Helen Edwards on Branding: Giving customers the boot

Helen Edwards on branding
Helen Edwards on branding

More brands should follow US shoe retailer Zappos' lead and kick abusive customers into touch.

What's not to like about Zappos? The online retailer's business is shoes, which is a good start. It sends them to you, and allows - no, encourages - you to try as many as you like, without obligation or cost if you send them back.

It positively wants to talk to you, which sets it apart from the typical internet retailer, where the contact number is buried in the legalese on a remote part of the site.

Zappos' call-free number is prominently displayed on every web page - it's part of the brand's 'powered by service' ethos - and when you do call, the people on the other end are trained to spend as long with you as you wish, and to manage the call in any way you want.

Just a minute, though. Aren't there customers who abuse this system, who take forever on the calls, try on shoes, wear them a bit, send them back, and never part with a dollar?

Won't those selfish few eventually destroy the super service for the rest of us - the way students who 'bought' a Marks & Spencer suit for an interview, then took it back for a refund, compro-mised the no-quibble money-back offer there? Won't that rogue-customer abuse eventually bring Zappos back down to earth and erode one of its central points of difference?

The company has an answer for this conundrum. Enshrined in its 10-point service mantra is item number four: 'It's OK to fire customers who are insatiable or abuse our employees.' Dear customer: you're fired. Of all the insights in the Zappos business case - which is taught widely in business schools right now - this is the one with the power to thrill.

The brand knows there comes a point when listening to customers has to stop and showing them the door has to start. If more brands were willing to be ruthless with the unscrupulous few, then service standards could improve across the board for the many.

It may be counter-intuitive to give customers the heave-ho, given how tough it is to recruit them, but it may also be the way to a competitive edge if it allows you to innovate new service advantages or offer better guarantees.

Perhaps more brands should be willing to take unpromising customers to one side and softly break the news: 'Sorry, but we're going to have to let you go.' It's not for the squeamish, though.

A few years back, US discount retailer Filene's Basement ran into a media storm for barring two sisters from its 21 stores.

Like Zappos, the retailer has a generous take-back policy, but monitors customers who abuse the privilege through its data-capture systems. The Singer sisters, from Newton, Massachusetts, had returned 'an incredible number of items' and lodged numerous complaints.

Despite venom from bloggers and mainstream journalists alike, the brand stood its ground. 'Given your history of excessive returns and your chronic unhappiness with our services, we have decided that this is the best way to avoid any future problems with you,' wrote Dave Sherer, vice-president of loss prevention at the retailer's parent company, Value City Department Stores.

Consumers have become used to being the selfish, feted focus of all those consumer-centric brands out there; making demands, pushing the limits, hinting at digital reprisals for brands unwilling to suck up.

When they come up against a genuinely strong brand, though, they quickly discover that the shoe can be on the other foot.

- Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers


- Zappos doesn't measure 'average handle time' in its call centres, but instead seeks to create 'an emotional impact and a lasting memory'. Its longest customer call lasted almost six hours.

- The brand's enhanced customer service continues after the sale, with surprise upgrades for loyal customers. Zappos invests heavily in customer service, relying on word-of-mouth as its prime marketing tool.

- In the US, the brand offers free shipping both ways and often finds that customers will order five pairs of shoes and ship back four of them. These additional - and considerable - business costs are written down as a marketing expense.

- Zappos' handling of unusual callers is legendary - the most well-known being 'Timmy', a customer who wanted to be talked to in the third person, because 'Timmy likes to boost Timmy's ego by talking about Timmy that way'. The call-handler cheerfully complied, and 'Timmy' went away a happy customer.


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