A Tale of Customer Service: Are you Nordstrom or Nerdstrom?

If you or a loved one bought this sweater for Christmas, don't return it; burn it!

Like most of you, I’ve been in customer service hell this holiday shopping season. I had to resort to the Better Business Bureau to resolve one dispute with a major online retailer that shall go nameless (they made good, once a person with authority actually listened to my complaint, which didn’t happen until the BBB got involved). Then there was the other online retailer who didn’t accept a return because a thin plastic bag that had to be torn to try the product out hadn’t been included in the return box. And the one who explained, when I called after not receiving the package, that “Next day delivery doesn’t mean you get it the next day. It means you get it the day after we send it.” Which could be any old day, apparently.

By contrast, there are companies that practice what the shoe-shopping factions at Agile Learning Labs call “Nordstrom customer service.” What is that? I have a friend who bought a sweater from Nordstrom. And wore it. Several times. For months. Then she saw a picture of herself in it, decided it made her look chunky, and returned it. No questions asked.

That’s the model we try to emulate at Agile Learning Labs. If you wake up the day of your CSM with a flat tire, or a sick kid, you get a full refund. We don’t charge a cancellation fee. Why on earth would we not help someone who chose us and is now in a bind? We don’t want you walking around for the rest of your life thinking, “Humpf, Agile Learning Labs–they talked me into that sweater that makes me look fat but that I still wear because I paid for it and–I’ll bet that unflattering sweater is the reason I didn’t get that job–maybe it’s the reason I got divorced….”

Like any company, we’re human, and we make mistakes. And when we do, we feel bad. A while back a potential client emailed us, asking to talk to someone about training, and the email fell between the cracks. No one from Agile Learning Labs got back to her for over a week, and when we did, she replied crisply, saying she’d “gone with another training company.” We all felt bad, but it particularly irked Betty, who took the initiative to sent over a box of chocolate chip cookies and a note saying we were sorry we dropped the ball and wishing them the best with their agile adoption. It’s what you’d do if you missed an email from a friend inviting you to a dinner party, so it’s what you should do as a business.

The larger point, perhaps, is that the same attitudes that govern outward-facing customer service policies also exist within organizations. Does management treat the scrum team with the same trust and consideration that Nordstrom treats its customers? Is the default answer yes in your organization… or is it no? Consider the implications for morale, retention and productivity. At Agile Learning Labs, everyone has a company credit card, both literally and figuratively. Any one of us can buy a client cookies, refund a student, or spend time starting a side project that may or may not pay off. We can all say: “Yes!”

As a business, we’ve found that giving the team a sense of ownership of the business drives productivity, and that by trusting people to make small financial and business decisions, we actually create an awareness of, and interest in, the bottom line. In other words: the freedom to spend the team’s time and money is exactly what engenders responsible care-taking of the team’s time and money.

The proof? Agile Learning Labs more than doubled its revenues in 2011 over 2010, and we did it by practicing what we preach: trusting our team to self-organize and treating our customers as part of the team.

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