The holidays can make or break a brand

Image wolfsavard via Flickr

COMMENTARY. It happens around this time every year. I wake up at 6 thinking it's 7, veg out watching football in my man cave, and pig out like a bear about to hibernate. It's also when I realize the holidays are coming. Yikes.

People get freaked out around the holidays because they have to put up with family members they barely know and buy presents for folks they don't even like. Not me. I generally use the holidays as a month-long excuse to overindulge and chill out. Only one thing gets my goat during the holidays: bad customer service.

I'm sort of compulsive about everything business related and customer service is no exception. If your company sells to consumers, the holidays aren't just your biggest revenue opportunity; they're also your biggest opportunity to engage customers and win them over to your brand. But the converse is also true.

That's because everything, good or bad, is more pronounced during the holidays. It's the time of year when companies are most likely to screw up orders and consumers turn into animals. And to me, the most important measure of customer service is how effectively companies make things right when they go wrong. That's where the rubber meets the road. And the holidays are when it counts most.

Of course, companies do a lot behind the scenes to make sure it never comes to that, but when things goes wrong, as they tend to do, that presents an opportunity to make it better or make it worse. And that leaves a lasting impression on consumers, meaning it has a significant and lasting impact on your brand.

I've got a few recent examples from some of the biggest brands in the world: Apple, Sony, and Amazon. Here's how I think each one scored against my standard of great customer service: making things right when they go wrong.

Insanely great customer service

Three months ago, I bought a MacBook Air with OS X Lion. One of the best things about the machine is the new trackpad that essentially mimics the operation of the iPhone touchscreen.

Two weeks ago, the trackpad began to malfunction. I took it into the local Apple store on a Friday afternoon and, no questions asked, they replaced the part and had it ready for me by Saturday morning. The process was quick, simple, and stress free. Outstanding. It put me in such a good mood I actually bought more stuff at the store.

My last Sony

Now, contrast that with a trackpad problem I had with my Sony Vaio laptop. I brought it to the Sony store and nearly had an aneurism when I heard how long it would take to repair. I can barely survive a day without my computer, let alone a week or two.

Since Dell used to offer the option to send me parts that I could install myself, I floated the idea, but Sony would have no part of it. I walked out disappointed and vowed never to buy Sony again. I eventually pulled some strings and got somebody out to my house to fix it, but it never should have come to that.

Searching for soy nuts in the Amazon

A few weeks ago I placed a bulk order with Amazon for organic roasted soy nuts (don't ask). Not my first time buying this product from Amazon, but it had been a while. The product was in stock and I received email confirmation it had shipped the next day.

Then a week went by and the projected delivery date came and went. No product. The USPS tracking info showed no record of the order. Strike one.

To make a long story short, an email to customer support did no good. Strike two. An online chat resulted in an apology and a replacement order with free expedited shipping. Great. But the next day I received confirmation of a refund, not a shipment. Not so great.

Another online chat resulted in another apology and new info: the item's out of stock, sort of. It was actually in stock at another Amazon reseller, and the salted version was in stock at Amazon, but both were much higher priced than my original order, and Amazon refused to play ball, i.e. honor the original order price. Strike three, they're out.

Two weeks, more than an hour of my time, frustration, no product. All that for soy nuts. To be fair, I've never had an issue with Amazon before, but by my standard -- making things right when they go wrong -- the online retailer's batting .000, just like Sony. Apple, on the other hand, is batting a perfect 1.000. That's this year's scorecard, so far. 

Upcoming holiday battle: Kindle Fire versus iPad

Let's hope Amazon fares better as the new Kindle Fire takes on Apple's dominant iPad. Time will tell. As a consultant, I would of course counsel against making sweeping generalizations from limited data. But as a consumer, well, you've got to admit, we all do it. Especially when it counts, around the holidays.

The bottom line is this: When things beyond the customer's control go wrong, it's generally well worth the cost and effort to make it right as early in the customer service process as possible. If, on the other hand, you allow things to reach the boiling point, customers will be left with a strong negative impression. And around this time of year, the impact on your brand is likely to be more pronounced, just like everything else.