8 steps to customer service, the ASOS way

If you’re the parent of teenage children, you’ll recognise the last-minute “but I don’t have anything to wear” moment. You’ll also know that kids grow exponentially and therefore, sometimes this isn’t a fashion crisis, but a genuine statement of fact. Such was the case a couple of days before we went on a short family vacation.

Fortunately, today the joys of home delivery mean that you can get pretty much anything from anywhere if you have the time and the money. When it comes to clothes, like many families with teenagers in the UK, we use ASOS. We use it so much, that we also have a premium delivery service which provides, “unlimited next-day delivery or nominated day delivery with no minimum order value.”

Job done.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that it certainly wasn’t job done. The events that followed have almost represented a “101” on how not to handle customer relationships. Deliveries not taking place, then products being thrown over a back gate, in the rain. Questions not being answered, failure to respond to communications and no resolution being offered.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with internal or external customers, the principles are the same, here are the things that stand out as things we can learn:

1. The incorrect statement
The problems all started with a failed delivery. A simple statement on a website that delivery had been attempted but that there was no-one in. We’ve all seen that right? However, I was in. In fact there were three adults in the house and a dog who barks when a butterfly flaps their wings in the next county. There was a doorbell that worked and a porch that was open where the goods could have been left. When I first questioned this I was told there was in fact an “address query”. Then later on that I hadn’t been in. And then again that there was an address query and then that the delivery had been “misrouted at the depot”. So which one was it? I’m still confused.

Lesson one: An important one to start. Know your facts and make sure you’re stating only fact. If you state something incorrectly, apologise and confirm that you were wrong. It is often tempting to state things to try to close and issue, but people will find you out. When you make incorrect statements and then change them, it damages trust.

2. The failure to follow through
On every single occasion I’ve been told that people would get back to me, but I’ve had to repeatedly chase. ASOS like to do things on Twitter (how very social of them). I’ve worked out that the way to get a response to a DM is to tweet something publicly, this then gets followed up in a DM. When I originally raised the issue on the Sunday I was told they’d get back to me. Nothing until I chased on Tuesday. It was a bank holiday, I get that. But did they stop taking customer orders over the bank holiday? Or just customer service?

Lesson two: If you say you are going to get back to people, get back to them. Set a timeline, provide a commitment and stick to it. Failure to follow through leaves people wondering whether you’re taking them seriously. Even telling people you’re still looking or have no new news is better than silence.

3. The insincere apology
We all know that mistakes happen, that is one of the facts of life. Having the honesty and openness to admit to mistakes and accept your responsibility sets you apart as an individual, as a team as an organisation. ASOS haven’t apologised once and the only statements that come near have had a caveat attached to them to try to explain away the problem.

Lesson three: Any apology that has or could have a “but” after it, isn’t an apology it’s an insincere apology. If you know that you’ve done everything you can and the problems are genuinely a freak of nature, you should have absolutely no issue in holding your hands up and making an unequivocal apology. There is a powerful effect to owning a problem through apology that we should never overlook.

4. The lack of differentiation
There were a number of data sets available to ASOS that they didn’t take in to account. They have all of my customer records. So a quick look would have shown them that I’d been a customer since 2013, I’d been purchasing regularly from them, spent nearly £2,500 during that time and  beyond a normal return, I’ve not had any specific issues with them. It would also have shown that I was a subscriber to their premium delivery service. All in all that means that whilst I might not be the biggest customer they’ve ever had, I’m a regular customer and one that has invested in a longer term relationship.

Lesson four: You should always be aiming to delight every customer, that goes without saying. But the reason that you develop CRM tools and building data centres is so that you can differentiate between customers. Using that information and knowledge to help you differentiate service is also a sensible way to approach business – think about how people get hotel or airplane upgrades – and build brand loyalty.

5. The inconsistent personnel
I said ASOS liked to use Twitter, but they don’t actually tell you who is handling your query in the way that many other companies do. It’s a silent faceless machine that is only discernible  as being multiple people through the change in language that is used. That means that each time you raise a query, you feel like you are going back to the beginning.

Lesson five: When things go wrong customers want ownership as well as a timeline. They want to know that “Dave” is in charge of sorting out your query and will be back in contact with you by 12 noon tomorrow. Getting pushed around between customer representatives or multiple team members never feels like a good experience – but especially when things are going badly.

6. The “no win-no win”
As I’ve said, things go wrong. I could give countless examples over the past year where I’ve had to raise issues with companies. How those issues are resolved really shows you how the company views customers. ASOS failed to fulfil their delivery promise to me. They damaged the goods they were delivering to me by leaving them unattended in the rain. They failed to admit that they had done either things and they didn’t answer my questions. The resolution? I could return them for a refund or a replacement if they were damaged. Wait? But that’s pretty much my right anyway as a consumer. So what’s the recompense?

Lesson six: Whether it is a psychological contract or a transaction, there is a perception of return for value that is established. When that real or psychological contract is broken, you need to offer some way of giving recompense. It doesn’t have to be financial, it could be additional service, additional support, some how going that extra mile. But when you haven’t fulfilled your side, you can expect the expectation on you to increase beyond the normal offer to a customer.

7. The “no names” approach
When I’m getting nowhere, I will always ask, “is there someone else that I can speak to, to help me with this?’ I get that often customer service representatives are tasked with a playbook and have to follow the rules. I understand that often they get stuck between company policies and the customer – although the best companies empower representatives to come to a conclusion. Of all the responses from ASOS, this was the most incredible one, “We are the customer care team, and you will receive the same answer on our other customer care platforms. We are sorry that you are not satisfied with the only outcome that is possible, and we look forward to hearing from you when you return from your holiday. Have a lovely time.”

Lesson seven: Whether it changes things or not, allowing the customer to raise the issue with someone else, helps diffuse a situation. And of course, if you’re comfortable about your approach and how you’ve handled a situation – you shouldn’t have any concerns. Putting up resistance and walls can lead to thinking that you’re not being taken seriously – and damages trust. If you’re not going to empower people to come to solutions, you need to have a path for escalation.

8. The inconclusive end
ASOS promised me that, “Speedy hassle-free shopping just got real easy” but that wasn’t true. It wasn’t speedy, it certainly wasn’t hassle free and whilst it was easy for me to make the purchase, everything after that point was far from so. They also promise, “occasionally something goes wrong with our service and when it does, we promise to fix it as fast as we possibly can”. That wasn’t the case. In fact to date, the situation hasn’t been fixed. I’ve had non-delivery, damaged goods, unreturned messages and slow customer service. There is no closure.

Lesson eight: If you truly believe in customer service, then the situation ends when the customer accepts that it has – not when you exhaust your process manual. There will be the odd individual who will be unreasonable and demand more than acceptable – but most people are fair and reasonable.

I ask myself, have I been that exceptional, unreasonable person? I don’t think so.At the end of the day, this isn’t about the money or time, I kept asking the questions because I was amazed at the approach that was being taken. There were numerous opportunities to grab hold of the issue and resolve it, but they were ignored.

Will I continue to shop at ASOS? Probably. I have two teenage kids that like their products – maybe this is what they rely on. Has it damaged my faith in a brand? Completely. And longer term brand reputation is always more damaging and more costly for an organisation than anything relating to “in year” financial performance.

So the lesson for all of us, is that sometimes the actions that we take today may not seem to cause an impact, but when a build up of evidence starts to point to a failure, that’s where you’re going to have trouble. If want our reputation and brand to be maintained, we need to act it out in every interaction that we have. And that doesn’t matter whether you’re a retailer, any other company or a service department –  you’ll be judged in the same way, because when it comes to customer service, the same rules apply to us all.