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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

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 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 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,
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,
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,
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:〈=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,
Costco Wholesale Canada ltd.
* Visit 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,
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 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.

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,

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.

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