Late last year, my wife and I bought a couch and a bed. We’d seen them in a showroom where the items looked beautiful. It was easy to imagine the items in our home. In fact, we were excited enough to buy sheets and pillows in the store where we placed the order. We even signed up for the email program. Who knew what else we might see to complement our new furnishings?

We were told it would be about a month before the pieces would arrive, together, at our house. No problem, we said. It had taken months to find what we wanted. What was another month?

Fast-forward four and a half months. I am standing in the doorway of my home overseeing three men picking up the couch to take it back to the warehouse from which it had come, eager to sign the acknowledgment that I’d carry the $100 cost of the “shipping” on the return. Later that afternoon, I deliberately took the time to unsubscribe from the email list I was on from the retailer. And the next weekend, I was back on the street, visiting showrooms, looking for a couch. And a bed. And telling everyone I knew along the way about the crummy experience I had had.

The cost of this experience for me was $200. The cost to the retailer was $3,000 up front, and who knows how much more in potential future sales from me, my wife, and anyone who heard my story. And who knows what damage the chain of events did to the brand on a tiny, but most likely repeated scale.

Customer Service Is More Than a Phone Center

So what happened? To put it simply, the fulfillment process wasn’t connected from the salesperson, to the warehouse/delivery group, to the customer service call center that ultimately needed to be at the hub of the customer relationship. And this was obvious in every attempt to deliver our order, which followed a sadly predictable pattern that had three steps in it.

Step one: We get a call from a “scheduler” from a customer service group located in Chicago saying our items were at a warehouse in the Bay Area near where we live. We’d schedule the delivery and pencil it into our calendar — often moving things around to make sure we could fit into the delivery window.

Step two: An hour before the scheduled delivery, we get a call from someone at the nearby warehouse saying a part for the bed was missing, so the order wasn’t complete yet. We have to wait. To learn how long, we’d have to call customer service.

Step three: We call customer service (1,500 miles away in Chicago) to find out when the order would be done, and while always polite and nice, they’d have to “switch screens” and then “make a call” to find out what was going on at the warehouse. After a few minutes of listening to hold music, the agent would return to the call only to say, “I’m so sorry. We’ll call you as soon as the part comes in and the order is complete.”

The first time this scenario played out, I managed to get the couch delivered by itself, but it was a pattern that repeated itself four more times in four months for the bed. (As the pattern repeated itself, the delivered couch turned into a curse, as every time I looked at it, I was reminded of the missing bed — kindling my growing frustration.)

Had the warehouse, the call center, and the sales associate been on the same page from the get-go, the whole process might’ve been different, starting at the point of purchase with a better estimate of the delivery timetable. But, at the very least, once the purchase had been placed, the scheduler in Chicago would never have initiated the delivery process with us had there been transparency between the call center agents and the warehouse.

Here’s the thing: The customer service agents were AMAZING. No matter how frustrated or hot I got, they were always polite and accommodating. They were up front about the issues. They got managers involved. They did everything they could, short of completing the delivery themselves, to keep the relationship with me as healthy as it could be under the circumstances.

But without a clear understanding of what was happening in the warehouse where the order was stuck, they were doomed to repeat the classic problem of over-promise and under-delivery (in this case, no delivery).

To make matters worse, twice a week I got an email from the company asking me to look at items that would go perfectly with the bed I didn’t have. In other words, marketing knew what I’d bought, but had no idea what the status of the order was. Instead of selling me on new items, they were just reminding me (twice a week) how much they’d already failed.

In the age of the customer, customer service is where the customer relationship is truly defined.

Today, when I buy something online, I expect an email or text confirming the purchase, and another set of emails or texts informing me of its progress to my door. When I visit a website with a question about how something works, I anticipate that I’ll find a set of FAQs — or even an active community of experts — to show me the answer. When I call to talk to someone on the phone, I definitely think they’ll be able to see everything about what I’ve done with the company, as well as the status of everything that’s still an open issue. And I definitely assume that they can see and talk to every part of the company that has anything to do with those open issues — billing, inventory, fulfillment, and order history, to name a few.

I know this is hard. After all, the bigger the company, the more legacy systems there are to work with and through. But the technologies that have helped create these new customer expectations — cloud-based data and apps that offer instant gratification and connection to anyone and anything from anywhere via phones, laptops, tablets, desktops, and even products themselves — are also the solutions for meeting those expectations.

And if there’s any place where it’s most critical for those things to come together, it’s in customer service. Why? Simply because when there is an issue with a customer, you want your agents who are working on the problem to have the greatest visibility and power possible so that they can give the most accurate, up-to-the-minute answers available. Any blind spot is a weak spot that will make the job of an agent not only more difficult, but will also define the relationship with your customer, for better or for worse.

For me and my wife, our relationship with this company was completely trapped in a set of silos that made the customer service agents powerless to do more than offer apologies and vague suggestions about when the order would be fulfilled.

And eventually, we grew tired of the process and canceled it all, sending back the item that had been delivered at our own expense.

Seven days later we found what we were looking for elsewhere, where we were told we would also have to wait a month for the goods. But then we got regular emails from them about how the order was moving through their system. And we were able to even look it up through our account when we got curious. And when we did talk to a customer service person, we were seeing the same thing they were, and were confident in what that service person told us.

And now we have a couch and a bed. And that company is at the top of the list of places I’ll shop for the coffee table I think we need now.

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