Friday, January 6, 2012

Life lessons and customer service

I was thinking of a piece of advice given to me more than a decade ago by a workplace mentor as I debated with myself whether to drive to a store several miles away to return a disappointing Christmas purchase.

Given the choice, I’d pretty much always rather stay home than go anywhere, and this is especially true during the work day. And yet I knew I shouldn’t just let this particular errand slide. Several weeks before Christmas, my 13-year-old had mentioned that he wished he had a clock in his bathroom so that he could keep track of time during his morning shower. I thought of the waterproof clock/radio combinations popular 25 years or so ago, a device Tim didn’t even know existed. With great excitement, I put it on my list of Christmas gifts to buy for him.

None of the places where I usually buy electronics had shower clock/radios in stock, so I ended up at Bed Bath and Beyond, which carried one model for $19.99. It looked a lot like the ones I remembered from 25 years ago, but imagining how surprised Tim would be by the gift and hoping that a little Top 40 during his early-morning shower might put an extra spring in his step made me delighted to find one at all.

When he opened it on Christmas morning he was pleased, if not what I would call overwhelmed. But it was downhill from there. The suction cups didn’t adhere. The radio reception was awful -- static from one end of the band to the other. No Top 40 to get Tim singing before breakfast after all. As I tinkered hopefully with the tuning, Tim said “The radio’s a nice idea, Mom, but all I really wanted was to be able to keep an eye on the time while I’m in the shower. And the clock doesn’t work.”

He was right. After 24 hours, the digital time display had gone blank.

It was maddening, and yesterday morning I thought about returning it. But I really don’t like doing errands during the work day, and I really don’t like going to Bed Bath and Beyond in general, and I really don’t like the highway drive to the store. How much time and aggravation can $19.99 justify?

That was when my former workplace mentor’s advice came to me. It was when I was trying to decide whether to pursue a transfer to a different division of the company. “Rather than list the pros and cons, here’s what I like to do,” my colleague said. “Picture yourself six months from now if you do make the change versus six months from now if you don’t, and consider what might be different.”

As I looked at the white plastic face of the clock/radio, I thought about my dilemma. If I didn’t take it back to the store, I’d avoid the brief unpleasantness of doing errands and driving on the highway in the middle of what could otherwise be a very serene and quiet work day.

On the other hand, six months from now – for that matter, six days from now – I’d still be irritated by what a bad purchase the clock/radio had been, and I’d still be thinking toxic thoughts about Bed Bath and Beyond. Those toxic thoughts could go on forever. Whereas if I just drove to the store to do the return, even if I didn’t get a penny back, I would have at least been proactive in trying.

I rehearsed what I would say and how I would throw myself on the mercy of customer service: “It’s just not a worthwhile item. The clock doesn’t work. The radio doesn’t get any stations. I know the original packaging is long gone, and yes, it’s been hanging in our bathroom for a couple of weeks, but could you take it back anyway?”

The drive took less time than I expected: only 16 minutes until I was in the store’s parking lot. The store was a lot less crowded than I remembered it from before Christmas. The customer service rep was pleasant. And to my surprise, she apparently couldn’t have cared less why I was returning it. She asked me to sign a receipt copy and then announced that the purchase price would be credited back to my credit card.

It was certainly easy. At the same time, it was a little disquieting. I can’t help wondering why the store has such an absolutely hands-off policy when it comes to customer returns. Didn’t they want to know that the clock display didn’t work, that the suction cups didn’t stick, that the radio reception was negligible?

Apparently not. So what happens to the piece of merchandise now? Does it go back on the shelf for someone else? Does it go to a marked-down bargain shelf? Does an employee get to take it home for free?

Or, more unsettling, does it go straight into a landfill?

I don’t know. I appreciate the refund of my $19.99 plus tax, and I appreciate the fact that the trip was easy and the customer service rep didn’t make me feel bad. But I’m a little bewildered.

Still, my long-ago colleague’s advice succeeded for me once again. Six months from now – six hours from now – I’ll be glad the defunct clock/radio is out of my house. Tim was delighted when I offered him an old digital watch to hang on the shower caddy in his bathroom. It even has an alarm feature, so he can set it for when he needs to finish his shower. If he wants Top 40 music, he’ll sing it himself, I guess.

But I’m not sure what the lesson is. Not to shop at Bed Bath and Beyond? Not to buy inexpensive electronics? Or to just get up and go when a potentially worthwhile errand needs to be done?

The bottom line is that I’m now free of my acrimony toward Bed Bath and Beyond. It’s one less source of aggravation in my Iife. And if that’s the best I can do for a lasting life lesson, it might still be good enough.

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