When (and Why) Did I Start Expecting Bad Customer Service?

Hi, I recently purchased a China Glaze brand nail polish set at the Keizer, OR store. One of the minis in the set was dried out. I don’t live close enough to exchange the set, and was hoping I could have a new one sent to me. (I’d be willing to send the new set out immediately.) Below you’ll find a scanned copy of my receipt and a picture of the dried out polish (“My Way or the Highway”). Thanks!

That's the email I sent to Ulta on Saturday evening. I had spent the afternoon with my mom, making a trip to Ulta to pick up new primer and a few treats. When I finally got around to playing with my new nail polishes, I immediately realized that one was beyond use -- it was goopy and dried. Hilariously, it was the color I'd actually bought the set for! I was disappointed and a bit panicked -- what should I do? 

Ulta has always struck me as a huge company that might have very, very poor customer service. I don't know what gave me that impression, but they struck me as a cold, impersonal company (versus a store like Sephora, that seems enthusiastic and passionate). I've had a lot of customer service dealings in the last few years and very few of them have been positive. Here's a brief overview of the big stuff: 

  • When I ordered my wedding invitations from Paperless Post about three years ago, they sent me the entirely wrong envelopes (after I had paid extra for a specific type). I had to email them three times, and include photos, for them to resend the envelopes. 
  • A year ago, American Eagle forgot to include three items I ordered and I discovered that their policy for such a mistake is to refund the customer the money, redo the order, charge the customer again, and then send out the items -- a process that can take anywhere between 24 and 72 hours, plus delivery time. Which might mean (as it did in my case) that the items they did not send to me and charged me twice for were sold out.
  • About six months ago, Victoria's Secret sold me underwear with human feces in them. (Writing that sentence still sends chills through me and makes me feel like I need to dry heave.) The response of every customer service representative I spoke to was shocking in that... they were not shocked. At all. They ended up sending me a $50 gift card, but only about two months and one very well-publicized blog post about it. 

The one thing I've learned working in marketing is that customer service is a huge part of it. Lots of businesses hate websites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Influenster, etc. because it gives consumers a chance to complain, tell stories, and vent. There are lots of articles making fun of the "critics" who write reviews on Yelp -- wondering why they don't have better things to do, why they need to ruin a businesses reputation for something so small. While review sites present a complicated issue for both business owners and marketers, to ignore them and disregard them entirely is ludicrous. If someone takes the time to review you on Yelp, it's obviously because they feel strongly about it and if they feel that strongly about it, they aren't just writing on Yelp. They're telling everyone they know. 

Success starts with good customer service. But sometimes, it seems like big companies (like American Eagle and Victoria's Secret) get away with really, really bad customer service. (I should take the opportunity to say that I have spoken with American Eagle's social media team extensively and at the time of my incident with them, they were very apologetic regarding the policy; they felt the policy was ridiculous and sympathized with me. It was a departmental issue, clearly.) 

Perhaps this is why I expected really, really bad customer service from Ulta -- and I genuinely did. When I emailed them, I expected to not receive a reply for several days; I expected to be told, no, I'd need to replace the item in store and that was it; I expected to not hear back from anybody at all, actually. 

I was wrong, surprisingly. 

On Sunday morning, I woke up to two emails from Ulta: one apologizing for purchasing a defective product and saying that, while they couldn't ship me a replacement, they had sent me a gift card; and one containing a $5 gift card. Nice, right? I emailed them a thank you, but also mentioned that a replacement polish was $7.50 -- not $5 -- so I'd have to pay $2.50 to replace a defective product. However, immediately after sending that email, I realized I was being ridiculous -- it was awesome for them to send me a gift card anyway! I picked out some nail polish thinner (for future goopy polishes), a replacement polish, and two lipsticks (why not?) and by the time, I'd checked out -- Ulta had replied again, sending me another $5 gift card! I printed it to save for a future Ulta shopping trip. 

I was surprised at how easy it was for them. It didn't take a hundred emails, a hundred tweets and DMs. It didn't require phone calls, arguments, or accusations. They were wrong; their store did a bad thing; they apologized; they did what they needed to do to make me happy. And guess what? I'm happy. It's so easy for customer service to be good -- and yet, it seems to go bad so often. 

It made me realize that I always brace myself to experience bad customer service; I defend myself against it, take a stance and wait for the bad customer service experience to wash over me. Perhaps that breeds back results, but if nothing else, this one instance has taught me that there is hope: hope for companies to learn to be better, to do what is right, to work with customers. And, if nothing else, it is excellent marketing.