received the nightmarish reply that threw me into a spiral of teeth-gnashing
and hair-tearing. I was told by this “service agent” that the company’s policy is that all
online orders of $200 or more have to be verified via telephone. Since I hadn’t given
them my phone number, they were not able to call me, and therefore my order had
been cancelled. Cancelled!

Now, they did have my email address. I gave them that on the initial order, as well as
on my follow-up inquiry. But since it was not a phone number, the order was
cancelled, without notification, and my sweet elderly parents had no Christmas gift
from their baby boy on their first Christmas in their new home! I was an angry
customer, and I felt like a negligent son, to boot. But I am a customer service
professional, so I tried to keep my cool. I responded to this “service agent” that this
was a less-than-satisfactory answer, but since I was a customer service professional, I
would give her a little bit of free advice on how to salvage this very bad first encounter.

I suggested that since I was now authorizing the order, it would be a nice gesture if the
company immediately over-nighted the gift card to my parents, at their cost, since it
was their policy that was the root of this problem. I had no problem in paying for the
gift card (but although I did not say it, it would be have been a classy gesture for them
to upgrade the card and over-night it for free). I just wanted to give my folks a nice gift
somewhere in proximity to the Twelve Days of Christmas. I mentioned that the reason
they did not have my phone number was the fact that their web site did not require that
I give it. And I mentioned that nowhere on the site was this alleged telephone
authorization policy posted. Finally, for good measure, I tactfully added that I am
precisely the kind of customer they should be cultivating – one who would spend over
$200 on his first visit to their web site!

And for this sound advice, for which I might add, other businesses have handsomely
paid me as an employee and as a consultant, I got nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Radio
silence. They couldn’t even be bothered to reply to refuse my request. And that told me
everything I needed to know about this company. I chose not to pursue this matter any
further. But because of this incident two years ago, I have never let an opportunity to
bad-mouth this company slip by. At any mention on this store, I launch into my
story. And I spew a stream of unsavory epithets at their colorful, perky, retro TV
commercials.

This, my friends, is the power of the negative first impression. Under no circumstances
should you allow this kind of thing to happen within your business, because you will
have no idea of how much business you’ve lost. And you will have no idea who is
talking trash about you all over the country. People (even customer service
professionals!) are much more inclined to talk about a bad service encounter than a
good one.

— Charles Dennis
© Knowledgence Associates, 2002 / All Rights Reserved

Download PDF of this Article