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Going that extra mile … let’s all hear it for great customer service | Money

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His story shone like a beacon in the midst of consumer gloom. Mark McKergow wrote into Your Problems to relate how he had ordered two suitcases online from Bagcraft.co.uk after his luggage was stolen in South America. It was shortly before Christmas and he needed them for his next trip at new year.

The Belgian supplier dispatched the cases to Bagcraft, which has a store in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, but one had a flaw. The shop reordered them and this time the wrong sizes were sent. By the time the correct cases arrived, Christmas was pending and there was the risk that the order might not reach McKergow on time and intact.

The day after Boxing Day, Bagcraft’s owner, Gary Elman, loaded the cases into his car and drove 430 miles from Leigh-on-Sea to McKergow’s home in Edinburgh, then back again the next morning after a hotel stopover. “I’ve ordered from the store several times over the last 20 years because of the personal service and expertise, but I never expected this,” says McKergow. “I assumed it would be a courier delivery, so when the owner turned up I was flabbergasted.”

I was flabbergasted, too, not just by the novelty of a company going quite literally that extra mile, but by how the story brightened my day.

I’ve been delving into the murky world of customer services for more than 20 years. My inbox exposes corporate Britain at its worst: defective goods, failed deliveries, mysterious debits and, when the customer attempts to secure what they’ve paid for, breathtaking indifference. It can take the prospect of a headline to get companies to admit a failing and stump up. Sometimes, even that fails.

Those high street names – and, less commonly, small traders – who have darkened the Cash pages over the years have failed to grasp a crucial truth. The problem is not that something goes wrong. It’s how they address the issue.

As goods and services become increasingly uniform and the market increasingly competitive, it’s customer service that can make a company stand out – something that smaller, independent firms tend to understand better than big chains.

The latest customer service satisfaction index published by the Institute of Customer Service (ICS) shows that companies who scored at least one point higher than average recorded average sales growth of 6.9% compared to 1.5% for those with a lower-than-average ranking.

Only 60% of customers surveyed by ICS were satisfied with how customer services dealt with complaints. Automated helplines and tightly scripted responses are partly to blame as companies seek to cut costs and end up losing goodwill. As the man I overheard in a checkout queue lamented: “There are no humans any more!”

According to business consultancy Gobeyond Partners, traders should focus on how to remedy problems swiftly, honestly and empathetically. “If mistakes are made, it’s important to give your customer services teams the autonomy to make informed decisions in real time about the resolution,” says chief executive Mark Palmer. “A one-size-fits-all process is rarely a good solution and can leave the customer feeling ‘computer says no.’”

Gary Elman, who wouldn’t say what the 860-mile return trip to Edinburgh cost him, believes that it is assiduous personal care that keeps the family firm afloat alongside larger, cheaper rivals. “When my father founded the business in 1977 there were half a dozen luggage shops in the area in competition. Now they’ve all closed and thanks to the internet we are in competition with the whole world,” he says. “We don’t hide behind an email address; I answer each phone call and if I have to get in the car and drive somewhere to ensure a customer is satisfied, I will pull out all the stops. I don’t want to be remembered for letting somebody down.”

It could be that family cars are scuttling up and down the land in the name of customer service, only I don’t hear of it.

It’s not just that we are a nation of complainers; companies don’t seem to expect applause. Most websites contain details of how to complain. Very few offer a contact for praise. And so I decided to put out a call on Twitter and the Observer’s community forum, asking for examples of outstanding customer service.

I could sense wintry spirits thawing as the tales came in. Iain Patton related how he had used Booking.com to reserve a twin-bedded holiday rental in Harrogate over Christmas for two friends. “They weren’t in a relationship and didn’t want to share a room, so I asked the provider, Harrogate Boutique Apartments, if one could sleep on the sofa,” he says.

“They were upgraded for free to a four-bedroom, three-bathroom luxury apartment with a Christmas tree set up and two wrapped presents containing mince pies and nougat.”

Patton had paid £283 for a four-night stay in the original one-bedroom flat; the upgraded accommodation would have cost £1,200.

Suzanne Moore, who owns the company, told the Observer that she always tries to give customers more than they are expecting to make them feel good. “I think hard about what they’re coming for and how long they’re staying,” she says. “In this case, I felt that a sofa might be a bit uncomfortable for four nights and, since the guests were in Harrogate over Christmas to visit family, I thought it would be nice for them to be able to invite people round.”

Jose Smit’s Christmas was saved by a local garage after his car broke down on his way to Scotland. “The AA towed us to Autofix in North Shields but could not authorise a replacement car allowed by our policy because we did not have a credit card with us,” he says. “It was Christmas Eve, the garage was about to close and we were stranded with a car full of presents and hours left to drive.

“The garage manager offered us a car free of charge until our own was repaired. He didn’t know us, didn’t ask for a deposit – just let us drive off. And when we returned after Christmas, the repair bill was half what we were expecting.”

Consumer campaigner Helen Dewdney, who runs advice website The Complaining Cow, reckons companies who exceed expectations when resolving a complaint can reap greater loyalty than if nothing had gone wrong in the first place.

“I once had a problem with a Tesco delivery,” she says. “I complained, and the store manager came round with flowers, wine and chocolate. I’ll never forget how I felt receiving those gifts.”

It was such a gift from a Manchester bakery that redeemed the Christmas of Keith Campbell. “I work for a supermarket delivery company and we were inundated in the lead up to Christmas,” he says.

“I decided to treat myself to a sandwich from Martin’s Bakery in Chorlton. There was a wait as they were restocking and a member of staff, noticing I was stressed, asked what was troubling me. I told him how difficult my colleagues and I were finding the seasonal workload and he asked if I’d mind waiting a minute. He returned with a box of cakes and pastries as he thought my colleagues and I ‘were in need of a baker’s dozen’ as a gift.

“It’s a struggle in December with endless dark mornings and this really lit up my Christmas.”



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