April 24th, 2014 by Maria Minsker

My tweet, sent about midway through my wait, went unanswered.

As I perused my Twitter feed this morning, I stumbled across a piece of news that wouldn’t have caught my eye last week, but got me downright POed today.  Apparently, a Customer Satisfaction Awards survey conducted by Verdict, a UK analyst firm, named IKEA the third best retailer when it comes to customer service.

Before I came in contact with the customer service department, I was a big fan of IKEA. I’ve heard complaints about the quality of their merchandise, and about the complex instructions that accompany their DIY furniture. Heck, I’ve even heard some troubling complaints about their meatballs! But for years now, I’ve been defending IKEA. I, after all, have never had a problem assembling their furniture and have been satisfied with its quality. I like IKEA’s style and always find decor inspiration when I visit their showroom. And of course, there are their prices. As a recent college grad with pretty massive student loans, I’ll take that $20 LACK coffee table over a $200 handcrafted masterpiece any day. So why did their customer service win bother me so much? Well, because this weekend, when I tried to exchange 26 annoying little plant pots at the Brooklyn location, IKEA screwed up big time.

At first, I was impressed with the way IKEA seemed to handle returns and exchanges. The retailer, as I found out, doesn’t allow customers to make these transactions at regular cash registers, but instead has a separate designated area where each person can come up to a monitor, select the service they need and print a ticket with a number on it. I got my ticket, and sat down to wait. So far, so good. Each customer service representative–originally there were three–stood at his or her desk and called out ticket numbers, which were also displayed digitally above each counter.  Based on my ticket number, there were roughly 60 people in front of me, and based on the estimated wait time the ticket monitor displayed, I had an hour to go. Assuming my math is sound, IKEA expected to serve each customer in roughly 3 minutes. Needless to say, it was taking longer than three minutes per person. This was IKEA’s first offense, but it was something I could live with.

After about 20 minutes of sitting, I decided to go browse the showroom while I waited. As I began to walk away, an off-duty customer service representative warned me against doing so. “If they call your number and you’re not here, they’ll skip you and you’ll have to get a new ticket,” she told me. Good policy, I thought, and sat back down. I must have been sitting for less than 10 minutes, when a woman came scurrying to a counter, apologizing for missing her number. The representative argued with her about the store’s policy for a few minutes, and then processed her return anyway. And this happened three more times, fueling my frustration at this lack of enforcement of a fair policy.

Then, about an hour in, two of the customer service representatives closed their counters and left. Just like that. Angry customers, myself included, started looking for the manager–someone to explain to us what was going on. It was time to change shifts, he explained to us, and two new people would be in shortly. In about 15 minutes, a person showed up and then another 10 later, one more stepped in to man the third desk. With several dozen people in the waiting area now, this was just unacceptable.

Finally, after waiting for two hours and seven minutes, my number was called. I went up to the counter with my 26 incorrect plant pots in one hand, and the 26 new pots that I wanted to exchange them for in the other, and presented my receipt. “I can’t process an exchange,” the customer service representative told me, “but I can give you a refund, and you’ll have to go buy the new ones at the register.” I wanted to scream. Why in the world does your sign say “Returns and Exchanges” then? And why in the world do I have to go wait in another line when you’ve clearly got a cash register right in front of you?

The experience was a nightmare for me and for the other customers that shared the ride, but there’s a lesson to be learned here. Great customer service technology can only take you so far. Without making organizational changes or implementing (and enforcing!) sound policies, companies cannot hope to deliver stellar customer service. IKEA’s customer service technology was impressive–the ticketing process was organized, straight forward and had the potential to be very efficient. But the policy that essentially eliminates exchanges and forces customers to wait in at least two lines is simply ridiculous, as is the idea of rewarding customers that blatantly ignore the store’s rule by abandoning their place in line. And furthermore, what does it say about IKEA’s corporate culture if some employees leave their shift before their replacements arrive, and others arrive 15 minutes late?

Companies are quick to blame technology for customer service failure, but good customer service takes so much more than a great ticketing system. It takes a deep commitment to delivering customer satisfaction by anticipating the customer’s needs or frustrations and addressing them, but this weekend, IKEA simply didn’t do that for me.

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