FailWhen do you think you should practice excellent customer service? Sometimes? All the time? Only when someone's watching?

I assume you're thinking, "Well, duh, Steve, we practice it all the time! We always deliver great service!"

But do you? I ask that question because of two of my own bad customer service experiences in the last couple of weeks. And the biggest reason I ask is because both examples come from extremely well-known brands that feature high-end products and, ostensibly, excellent customer service — Ralph Lauren and Tommy Bahama. Both showed clear examples of practicing what I would call "Situational Customer Service."

Both experiences happened during a five-week travel marathon. During that time I consulted for two trade shows (The Rental Show in Las Vegas and Global Pet Expo in Orlando)…I spoke about branding for the PPG Platinum Distribuors in Scottsdale…I shared my new Vicious Productivity presentation with the ESAB Welding & Cutting salesforce in Myrtle Beach…and I led a day long strategic marketing discussion for MHI in Charlotte. All locations were sunshine-filled and much warmer than most of the rest of the country and I didn't get on the golf course ONCE!

Bad Experience #1 – #ralphlaurenfail

My first bad example came at the Ralph Lauren store in The Shoppes at the Palazzo in Las Vegas. I was looking for a couple of new polo shirts for the summer. I knew exactly what shirts I wanted and walked straight to them. They were displayed in a tall bookcase with many shelves and cubicles. I asked for assistance getting the colors and size because I knew I would completely destroy the neatly piled shirts if I tried to get them myself. I asked for two orange shirts and one white, all XL. The friendly associate grabbed two big piles, rifled through them quickly, declaring "Here they are!" and headed to the cash register. His service was very good – exactly what I would expect from such a high-scale establishment. I paid for the shirts and left.

I didn't open the shirts until I had moved on to my next destination – Scottsdale. It was mid-70's, so I grabbed one of the orange shirts only to discover it wasn't an XL. It was an XXL.

These things happen, so I asked my smoking hot wife, Kay, back home to call Ralph Lauren's online support number and ask how to exchange it for the correct size. In both our opinions, this should have been handled in a quick and painless manner. After all, it's RALPH LAUREN.

It wasn't.

Online Support said she needed to call the store. The person who answered at the store said she needed to talk with the associate who helped me. The associate said he would take care of it immediately and call back with full instructions. He didn't. After multiple calls over several days on her part, Kay finally asked for the store manager. The store manager said she would have to talk with the associate and call back. She didn't. Kay was finally told they would send a new shirt along with instructions on returning the incorrect shirt. Nothing happened. She was then told she would have to return the shirt first and after they received it they would send the new one. And on and on.

I finally received the new shirt yesterday…fully four weeks after I bought the first one. 

Bad Experience #2 – #tommybahamafail

While on the road I decided to order a sweater and shirt from Tommy Bahama's online store. Less than one hour after placing my order, I received an email blast from Tommy Bahama offering a 25% discount in a Friends & Family promotion.

I immediately sent an email to Tommy Bahama's Online Support explaining I'd placed my order just before receiving the offer and asked if they could apply the discount for me. a few hours later I received a response:

Thank you for contacting Tommy Bahama regarding your recent order (#1583718). We are delighted to assist you in any way we can.

We would be glad to apply the discount to this order. All we ask is that you wait until you receive the order, review all the purchases and then contact us by phone. When you call us, we can determine which items (if any) you would like to return and apply the 25% discount to the remaining items in the way of a credit back to the original method of payment.

On the surface this might seem to you that this is a fair deal. To me it was an unnecessary inconvenience. I have to wait for the order to arrive. Then I decide whether I'm going to keep the items. Then I have to call Customer Support and request the discount. And then they apply it.

This didn't make sense to me. If I'd placed the order after receiving the offer, I would have just entered the Friends & Family code with the order. It would have immediately applied the 25% discount even before submitting my credit card information.

I responded that I didn't want to go through the process outlined in their email. I decided to simply cancel my order. After cancelling, I would then go back, reorder the same pieces and apply the discount. I cancelled my order.

Shortly after cancelling my order I got another email saying my original order was shipped! We also received a voicemail in our office marked "Urgent" from the Customer Support department. They explained the order was shipped before the cancellation was received, but they would be happy to apply the 25% discount…if I waited to receive the order, then review all the purchases and then contact them by phone. When I call them, we can determine which items (if any) I would like to return and apply the 25% discount to the remaining items in the way of a credit back to the original method of payment. 

So Kay called and said no thanks, we will return everything. They gave her a Return Authorization Number and emailed a Fedex label to attach to the box. We received the order and sent it right back. They credited my card for the full amount.

I then went on the Tommy Bahama website and reordered the exact same items, entered the 25% discount code, and saved $76. AND shipping was free. Does this make sense to you?

OK, so what have we got here? Two giant, well-known brands. Both offer great customer service in their stores. Both failed miserably when faced with a slightly different, but easily solved situation. Both with really bad policies for handling (or not handling) these type of situations. Both forcing the customer to bear the brunt of the time and energy handling these situations.

I call this Situational Customer Service. These big brands haven't really extended their promise of delivering a great experience, have they?

And if brands, like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Bahama, can fail so badly, guess what? We can, too.

I think there's a great lesson here for all of us. We need to look at EVERY touchpoint our clients and customers may experience when dealing with us. We must make sure all those are consistent and congruent with the branding proposition we are making. It's imperative to remember that EVERYTHING WALKS THE TALK.

What do you think?