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.

We learn when things go wrong

One of the things about a customer focussed organisation is that they are constantly evaluating their performance. They look for improvements, they look for modifications, they look to ensure that every customer is treated as well as every other one. They delight in calling out issues and changing practices. The converse, is the organisation that is resistant to change, that had ingrained systems that are more important than the customer and has practices that suit organisational ease rather than customer delight.

Over the last week I managed to watch a little bit of both in operation, a small but fascinating insight in to the organisation that learns and adapts, and the organisation that reacts and closes ranks. Unfortunately, in order to do so, I had to undergo a period of somewhat arduous fieldwork beside the Indian ocean. Now I know what you’re thinking, but every now and then you need to take one for the team. You can thank me later.

Example one started in the hotel. This was a hotel that prided itself on its customer service, if I’m honest it was almost intrusive at times, but there was no doubt that they were there to serve. Midway through the fieldwork period, we witnessed a tropical storm (see I told you I was taking one for the team) which came in late one day and lasted overnight. The result was that everyone took the sensible decision to stay in bed and arrive for breakfast at the very last-minute. And in the name of science, clearly we had to be there to witness events unfold. The normally serene and organised dining room lost it a little as orders bombed in from left and right. Our order for coffee somehow got lost, not once, not twice, but three times.

These things happen, I get that. But I raised it in a polite, but clear manner. Like I can.

Over the coming days, I was amazed at the number of staff who apologised or mentioned the issue. People kept asking how things were, whether everything was ok. It wasn’t just in the dining room, it was by the pool, by the beach, in the other restaurant. There had been a breakdown of service and people wanted to make it right. To the point that I almost greeted the cleaning lady with,”YES I got the effing coffee okay?” It wasn’t as if I’d ordered a pink flamingo on toast…..

Example two takes place on the plane back from the field trip. Cattle class, in case you ask, exploration budgets aren’t what they were you know….. When my co-researcher told me the seats for the flight back, I sigh and respond that this will mean two of us won’t get a choice of meals, they’ll be run out by the time they get to us and we’ll only get offered fish. And, guess what, that’s exactly what happened. I’m I gifted? Not at all, I just watched what happened on the earlier flight out when we were sat in the row behind. History repeats itself and all that.

We are in the middle four seats, the co-researcher, me and the two lab rats. The way they start with the meal service means that one side gets served before the other and twenty minutes later when they get to the other side, guess what. The popular meals have gone. For info, field research shows chicken beats fish hands, beaks, fins down every time (which begs the question, why not have more chicken meals and give your customers what they want – but that’s another story). There is a zone, from about row 37 to 34, seats E,F,G and H which every time loses out. FACT.

If you sit in these seats, you are more than odds on to have no meal choice. But, to my knowledge, the cost of a seat in this unhappy zone is just as expensive as the golden triangle of 36 to 40 which guarantees first choice of meals, which can’t be right. The system was set up to deliver bad customer to those in the unhappy zone.

Now I know you’re now thinking, “get a life Morrison….there are more important things” and yes there are. But two things I’d say, firstly if your organisation is set up to systemically give better customer service to some customers than others, just because of random factors such as seat numbers you’ve got a problem brewing. And secondly, it was a goddamn long flight and only so many books a boy can read before going google eyed.

So I raised the issue, in a polite but clear manner, like I can.

The response was that I got to choose my lunch, so I shouldn’t quibble about getting no choice for dinner. When I pressed and pointed out that whilst they served in the way that they did, this would always be a problem, I was given a customer suggestion form and told to fill it out. They then went on to pass some snide remarks about me, unfortunately picking the only other language on this planet that I happen to be fluent in. Later in a conversation, the senior stewardess confided that I could make the suggestion but she didn’t seem to have much hope anyone would listen. The impression I was given was, that’s the system, we have no choice, just like you the customer we have to like it or lump it.

Sadly, this is the approach too many organisations take both internally and externally. The system rules the brain. The customer or employee is the recipient of the system, not the driver. That’s just the way it is. I know we can’t always get things right first time, I know that things will go wrong. But hiding behind the system, explaining away problems and ignoring poor service won’t help us learn and develop. It also won’t help us get things right. Treating people like humans, explaining the problems and checking how to make things better on the other hand, might just improve things for everyone – both customers and employees alike.

Now wouldn’t that be cool.

Customers can be wrong

Is the customer ever wrong? That was a question that I posed to the wonderful Doug Shaw at the CIPD Conference in Social Media last year. I was being mischievous. Because the answer is, of course. Sometimes the customer IS wrong. Let me give you some examples.

I was out for dinner on Saturday night and when we went to order the waiter had a somewhat quizzical look in his eye. We were ordering from the menu, we were ordering perfectly good dishes, but he felt that there were better dishes on the menu that we could be eating. He recommended, we went with his recommendations and we had an amazing meal. For the record, that was Khan’s of Brixton….it doesn’t look much, but the food is amazing.  The thing was, he was trying to give us a better experience.

I’ve come across suppliers, in the past, who have turned work down because they didn’t feel it was their strong suit. I’ve complete respect for that. I’ve also come across suppliers who have tried to convince me that I wanted product A not product B. Not because product A was better, but because they couldn’t do product B. I’ve less respect for that.

I may have been wrong in both cases, but the honesty and the integrity of the supplier was the differentiating factor. And likewise, as an HR practitioner, sometimes you will come up against circumstances where the client or customer is wrong. They want to do one thing, you believe that another thing is right. If you have the best interests of the business and the client at heart, then you should feel free to challenge and free to try to guide them to a better solution. The old HR adage of, “I explain to them the risks and then I let them make the decision”, is an out dated, ill thought through, pile of steaming nonsense. That is not adding value in any shape or form.

Challenging a CEO, or senior manager, who has their mind set on one thing and influencing them to do something else is scary. It can be risky and in some organisations it can be dangerous. But be under no illusion, that it is right. Just choose how you approach it, choose how you do it and be prepared to be proved wrong. We all are sometimes.

Like suppliers, as an HR professional, you should be looking to build a long-term sustainable relationship. That means that a level of openness, honesty and challenge is always appropriate even if it isn’t always welcome. Customers aren’t always right, sometimes they need a little guidance. It can be hard work, it can be unforgiving, but it is one way to really add value to your business.

If you don’t believe me, watch this:

How not to win friends and influence people

We all deal with third-party suppliers, some good, some bad, some indifferent. It is part of our ecosphere, part of who we are, part of what we do. We all need one another, we rely on one another and we ultimately create wealth for one another.

And despite my years of experience, despite my wizened looks, I can sometimes be amazed.

Anyone in a corporate role will be the recipient of invites to dinners, lunches, events. It is part of the same ecosystem. We want to get you into a room and talk to you, so we need something to entice you there. There are weeks when I could go without providing a meal for myself if I wanted, but I don’t. I don’t because I have better things to do and because I won’t morally take something without a genuine interest or purpose. I’m sure many of you are the same.

A recent invite came in and it wasn’t appropriate to me, so I passed it on to the relevant member of my team. The next thing I know, I receive a letter from the supplier asking for feedback as they hadn’t heard from the team member that had attended the lunch and assumed they had left, they enclosed two letters that they had sent previously. The team member hadn’t left and I passed the letter to them.

The simple truth is that we receive call after call, letter after letter, email after email each day from suppliers. And whilst we try to respond to everyone, it takes time. If you have a lot on, if you take holidays, sometimes these things can take a little longer than you’d like. It isn’t a sign of disrespect, but a reality of modern business.

The team member in question sent an email to explain and to say that she wasn’t too pleased that the supplier had gone over her head. She explained that she was interested in the service, but that she didn’t like the pushy way in which she was being sold to. Fair enough.

End of story? No….nowhere near………

The company in question is called Syndicate Training, you can find their website here.

Now I must say, I haven’t used their services. They may be great, they may be fantastic, I just don’t know. Nor have I been able to find anyone who could provide me with any insight. So all I can comment on is my interaction with them.

The response was somewhat incredible. The email was copied to me and included the following,

It is the view of Syndicate Members that on March 13th you were able to leave the office from 11.30 – 3.00 to attend a Gordon Ramsay lunch and that requesting your feedback either by email or a quick telephone call is not pressurising you. It is very important that professionals in HR lead from the front in matters concerning professional etiquette. I don’t think it was an unrealistic expectation for us to expect either a thank you note for the lunch or a quick call with your feedback.


Please find attached a typical email response from a very busy HR Director representing her company in a professional and positive manner.

(with actual attached email – not just the text)

The immediate reaction was to ignore and put down to experience. There are people out there that don’t have the same business ethos as we do and perhaps that is fine. Maybe we are too soft. But then again, as a manager, as a leader, I felt compelled to support my team member, I wrote the following back:

Thanks for your email. I’m not really sure that it’s helpful going back and forth in this way as I am sure you, like I, have more important things to be doing. That said, I do feel that I need to mention a couple of things.

[Team Member] is one of the most professional and conscientious individuals that I have worked with throughout my entire career which is why when you wrote to me, I passed the letter straight to her. If I’m honest, I find your comments about etiquette unbecoming and unnecessary and would like to think that these are said in the heat of the moment rather than being reflective of your normal business interaction.

It may be that you come across people that will use your invitations just as the basis for a “free meal”, but I can assure you that we are far too busy to do that. As [Team Member] has explained, she was very pushed for time internally and then through annual leave, but had a genuine interest in your offering.

It is important to me that we work with organisation that culturally fit with ours and with people that I trust and respect. We each have choices about the way in which we run our business and the tone that we want to set. On that basis, I can’t see our organisations working together either now or in the future.

Kind regards,


So I accept the last paragraph was a little pointed, but I like to think that the overall tone was fair.

The response from the owner and Director was as follows,

Good Afternoon Mr. Morrison

Syndicate Training is a Membership based organisation with a lengthy application process which has not and will not be offering a Membership to your organisation. We would however like to offer [Team Member] a free time management course from our Open Course Brochure to be utilised anytime over the next 12 months as a way of apology for assuming she had left the business.

Kind regards

Laurie Bell – Director

Go make of that what you will.

So what do I make of Syndicate Training? Well I really don’t know. They offer courses on a range of subjects, including Customer Service – Handling Customers Professionally, Emotional Intelligence Demystified, Influencing and Persuading – A Competitive Edge and, of course, Interpersonal Skills for Business. All of these seem like really relevant courses to many, many businesses…….

A lot of things don’t make sense to me, if you are so selective why hold lunches to attract new business when you have never spoken to the invitee, if you aren’t interested then why push so hard for feedback and of course, why would you communicate with a potential customer who has expressed interest in your services in this way?

I’m sure that they are a highly reputable company that offer a fantastic service. I’m sure that this is a blip. I’m sure that this is just me being unreasonable. I’m also sure that I will never, as long as I live and breathe, be working with Syndicate Training.

Other than that, the whole thing has completely befuddled me. As for you guys, well, I’ll leave you to make up your own minds up.

UPDATE: 28 September 2012

Guess what we received this week……is this Ms. Bell trying to make friends???