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.