Saturday, March 25, 2006

Why I will never buy anything from Martha Stewart again


a little while ago I wrote about one of the best customer service experiences I've ever had. This is about one of the worst.

more than a year ago Nancy purchased a gift subscription to Martha Stewart living magazine in a burst of generosity towards a co-worker who quickly revealed herself to be undeserving. So Nan canceled the subscription and was told she'd be cut a check in a few weeks.

we called from time to time over the past year, a total of four times, being assured that a check was cut and was on its way. But today we learned that Martha Stewart had mistakenly sent the refund check to the giftee, and that she had cashed it. No problem, you're thinking, because mso will just cut a new check and send to my wife and will eat the $19.95 one of its employees squandered by paying off the wrong person.

but no.

I was told in no uncertain terms, by two front-line customer service reps in two divisions, that since a check had been issued and cashed, there was nothing mso could do. When I told the second rep, who had checked with her supervisor, that this was ridiculous and demanded to speak to the supervisor, she said she'd take my phone number. When I insisted on speaking to someone else now, I was put on hold mid sentence.

And this was not the normal hold -- no, not the kind with music that sounds vaguely familiar in a sugary kind of way, butchered arrangements of often great popular tunes that Michael Jackson probably owns and sold to the lowest bidder to make ends meet, but absolute, dead, silence. Not a peep or a beep. Hold from hell for irate customers, a noise vacuum inviting self-doubts about whether the line is even still connected, challenging me to blink first by hanging up and giving up.

A half-hour later, while I made other calls on another cell phone to jinx mso into returning to our conversation, a new voice did pierce the silence. I asked if Mike was a supervisor, knowing full well he wasn't. I refused to begin telling him original details until he assured me that he could address my predicament, otherwise I'm not wasting my time with another flunky.

Mike is pleasant and unrattled and seems to have a pulse, so I go along with him. I am put on hold for two brief periods. Music to soothe the savage breast plays now. He checks on me, assures me that he is moving the ball upfield.

After my final five minutes of waiting mike comes back and with mild pride says the credit dept will look into the matter. 'Unfortunately, they aren't open on Saturday' and would I like to leave a number so they can get back to me on Monday or would I just like to call back. 'I'll double my chances and give you a number,' I tell him.

Of course, he says, if I don't hear back then by Monday or maybe Wednesday at the latest by all means 'feel free' to call later in the week. Why, thank you, I think.

So, Mike, I still have a question. I'm really no better off than I was a hour and a half ago, am I? I'm still waiting for dispensation from strangers to whom I can't talk to directly but who will decide on some mysterious basis whether I should get my money back even though we all agree that mso sent my money to the wrong person?

'No, you are a bit better off,' Mike says calmly. 'At least it's in the right department now, and I did note that you were 'irate'.'

I lay it on thick at the end of the call, telling Mike that it must seem obvious to him that this is the most idiotic customer service posture imaginable, putting me through this for about the price of one share of mso stock. I point out the demographic of my zip code, which has one of the highest household incomes in the country, and that 'until five minutes ago' my wife was a martha stewart living magazine subscriber.

I tell him I hope that this conversation had actually been recorded 'for quality assurance' (mike: 'most of them are') because some highly-paid consultant would really want to use this in a workshop with mso customer service management about exactly what not to do.

In all, this takes nearly 90 minutes, and the saga isn't over. More than once it was suggested to me that I could maybe get the money back from the person who got it. a) I can't, b) it wasn't my mistake, so I shouldn't have to and c) I am not martha stewart's collection agency, I say. You are free to pursue the giftee in small claims court if you so desire, I say.

So, we'll see. I'm not sure if the main lesson here is that big is bad and small is more capable of being good or whether there are nuances of corporate culture beyond my understanding that are to blame. My general experience has been very good with large service companies and horrible with large retailers, one of whom had no customer service support for the European cell phone I had purchased and actually blocked calls from the U.S. to its European support telephone numbers.

But when it comes to missing the forest for the trees, Martha Stewart bakes the cake. It is one thing for a company to forbid a customer to make an international phone call at his own expense for help on a product he really shouldn't have but quite another to throw money out of a window and claim a debt has been settled in full. And it is interesting that the perception of Martha Stewart is that she is arrogant and imperious -- not knowing her, I don't know whether this is true or not, but it is exactly how I would describe my treatment at her company's hands.

I should have been prepared for this lunacy. A few years ago my mother-in-law had to send back a Martha Stewart catalogue product that was not as advertised and asked that the cost of return shipping be born by the company. Many mail order retailers do this and my mother in law could probably support a small town on what she spends buying things over the phone. 'Oh, Martha Stewart doesn't do that,' said the rep, and that, as they say, was that.

Forget missing the forest. Maybe this one is more like the apple not falling far from the tree.