How Not to Treat Your Customers

The following post recounts a recent experience I had at a high-end fashion boutique. It’s long, very ranty, and deals with what most people would consider a “rich person’s problem”—be warned! Please feel free to skip to the end for my five retail takeaways.

In December, after months of searching for the perfect cross-body bag, I happened across a fetching option at a high-end boutique called Zoë, one of the few retail stores in the artsy Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn. The handbag, called the Pashli satchel, is designed by 3.1 Phillip Lim, one of many designers stocked by Zoë, which caters to affluent clients with stylish merchandise straight from the runways: $2,000 dresses by Peter Pilotto, $275 jeans by Rag & Bone, and $1,400 necklaces by Mizuki, to name a few of the store’s pricey pieces.

I’ve never spent more than $250 on a handbag, but this one—originally priced at $950, but marked down to $665—was really, really cool, and I spent a few days jonesing for it after I tried it on at the store. A combo of white leather and animal-print pony hair, it was the perfect mix of casual and sophisticated—it even made my puffy winter jacket look good. When I realized that I could have the store ship it to my home in Los Angeles and avoid paying sales tax, I decided to splurge. It would be my Christmas present to myself.

When I tried on the Pashli mini satchel at the store, it even made my puffy winter jacket look hip.

I paid for the handbag with a credit card over the phone and received the package from Zoë in late December. Not counting jewelry or plane tickets, it was the nicest purchase I had ever made for myself, and I smiled every time I slung it over my shoulder. Like I said, it added a touch of cool to even my blandest outfits.

But a month after receiving it, I noticed that the back of the bag had begun to show significant signs of wear and tear.

This is what the bag looks like today. 

I know pony hair isn’t the sturdiest of materials, but one month seemed like a poor showing for a luxury handbag valued at nearly $1,000. So I did what I think most customers would do: I emailed 3.1 Phillip Lim on Jan. 26 using the contact info on the brand’s website: 

Hello,

Last month, I bought a Pashli satchel from one of your retailers in Brooklyn (Zoë), and the handbag already shows signs of significant wear and tear (please see attached photo), which is disappointing given how much I paid for it.

Have you encountered this complaint from other people who bought this style? Is there something I can do to prevent future wear and tear of this nature? 

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,

Victoria

To their credit, the customer care team at 3.1 Phillip Lim replied to me the very next day:

Dear Victoria, 

Thank you for reaching out to us, and providing us with the photo. 

However, for items purchased through our retailers such as Zoë repair requests must be directed to them for their specific policy. 

If for any reason there are any further inquiries within Zoë, the Zoë team will be able to communicate with our 3.1 Phillip Lim sales representatives for assistance. 

The reason we do this is to keep track of inventory, sales, and customers at each of our accounts. 

We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may bring, but please note this is our standard policy for any repair, return, and exchange request.

Best Regards,
Customer Care

Okay, fine. I forwarded the same email to Zoë (to the web@shopzoeonline.com address noted on the site’s contact page), with a few tiny tweaks:

Hello,

Last month, I bought a Pashli satchel from your Dumbo store, and the handbag already shows signs of significant wear and tear (please see attached photo), which is disappointing given how much I paid for it.

Have you encountered this complaint from other people who bought this style? Is there something I can do to prevent future wear and tear of this nature? Would it be possible to get the handbag fixed or replaced?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,

Victoria

That was on Jan. 27. Nine days and two emails later, I still hadn’t heard from Zoë, so I picked up the phone and spoke to a saleswoman, who didn’t have a clue who managed the website’s email address and didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned that it took me nine days, two emails and one phone call to get a hold of someone at the store.

When I forwarded her the email I had sent to the generic store address, she responded with a reply that was, well, maddening:

I’ve passed along your message and photo to our buyer. Shell begin the communication with Phillip Lim regarding the possible repair.

Unfortunately, the slight balding on the pony hair is a common occurrence with this kind of material. Any abrasion can cause the hairs to rub off over time. I recommend holding the bag in a manner that avoids any rubbing against the body and always keeping it away from heat and moisture. You can wipe cowhide smoothly in the direction of the hair with a damp cloth, mild soap and water. Do not soak or get too wet. Brushing with a hard plastic brush helps to keep the hair soft and fluffy and removes dirt as well. Hope these tips help!

I will notify you of any updates regarding the status of your case. Thank you for your patience.

Holding the bag in a manner that avoids any rubbing against the body? It’s a cross-body bag. That is how it is marketed and that’s the only way that it makes sense to wear. And yes, I understand balding can happen—over time. But after a single month of wear? That’s not what any reasonable person expects to see when she spends hundreds of dollars on a tiny piece of luxury.

Suffice it to say that her response wasn’t the one I was expecting. (Not that I had clear-cut expectations at that point—a replacement bag would have been nice, sure, but mostly, I was looking for a sense of affirmation from the store, an acknowledgment that my complaint was valid). Not only did the saleswoman trivialize my issue with the bag, she failed to recognize that my email had been ignored and would have continued to be ignored if I hadn’t called the store directly.

Which isn’t how things are supposed to work in 2014. The Zoë website is e-commerce enabled. In other words, they’re more than happy to take people’s money on the site, they just don’t care if customers actually want to reach them (using the avenue almost every customer would prefer: email).

I wasn’t surprised when a single-star Yelp review and a pissed-off tweet directed at @ShopZoeOnline went unanswered.

The last I heard from the saleswoman at Zoë was on Feb. 10, when she promised to touch base with me as soon as they’d gotten a reply from their Phillip Lim sales rep about the status of my repair request. Last week, after returning from Hong Kong, a full month after I’d last heard from the Zoë saleswoman, I decided to take the matter up directly with 3.1 Phillip Lim, whose anonymous customer-care team had been responsive (if somewhat pass-the-buckish). They assured me that a return authorization had been issued to the Zoë team and that I was entitled to a refund.

Last Wednesday, I called Zoë to inquire about the refund. The manager picked up the phone and told me she needed to check with the saleswoman who had initially handled my request to confirm a few things before sending me a shipping label to send in the damaged bag. This was the point when my frustrations boiled over. I explained to the manager that I was disappointed by the store’s lack of attentiveness; that a month had passed and the woman who I’d dealt with hadn’t been in touch with me about what seemed like a straightforward request; and that Zoë’s owner, Lisa Brock, was ultimately the one responsible for letting the store’s website inquiries go unanswered.

I didn’t yell at the manager, though there was no denying my irritation. She then did something astonishing. She began to cry and ran through a bunch of excuses: She had been away traveling, they have a very small staff, and everyone was just so busy. Then, through her tears, she said, “You’re probably used to getting what you want,” implying that I was some diva who always drove poor defenseless salespeople to tears. 

At that point, what could I do? She’d undermined any sort of argument I could make by crying. Was I really the demanding b**** she was making me out to be?

We went back and forth over the next few minutes with me attempting to explain why having my complaint neglected and then trivialized had made me so angry. She apologized and said she would send me a shipping label to return the bag and once they received it, they would issue me a refund. Later that day, I did in fact receive the return label and am going to send the bag back this week.

But the whole experience has left me with a clearer understanding of why people choose to shop at brand boutiques or big department stores, avoiding independent retailers altogether. The service can be so spotty.

Here’s how other retailers can learn from Zoë’s customer-service fail: 

  1. If you have a website and it includes a contact email, which of course it does, check that email daily, if not hourly. Customers with complaints want to be acknowledged. Not knowing who checks the email account simply does not fly as an excuse in this day and age.
  2. The customer is—with very few exceptions—always right. In other words, don’t try to school the customer when she has a complaint. Nod, smile, agree—and do what you can to fix it.
  3. A customer with a complaint doesn’t care if you’re busy, understaffed, or not the one who caused the problem in the first place. She just wants the problem fixed. Don’t make excuses. Own the issue. Say, “I’m sorry. You’re right. We’ll handle this.”
  4. Hold back the tears, please! Crying to a customer is soooo unprofessional.
  5. Under no circumstances should you insult your customers (duh!). Every customer has friends and acquaintances with whom she’ll share her experiences. (Of course, she’ll share the good ones, too—as I did here.)

I’m still smarting from the personal comment the manager made about me “always getting what I want.” In this instance, it’s far from true. Yes, I’m getting a refund. But what I really wanted was for my complaint to be acknowledged right away and to be shown some respect. Retail is ultimately a business of relationships, and relationships have to have communication as their foundation. If it isn’t already obvious, my relationship with Zoë has come to an end.

Rant over!