Discover your free Construction Marketing Ideas Email Newsletter

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The $18 bottle of water -- lessons in branding and blunders

Let's just help out here with a little more publicity for Danani with this reference (from a few years ago), to Coke's U.K. bottled water public relations disaster. Mistakes can get expensive when you have a well-known brand. But even though you are running a local construction business rather than a multi-national corporation, the basic principals apply. All client interactions -- especially if the client is complaining -- are important to your brand.

Yesterday afternoon, we rushed to the hockey arena for the final afternoon practice before Eric's first final playoff game tomorrow (and my trip to Thunder Bay today). The canteen hadn't opened yet, but no problem, the arena has vending machines containing the new "healthy" Dasani vitamin fortified bottled water.

A kid was fumbling with a five dollar bill in the currency acceptor on the machine. It wouldn't take his bill. I offered to help. The machine could take $20s, so (even though I had the change I needed for my own drink), I offered to put in my cash and give him the change he needed. The machine had no problem accepting my money. It also gave me my water. But no change. And that is where this saga begins.

To my misfortune, the arena canteen had opened just as I deposited the bill into the machine (so the kid actually could get his own pop). But the person behind the arena counter said, "we don't have anything to do with the machines. You'll have to deal with the vending machine company." I could have gotten mad at the arena management for lacking flexibility, but know some history including an embezzlement scandal within the building a few years ago, so really wasn't going to hold the counter person responsible for this rule.

Nevertheless, this wasn't a $1.00 loss, it was an $18.00 matter, so I took it on myself to call the 800 problem number on the machine. Turns out the machine is actually owned by The Coca-Cola company, and the number rings through to Coke headquarters in Atlanta.

It is here that I began my run-in experience with corporate headquarters and ill-managed customer service policies.

After pushing a few phone tree extensions, someone real answered (good). The person said she could send merchandise coupons but not issue a cash refund; that would take a couple of days and would have to be done by the local vendor. I started fuming. "I don't want your dumb pop, I want my money back," I said. (I am not entirely unreasonable here; I know that if I had lost a $2.00 coin in the machine and didn't receive the bottle, a merchandise refund would have worked well -- but we're talking $18.00 here.) I told the script-laden employee I wasn't happy and publish a blog on marketing, and right now, Pepsi is starting to taste really good to me. To add insult to injury, just as she concluded the call and gave me the follow up identification number, the line went dead, so I called back, went through lots of holds, and eventually got the same message from the same person.

Okay, I'm not happy, but Eric's practice was about to end and I really preferred spending time with my family before this visit to Thunder Bay, and put the whole thing out of my mind.

Until this afternoon. After four hours of flying, and another three and a half hour of intensive interviews, and receiving eight phone messages, someone from Coke called while I was in a meeting. I finally got to the hotel room, ready to return messages, and listened to what seemed like a brand-saving maneuver.

The person in Vancouver said she would be sending me coupons for all kinds of stuff --soft drinks, bottled water, large bottles, everything totalling, she said, about $25.00. "Hey,this is neat," I thought, expecting the call to conclude with an explanation of how someone from the vending machine department would get back to me about refunding my cash as well. No luck. "We can't refund cash, so if you want that, you'll have to return the coupons," the person said. (I have her name and number, but won't publish it here.)

She didn't leave me a phone number, but my cellular phone had the number on it -- so I called back. "That person's phone is not set to accept in-bound calls," the receptionist told me. "She'll call you back, though."

And she did, and it proved to be an interesting conversation. I explained that I didn't want her company's bottled water, pop, or whatever, I wanted my cash back, but the hassle she was putting me through was far greater than the loss I had incurred. I said the right thing would have been to offer the coupons AND the cash refund. I said: "You don't know how much my time is worth." She responded (amazingly), "My time is worth more than yours." Hugh. (Expletive deleted.) Even though I had made clear that I own a business and publish a marketing blog, (acknowledged in her original voice message), she would say something like that....????)

I told her clearly that if I had lost $2.00 or even $5.00 in the machine, I wouldn't have a problem, so why not set the machines so they don't accept large bills. "We have that policy in Western Canada," she said. She said that she will pass my request on, and that indeed I can keep the coupons, but really I should return them because there is no way her department should have to absorb the costs of a mistake in the vending machine department.

Okay, this is a lot of stuff about a small matter. I paid $35.00 tonight for a room service dinner; and am not going to be pushed into poverty for an $18.00 loss. And I could see that Coca-Cola (and large consumer oriented companies) have to have systems in place that work for most people, most of the the time, and when small amounts of cash are lost in vending machines, you don't want to be handling cash and refunding money carelessly.

But we all need to remember, regardless of the size of our business, that our brand depends on the interaction between the company and the client; and these are crucial moments in relationship development and maintenance. Turning a broken vending machine into a saga spanning several days is not good business. (Coca Cola may redeem itself, of course, when I receive the refund and keep all those coupons -- but it won't if the refund doesn't come in a timely manner!)

In construction and related businesses, the client relationships usually span far longer than the time it takes to receive bottled water after pushing a $20 bill into currency acceptor. And, in many cases, it involves several employees at different levels. As you'll see in future entries, your front line employees -- whether they be project superintendents, accounting personnel, or (importantly) your receptionist, all have critical roles in creating and maintaining your brand, and building your current and future business. If staff are able to respond quickly and resourcefully, slip-ups can be recovered quickly, and client satisfaction goes through the roof.

I try to set an example in my own business. When a complaint call comes in while I am in the office, I'll often phone back within minutes. This has immediate impact because the complainer is never expecting the company president to call back. But regardless, I set out with the philosophy that the customer deserves a hearing and control over the solution and I'll do whatever is necessary to make things right. I know most people are reasonable and fair, most of the time, if you treat them that way. And yes, there are a few who will exploit loopholes and expect something for nothing. Obviously, none of us can walk away from a $100,000 invoice -- but I'll absorb a $250 ad, and the Coca Cola company should be able to make good, without hassle, a $20 vending machine fowl-up.

Right now, I'll take the coupons, and start drinking Pepsi, or more rationally, store-branded bottled water.

No comments: