Monthly Archives: April 2008

The Tribal Review

consumer-tribes_cover.jpg

I just found out about another book review of our book, Consumer Tribes. This one was written by Alan Bradshaw of the University of Exeter. I thought this was a wonderful review, and wanted to share it with you. The review is great not only because it’s very positive and complimentary about the book (which is always nice) because it’s clear that Alan read this book very carefully. And although the book is designed to be browsed very effectively, as all of its chapters stand well on their own, he read all of it. He synthesized. He really “gets” it. And that makes his review very valuable because I think his review conveys some of the big central points of the book extremely well.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the review is a perfect substitute for actually reading it yourself….

Here’s the reference: INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ADVERTISING, 2008, 27(2). And here’s the review (thank you, Alan!).

Bernard Cova, Robert Kozinets and Avi Shankar have edited the excellent collection Consumer Tribes detailing the arrival of tribalism as a core conceptual contemporary framework in consumer research. Containing a neat geographic spread of contributors, and even a chapter by the founding father of tribal social theory himself, Michel Maffesoli, this text must surely be regarded as essential reading that pushes beyond conventional framing devices such as subculture, brand communities and cultures of consumption towards the exciting and sometimes strange worlds of consumer tribes.

Rejecting traditional polarities of control versus freedom wherein consumers are either manipulated marionettes or fierce freedom-fighters, Cova, Kozinets and Shankar argue for a hybrid model in which consumer tribes are tacit compromises where consumers collectively determine to what extent they are to be manipulated by and to what extent they, in turn, choose to manipulate brand meanings. Market resistance and engagement become reframed as a dance between brands and consumer tribes with neither truly in control, and as a balancing act where escape becomes a game to play rather than an essential cause. Consumer tribes are presented as harbingers of an age that updates the marketing challenge of knowing-your-customer to one where consumer tribes know-the-corporation and emerge as guardians of brand authenticity; if brands are symbolic resources for the construction of personal identities, consumer tribes will want to be more than mere customers and become actual stakeholders and even partners in the co-creation of brand equity. As the editors surmise, what is at stake with Consumer Tribes is essentially a new way of thinking about the relationship between producers and consumers, and this is deeply significant for any advertising scholar or practitioner.

A strong and rewarding aspect of the book is its collection of contributors. While mostly consisting of the great and good of the consumer research community, the book contains chapters by a manager of a pharmaceutical company (Fabrizio Cocciola), a market researcher (Pamela Nancarrow) and, wonderfully, a student who was a shining light of the class of 2004 at Stirling University (Stephen Treanor). Fans of the written word will be pleased to read Stephen Brown’s latest offering, but surely the editor’s masterstroke is the inclusion of a chapter on tribal aesthetics by Maffesoli himself. And if Maffesoli’s contribution leads readers to become plagued by self-doubt in their ability to comprehend, then they may be grateful to Canniford and Shankar, whose follow-up chapter reminds us that being a primitive savage can actually be a virtue and a form of capital in itself.

Indeed the pot-smoking surfers to whom Canniford (who, we read, is about to pupate) and Shankar refer perhaps set the tone for the empirical studies into the extraordinary tribes that follow as consumer research continues its focus on the marginal and the downright weird. Tribal activities explored here include the pleasure of writing bootleg Harry Potter homoerotic adventures (as described by Stephen Brown), the fun of leather-fetish nightclub revelling in Copenhagen (Roy Langer), the thrill of video-taping Sir Cliff Richard as he sunbathes (Henry and Caldwell) and, of course, the excitement of breakfasting across the table from a life-size cardboard cut-out of the crown-clad
Queen Elizabeth II and her husband as they sit frozen, regally waving back (Otnes and LacLaran).

To be sure tribal consumers are decidedly extraordinary, as are the complex social relationships that emerge between tribe members who wrestle with questions of legitimacy and authenticity. The problems faced by tribes can include contentious relationships with the relevant corporation; for example, the problem of copyright restrictions can put tribes into dispute with corporations (as described by Brown’s discussion of Harry Potter tribes) though Kozinets notes the compromise that forms the basis of the mutually rewarding relationship between Paramount and online Star Trek bootleggers. At other times tribes can be entrepreneurial (as described by Goulding and Saren’s review of the burgeoning industry that surrounds gothic gatherings), though commercialisation comes at a price. As one gothic respondent nicely puts it: “How can our scene continue to develop and thrive when everywhere you look the same themes resound without the cutting edge or distinctive flare that made it exceptional?”

Apart from empirical studies, Consumer Tribes revisits a seminal study as Schouten and McAlexander, together with Martin, interestingly note how their 1995 “subculture of consumption” paper was limited by their previously held masculine-centric world-view.

A distinctive and rewarding aspect of Consumer Tribes is the degree of authorial excitement that permeates the book, not least in the passionately written opening chapter by the editors. This is often caused by the insider status and participant observation of the scholars in the tribes –for example, we learn that Hope Jensen Schau is an avid Tom Petty fan, Diane Martin is a biker, that Brownlie, Hewer and Treanor went to cruise events over a six-month period (though Goulding and Saren are keen to point out that they are not in fact goths themselves!). The subject enthusiasm leads to impassioned writing but may come at the price of critical concerns being eclipsed at times; notably Marxian concerns of fetishisation and commodification become worked into the coping strategies of tribal members rather than a critique of the tribes themselves.

In other cases consumer tribes are presented as re-enabling in a post-consumption/production nexus (Szmigin, Carrigan and Bekin; also Kozinets). The editors make a strong case in their leading chapter by arguing convincingly that structuralist and Marxian concerns belong to the limiting polarisation that their book seeks to transcend. Yet it is worth noting that Consumer Tribes appears at the same time as the sociologist Charles Leadbeater°s We-Think, which also explores communal consumption activity, though gives greater emphasis to the often tightly controlling fabrics of the social movements.

Consumer Tribes pulls together a considerable amount of empirical studies and conceptual development that reveal the robustness of tribalism as a conceptual framework. For advertising, the consequences of brand equity and meaning emerging from wider tribal activity that exists independent of, and even in conflict with, marketing management help us to re-imagine the practice and study of advertising in an age that transcends traditional business-customer relationships. Therefore, while not a book about advertising, its implications for advertising, and indeed right across the social sciences, mean that this excellent book is to be heartily recommended.

Alan Bradshaw

University of Exeter

The Costco Conversation

i’m lovin itI love blogging. It is so incredibly interesting to be a part of the phenomenon you are studying and thinking about. It’s very ethnographic, being an anthropologist who writes about this technological revolution by participating from within it.

So yesterday “Mable” from Costco called me back at about 5:30pm. Working late, those Costco folks do. If you haven’t been following my little Coscto saga, “Mable” is “Trudy’s” supervisor in the Coscto.ca web-site customer service center, and she called me the day after I posted a pretty long and detailed blog about the customer service experience I had at Costco when I tried to get a set of missing screws.

Mable and I had a long talk about the experience. It was never confrontational, but quite enlightening for me. Mable made it clear to me that she would have called me had I been more persistent. I apparently waited too long between messages to request her. And apparently if I had used harsher language I probably could have reached her. There seems to be a sort of “freak out factor” that comes into the calculation. So if the customer is totally insanely angry then they reach a supervisor pretty fast. Or I could have just called them, she pointed out. Which is certainly true. And yes, I wasn’t freaking out, just annoyed. I don’t know if I could feel good about freaking out over a set of screws for my chair when there are so many more important and awful things happening in the world right now.

I talked to Mable about the fact that this wasn’t personal, and she did tell me again that Trudy was upset by the blog post. I asked her to apologize to Trudy. This really was never about anyone in particular.

In writing my blog, I’m still learning about the appropriate tone to take. Blogging is a new kind of freedom. Unlike my other writing, I’m not sending it out for reviews and revisions. I think it, I write it, and off it goes. And I guess that when I included people’s first names, and when I included nasty, biting side comments, that this was crossing over into a sort of cruelty that I feel uncomfortable in reading and think was wrong. I’m still just learning and I make mistakes.

I’ve gone back and edited those posts. I’ve tried to make them more humane and compassionate to the people like Trudy and Mable on the front lines. First, I’ve anonymized the first names of the people I corresponded with. Probably should have done that from the start. I’ve also added some material that can help all of us to empathize with the people who perform this difficult and under-appreciated work. I didn’t do this because anyone asked me to, but because I think that it is the right thing to do. I didn’t soften the stance against shutting customers out or acting like there is no transparency when there actually is. I just made it clearer where the problem is: not with the people, but with the system. But the way the system is set up we need to complain to the people in order to affect the system. Only people can change the system that they’re in.

Very Marxian-ideological, isn’t it?

The problems with the system became clear as I was talking to Mable. It was clear that emails were responded to by emails. Even if the customer requested a phone call (unless they were freaking out requesting…). It was clear that one person’s case file stayed with the person, and that emails sent to them stayed with them when they went on holidays and didn’t get answered by anyone else. It was clear that Coscto was acting as a middleman for other companies, and directing them to ship products from its Coscto.ca web-site, and they had little control over those companies and the way they responded to later customer service requests. Costco and its service people didn’t want to be held accountable because the company whose responsibility it was to send me the screws was not doing it.

I talked a lot about the kind of system that Mable was working within. I knew that it would be impossible for her to change it. She would need to talk to people higher up in Costco. Or have them read my blog. Respond to it. Post on it. It’s easy to do.

As I say in the post, this isn’t about Coscto. It’s about accountability and transparency in a new age of consumer-to-consumer communications. It was good to have that conversation, where I shared how I felt as a customer at one end, and she told me about what it was like to live within the constraints of being a service employee at the other end. I think we ended the conversation learning a bit about each others’ worlds. The walls had really come down. We were speaking person to person now, and the conversation had been prompted by this service incident and the blog, but it went beyond it.

Mable told me that Costco was going to be sending me a $25 gift card in the mail for my troubles. That’s very nice of them and a great gesture to help restore some faith. I’m going to match that and donate a corresponding $50 to Aid Darfur to keep things in perspective. This was a silly little set of screws. An inconveniently disassembled chair. There are much bigger problems in the world. But it’s also important to run our businesses well, and to service each other well as a set of organizations, as a society, as a community.

Costco Epilogue

If you haven’t read Thursday’s blog entry about Costco, you’ll probably need to check it out to make sense of this one.

On Friday, the day after I posted my little nag about Costco, my mobile rings during a meeting. I pick it up. Guess who? Yep. It’s “Mable” from Costco. Trudy’s supervisor. And she’s like, you wanted me to call, so I’m calling.

She seemed to be really curious about what I wanted. I had my screws. So what else did I want? I told her, I think I got what I wanted. Inspiration for a tale. Material for the blog. I made a reasonable story out of a bad service experience. And it tells a story about the way businesses don’t know how to deal with empowered customers today.

She tells me that “Michelle was very shaken up” by what she read on the blog. Well, I didn’t do it to try to upset Michelle. I really don’t mean this to be personal (So I’ve gone through and taken out her actual name and called her “Trudy”). And if “Trudy” is taking this personally, I’d like to apologize to her and hope that she understands that this is about the decisions that her bosses at Costco are making, the systems they are putting in places, rather than what she specifically did. I know that, of course.

This is about Costco, and customer service more generally, and the way companies do things, and the way they really don’t understand that when they talk to one consumer they are talking to thousands or more of them now, and that this was what this was about.

“Trudy did everything above board,” she said. “Everything she did was by the book.”

“Well,” I said, “have you looked critically at the book lately? Does that include leaving customers in limbo for an extra week while your employees go on vacation?”

What a great illustration of the power of the web and of blogging.

Most companies, it is widely claimed by interesting business authors like Lois Kelly and Joe Jaffe that businesses really don’t know how to engage in a conversation with their consumer groups, particularly these groups online. In Citizen Marketers, by O’Connell and Huba, they give plenty of examples of companies that are completely flat-footed and staring-like-does-in-the-oncoming-headlights in the face of consumers’ posting complaints or similar customer service issues online in places like forums and on YouTube videos. It’s awfully hard for them to handle the fact that the wall is down.

How can companies plan in a world where there is transparency and where consumer communities gather and think about how to hold companies accountable for what they do? That’s a major and important question for business today.

That blog entry about the Circus Elephants at Costco is getting about 1400-1500 unique visitors a day since I posted it, far outweighing all of the positive personal word-of-mouth I’ve given to Costco over the last decade as a devoted customer. Which in a way is too bad, because this wasn’t the hugest complaint. Certainly not on the order of the people who were forced to post about and then sue Terminix because they missed a huge termite problem in their home appraisal.

And I’m hearing from all kinds of people in emails and now posts about their own Costco and other service experiences, and how this one resonates. Thanks to everyone who has written and posted. I think it’s very important that we keep in perspective the importance of having a voice as consumers. If we demand more from companies, and try to do it as humanely as we can while showing the people who are working on the front lines respect, and trying to maintain their dignity even when we are angry and faced with a broken system, then I think we can improve business and through it our entire social experience.

It means persistence. It means reaching out. It means humanizing the entire business experience. That’s what two-way communication is. That’s what happens when walls come down.

Tearing Down the Wall: The Costco Screw Circus Elephant Story

I’m back. Traveling, presenting, and teaching were all-consuming for a while, but I am definitely back in action. Back for you with a three-metaphor tales of brands and frustration. All involving a wall, a chair, a set of screws, a retailer and their customer service system, and a circus elephant. Now how can you resist that?

So….In the last song on their magnificent theme rock album, The Wall, Pink Floyd poetically contemplate a life without the emotional blockades that people put up around them:

“All alone, or in twos
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall
Some hand in hand
Some gathering together in bands
The bleeding hearts and the artists
Make their stand
And when they’ve given you their all
Some stagger and fall
After all
It’s not easy
banging your heart
against some mad buggers
Wall”

In a prior posting, I used the metaphor of the mute slave Nova to talk about the recent changes that had occurred as a result of information technology suddenly giving a voice to the previously voiceless.

In a recent presentation on online communities that I gave to a terrific industry group, the Canadian Housewares and Hardware Manufacturing Association, I extemporaneously thought up another metaphor I thought I’d share with you.

The Wall!I said that for a long time most corporations operated as if there was a wall separating it from its consumers. Businesses tossed products over the wall, and consumers tossed over their money. And everything seemed to work okay.

When businesses wanted to find out about consumers, they’d invite a few of them to come to their side of the wall, put them behind one-way glass (yes, another wall) and study them. Then they’d send them back where they belonged, to their side of the wall. Everyone was happy. Or so it seemed.

But then came the Internet. The two-way channel. And the wall began to crumble. Consumers started to see what was inside businesses. To see where products were sourced. To detect sweatshops and biased hiring practices. To question ethical policies. Then, to reach out to businesses. To try to influence them. To find executive emails and write to them. To comment on corporate blogs. And companies found, through techniques like netnography, that there were conversations going on around them and their brands and products that they could gain easy access to. They could actually hear the voice of the consumer 24/7. There was no wall. The wall had crumbled.

And yet, when you look at business today, managers are still acting as if there was a wall. It’s pretty much business as usual.

We are creatures of habit. For our third metaphor of this story, let me burden you with another metaphor and ask have you heard about how circus elephants are trained? When a baby elephant is trained, they are tethered to a strong steel stake in the ground. The elephant struggles to get away but the pole is much stronger than the elephant is. The elephant soon learns that its movement is limited by the length of it rope. As the elephant grows, the stake can be replaced by just a simple wooden stake. The elephant has learned its limitation, even though if it tried as an adult it could easily pull up the stake and run free.

Elephants in bondageSimilarly, managers act as though this wall was still up and protecting them from view, separating them from their consumers, and ignore the idea that they are actually living in a world that is much more transparent.

As an example, I’d like to tell you about a recent experience I had with Costco.

First let me be clear that I really like Costco. I’m a faithful and devoted Costco customer, and maybe that’s why this is a good example. I joined up when I lived in Chicago and had almost universally good experiences with the Costco I shopped at in Chicago, right next to my favorite retailer of all, Target. But when I got to Canada, I discovered that the vaunted Costco customer service didn’t really extend over the border.

That’s true of a lot of Canadian companies. The customer service standards in Canada are definitely lower than they are in America. Part of the problem, I think, is that Canadians don’t seem to think that it is “polite” to complain, or to demand better service. The average Canadian seems quite content to live out this scenario: stand in a line for an hour to get to a complaint department clerk, get to to the front and get scolded and told they can’t help them, apologize to the clerk because to make a fuss would be very un-Canadian, and then walk away with nothing. That sort of thing rarely happens in America. In fact, my momma taught me good. She said “The squeaky wheel gets the grease, boy.” And I learned to squeak.

So here’s my squeak for today.

I recently ordered some office chairs from Costco.ca online. They were decent chairs at a decent price. When I received the chairs, one of the boxes was broken and the screws and bolts needed for assembling it had spilled out. So I filled out a form on to the company’s incredibly unfriendly web site. The ensuing struggle to try and get decent customer service this company illustrates my point about how impersonal, bureaucratic, and ineffective contemporary company’s can be.

Because this is a new, transparent world, I am going to share these exchanges with you, in the hopes that managers and intelligent, aspiring business-people of all kinds can learn something from it. Because I’m conscious of the dignity of the individuals involved, I’ve changed the name of the person I had these exchanges with. My issue is with the company and its system, not with this individual person.

Here is the initial message that I sent on March 9th through the form-based complaint system that they channeled me into:

“I just ordered three chair from costco,ca, which were delivered to my home last week.
The details are:
Order Number: 71053703
Membership Number : XXXXXX0000
Date Placed : 02/03/2008
The chairs were delivered, but one box was damaged.
The hardware for one of the chairs (screws) was missing. I can’t assemble the chair without this hardware. Can you please send me the missing hardware for this one chair ASAP:
Lucia Task Chair Item# 149643
Thank you.
Robert Kozinets”

Pretty polite and exhaustive, I thought. The very same day, I got a response. Here it is:

“Dear valued customer,
Thank you for e-mailing costco.ca. This is an automated message to confirm receipt of your e-mail. Our staff is available to respond to messages during regular business hours, excluding holidays. We will make every effort to send a personal response via e-mail from one of our Member Service Representatives as quickly as possible.
Please do not send multiple messages, as this will only delay our response time.”

Well, that last bit isn’t a very friendly way to talk to your “valued customer” is it? Okay, so I waited. I only needed a few screws, after all. So March 9 is a Sunday. So Monday March 10th comes and go. Tuesday March 11th. Wednesday March 12th. So far, that’s three days I’m waiting for them to answer my initial phone call. Thursday March 13th. Nothing. Okay. I’m busy anyways, but curious now. The open box with the chair pieces is sitting in my living room, waiting to be assembled. On Friday March 14th, they answer me:

“Dear Robert,
In response to your email, please be advised that we apologize for the delay in responding to you. Due to circumstances beyond our control, we have only just received your email.

Due to a vast increase in sales lately, our wait times for phone calls as well as replies to emails is quite a bit longer than we aim for them to be. We are working hard to correct this issue, and are working to implement measures to cut down on wait times. We appreciate your patience while we work through this busy time, and work to take care of our members.We were advised by our vendor that the screws are affixed to the chair. They advised to check under the arms of chairs. If you are unable to locate the screws, please reply to this email as we will contact the vendor to send replacements.

Please reply to this email if you have any other inquiries.

Thank you,
“Trudy”
Costco Wholesale Canada ltd.”

I note the “due to circumstances beyond our control, we have only just received your email” opener. All warm and friendly like. We’re late, we apologize, but it’s not our fault. It’s people’s fault for causing the “vast increase in sales.” Good to hear, Costco. But doesn’t that also mean a correspondingly “vast increase in money”? So maybe, Costco, you could afford to hire a few more people for your customer service group, and take the pressure off of some of them?

And maybe give them a bit more training in reading emails. I waited almost a week for Trudy to tell me that the screws should have been in the box. She replied to me, essentially, as if I didn’t even know where to look for the screws before asking her to replace them. Perhaps it is Costco policy to treat customers like imbeciles, hoping they will go away, rather than to directly service their complaints. Probably it’s a hassle to service complaints right aay, so you pass the hassle back, one more time to the customer. But really, all this did was insult me. That’s feedback for companies. It may save you a few bucks, but it annoys people. Don’t do that.

So I write back. Making the situation very clear.

“Hi Trudy:

The box was broken and the screws fell out. The other two chairs had them where you said. The one chair had a broken bag with only a few screws. If you can get more hardware to me, then I can put this chair together.

Thank you for your help with this.
Robert Kozinets”

I think I said that already, And then I give her my home phone number to call me. That was March 14th. Then comes the weekend. March 15th and 16th. Monday March 17th comes and goes without any response. Then, on Tuesday March 18th, a message with a ray of hope.

“Dear Robert,

In response to your email, please be advised that we were advised that the replacement hardware will be shipped to your on Thursday of this week. Once we receive confirmation, we will provide tracking information to track the hardware.
Please reply to this email if you have any other inquiries.

Thank you,
Trudy
Costco Wholesale Canada ltd.”

And my immediate response, of course is:

“Thank you!”

Okay, it’s March 18th. Trudy says my screws are going out on Thursday, that’s March 20th. How long can they take?

the missing screwsWell, a pretty long time, it seems. I was expecting those screws on, say, Friday. Saturday. Maybe Monday March 24th latest. I courier to Europe pretty often, to Australia. I can get my package to Australia in three days. I was thinking getting a few screws from a plant outside of Toronto (or even outside of San Francisco) shouldn’t take longer than that.

I was wrong. On Tuesday, March 25th, I wrote to her again in a message entitled “No Customer Service.”

“Dear Trudy:

“I have still not received the hardware for my chair. My original complaint went out on March 9th (16 days ago), and I am extremely dissatisfied with Costco’s customer service on this matter.

Please send this letter to your supervisor. I am a long-time member of Costco, having joined over a decade ago. I would like immediate action on this matter and am very frustrated with this.

Robert Kozinets”

Costco has made me wait, told me it’s not their fault, treated me like an idiot, promised me the stupid little screws on a certain date, and not delivered. I can’t put the chair together without the screws. So I’m pulling rank: hey, I’m a long-time “member,” I’m higher in the food chain than other members, I’ve been supporting you for over a decade. Please. And let’s move up to Costco hierarchy. Let me talk to someone in charge, Trudy.

What’s the response?

“Thank you for contacting costco.ca,
Please note your e-mail has not been submitted to customer service as we have upgraded our e-mail system. Simply click here and follow 3 easy steps to submit your question. Our goal is to provide immediate assistance and continue to add features to improve the customer service experience. If the above link does not work, paste the following link into your browser:

https://www.costco.ca/CustomerService/EmailUs.aspx?secure=1〈=en-CA

This is an automated response and any replies sent will not receive assistance.
Costco Wholesale”

There’s that obstructive email and information system again. So much for the benefits of “membership.” So now their system has changed. And my message hasn’t been sent. I’ve got to follow orders again. Is this starting to sound familiar to you? Anyone had experiences like this one lately?

There is a wall, right? And we consumers, the little people, are on the other side of the wall. Our job is to throw money over the wall and they throw products and then we both walk away.

But the fact that you’re seeing this means that there actually is no wall. The wall is down.

But I still need my damn chair screws. And the Costco circus elephants (that means the folks who set up the system, not really Trudy) aren’t letting me have them! So on March 25th, right away, I resend the message. The weekend happens. March 28th, 29th, 30th. Now it’s April Fool’s day, a perfect time to say this was all a prank, a good joke. Some cool material for your awesome blog. Nope, nothing.

Sounds of crickets chirping.

I asked Trudy to bump this up to her supervisor, long ago. I’m trying to remember a time when I didn’t have disassembled chair in my house. On April 2nd, I hear from her.

“Dear Robert,
In response to your email, please be advised that we were advised that these replacement screws are currently being shipped to you. We were advised of an invalid tracking number. Once we receive a response with our vendor, we will advise of the correct information.
Please reply to this email if you have any other inquiries.
Thank you,
Trudy
Costco Wholesale Canada ltd.
* Visit www.costco.ca to receive our exclusive offers by email.”

I actually wanted to talk to a supervisor. I wanted to discuss returning the chair. Instead, they share their problems with me. An “invalid tracking number.” I don’t care. And no thanks, after this I really don’t feel like receiving your exclusive offers by email.

I had a professor, the late and great Professor Jerry Dermer, who taught me during my MBA here in Toronto at York. Whenever we offered an excuse, he used to call us on it. He’d say to my group “That’s your problem, don’t make it my problem.” And he was completely right.


Costco, the invalid tracking number is your problem. The vendor, the email system, the other consumers waiting in a great big line with complaints about your products. They’re all your problem. Why are you making them my problem?
I just want my chair intact. Correct your mistake. Call whoever you need to call and get them moving today. Take charge. On April 2nd she wrote back.

“Dear Robert,
In response to your email, please be advised that as previously mentioned, we have sent a request for your replacement hardware to be shipped to you. Please note that I was away for one week and was unable to receive response from our vendor at that time. We have escalated this issue with management and your replacement hardware was shipped on March 28th as mentioned in my previous email. Please advise if you have not yet received your hardware.
Please reply to this email if you have any other inquiries.
Thank you,
Trudy
Costco Wholesale Canada ltd.”

Is poor Trudy the only person who works there? I’m starting to feel sorry for her. If she’s away and all of Costco.com Canada’s service stops, then that’s a real bad thing. Sales increase and she gets overwhelmed. I’m beginning to get a picture of her routine, that’s for sure. And having worked in retail for over a decade when I was younger, I can certainly empathize with the hassles she faces in her line of work. It’s something that Arlie Hochschild has written about in her work on emotional labor, particularly The Managed Heart. People in retail and other service positions often have to cloak and “manage” their own emotions as part of their work, and this can be very difficult for them.

Trudy’s issues sure don’t sound like very good workforce planning to me. And those workforce planning issues are having a direct effect on me and my living room, which still has chair parts scattered around. And March 28th, that was 5 week days ago. I could have my package to Australia, and back.

How did they send it, horseback from Poughkeepsie? Turtle Express?

My reply, short & sweet, the next day, on April 3rd.

“Trudy:
I never received it. This has now gone on for a month. I want your supervisor’s phone number.”

Her response comes the same day.

“Dear Robert,
As previously mentioned, this issue is currently being taken up with management. I have enclosed waybill information in regards to this as sent from our vendor. Please note that the vendor has sent out additional hardware for you in case if this hardware had been lost in transit. We do sincerely apologize for the delay in assembling your chair.
Please reply to this email if you have any other inquiries.
Thank you,
Trudy

Costco Wholesale Canada ltd.”

My once-beloved Costco (artist's impression) I really, truly wanted a human being to talk to me on the phone. I wasn’t going to shout or otherwise go all ugly American on her or anything like that. I thought that, after a month in Costco Screw Limbo I was entitled to a five-minute call letting them know how disappointed I was in Costco. My Cherished Costco. The Coscto I adored, spent lots of money at, had an Executive Card and an Amex Rebate Card from, and word-of-mouthed to so many people to about.

Just let me talk for three minutes to a real live person who will know that I’m a human being with better things to do than play this annoying, time-consuming waiting and responding game with for a handful of 25 cent screws.

I also would have told them that this is not about them personally, but about the system that they are made to work within. I would have listened to them so I understood more about why this is happening. At that time, I had no idea I’d be blogging about it. No intention to at all. I just wanted to talk to someone to have that sense of contact and maybe get something done about this already.

So I wrote:

“Why won’t you give me your supervisor’s phone number, Trudy? I’d like to talk to him or her about this matter. Nothing has happened, and it has been one month. Oh, and if you give me your surname, that would help too….”

It comes off as a little rude, I regret to say, and I was pretty angry at the time. It seemed like I was being stonewalled.

On the next day, April 4th, she wrote back.

“Dear Robert,
Please be advised that a supervisor would be telling you the same information. I will pass this information on and will advise a supervisor to contact you. Please note that for privacy reasons we are unable to provide personal information. Please advise of a contact number that we may contact you at.
Please reply to this email if you have any other inquiries.
Thank you,
Trudythe missing screws again....for emphasis

Costco Wholesale Canada ltd.”

They have my phone number. No one called (until after this blog was posted…see my follow-up postings). I got the screws in the mail a couple of days ago, wrapped up newsprint in a printer toner cartridge box with no identifying information on it. I had no idea what they were. The Coscto label and name were nowhere on the box. No information was inside.

The whole mailer thing seemed very unprofessional from a branding and customer service management perspective. So, for example, when I order from eBay, I always have had a much better package and much better communication that this. That’s from people operating, for the most part, from their homes, on very low margins and with very few resources. But those people at eBay really recognize the value of a happy customer, and the power of effective communications. Costco really disappointed me with this one.

My chair is assembled, now, but the bad taste in my mouth for Costco lingers on. And I do feel bad for Trudy and the situation she’s face with everyday.

The wall is coming down. You’ve seen the messages. The wall is tumbling like Jericho at our feet. I know that. You know that. But do most companies? Do they realize that there is no wall when they hire sweatshop labor? When they deal with dictatorial oppressive regimes? When they devastate environments and communities? When they trade unfairly? When they press their personnel?

And once they know that there’s a new transparency to everything they do, do they know what to do? Elephants with the stakes pulled out. They’re standing around, flat-footed, unable to move, incapable of acting.

This isn’t about my silly screws. Or Costco. This is about the way companies are held accountable. It doesn’t matter if it is broken boxes and screws or human rights and poisoned water supplies we are talking about, companies need to be more responsive to the concerns of their publics and their consumers or they are going to be called out publicly, communally, collectively, repeatedly.

That’s the new reality. It is tough. It is going to require a lot of adjustments. It’s going to make values and priorities a lot clearer for all of us in the long run. And I think that’s a very good thing.