A reader over at my tumblr asked this question ages ago and I’ve finally made the time to respond…
“OK, as a veteran consumer and occasional custom orderer, which would you say is more important, assuming you had to choose---decent product, with good, friendly, responsive customer service, or excellent product with crappy service. Obviously, you shouldn't have to choose, but some days life isn't as it should be. Whole retail empires have been built on rude clerks (who suddenly fawn when the Special People come in) and McDonalds didn't get where they are by striving for exceptional quality.”
Good question. McDonald’s got where they are via one, maybe two, very compelling strategy (ies) since their inception. I use McDonalds as a teaching metaphor pretty much every week of my professional life and like ‘em or not, they are great strategists. They have been since day-one when Ray Kroc took the McDonald brothers idea on the road. Their strategy…which allows breathtaking wiggle room in areas of quality and customer centricity is crystal clear. It’s …Kids. Yep, kiddies. You get the kids and you’ll get the rest of the family.
So here’s my answer to your question. I will not choose. I will not trade-off either of the two crucial variables that you posit. Well let me qualify my answer. When it comes to the higher priced…bigger ticket items that I purchase, I refuse to compromise. Case in point above. Do those two Cleverley bespoke shoes look the same? Of course not. The lighter one is my replacement pair that showed up after Cleverley, of their own volition, certainly not as a result of any tantrum on my part, declared that they’d start over from scratch and remake my first pair of bespoken shoes. I was poleaxed that they’d actually remake the things. Why? Because the issue at hand wasn’t a deal breaker by any stretch. But after a few back and forths they declared their re-do intent. And I was even more poleaxed when they f_&ked up the specs on the remake.
The price point involved in this example is such that one shouldn’t compromise quality or service or any damn thing in the fulfillment process. This was a FUBAR without explanation and Cleverley did acrobatics to make it right. One day I’ll get off my ass and do a proper story about Cleverley but until then, let me just say that their commitment to getting things right resulted in another bespoke order from me as well as two pairs of their ready-made shoes landing stateside with my name on them. The value equation inputs haven’t really changed...it’s just that fewer people seem to use the centuries-old formula anymore.
Product or service quality/benefit divided by cost is the basic math for value. Consultants who want to make a buck have tweaked the equation a bit in order to make a buck but the core inputs are immutable. One could also blend things like customer experience, customer service and whatever additional smattering of variables deemed important for your value equation. And this varies from person to person, no? I playfully challenged a young kid who purveys rather tasty stuff to take a shot at what he thought was my trigger. It was obvious that to answer such a question about my quirky ass required a bit of thought. But after a moment he said, “Dust…for you, a big part of this is the “experience”.” I think he’s right. I’m a sucker for the story. Hell, it’s why I started blogging. I collect many things but one of my favorite procurements is a moment that becomes a memory. And those moments end up in….stories. I love clothes and I love the clothing business so yes, I’m one who loves the experience.
On the other hand, I have a childhood friend who enjoys wearing high quality things but told me one time that “I don’t need anyone in a store to necessarily know my name or call me when they have something they think I’ll like.” He’s a rather impatient hunter-gatherer and I can assure you that his value equation doesn’t include an experience variable. He likes high quality goods and any purveyor would be pleased to have his custom but he ain’t gonna be hurt if you are simply courteous and focused on helping him quickly hunt and gather.
Another example…I’m a fairly easy fit for a tailor. Other than my slight stoop, I’ve got no other significant anatomical issues to flummox a cutter. And the good ones know how to get the collar to hug the neck of a stooping plonker like me. (Stooping Plonker…sounds kinda like an 18th century Prussian military man) But if you have enough clothes made, you are gonna end up having one episode where the play hell getting it right. The suit above is one of my favorite Flusser rigs. But it took them a half dozen tries to get the collar correct. And all of the Fluss team involved in the effort agreed that after the final go, if it wasn’t right, the Fluss would start over.
One of the top ten best humans in the entire world, G. The Bruce Boyer told me about an Anderson and Sheppard suit that he bespokeydoked some thirty years ago where, upon review by the Head Cutter, he was told just to keep that one for “digging about in the garden and piddling around” and that another one would be cut for him post haste at no additional cost. Bottom line was that after fiddling about with the garment for a few goes, it was time to begin again from scratch.
Here’s another example. I’m gonna do a lengthier story later on about one of the nicest guys I’ve met in the last year…Nick Hilton. But for now…I literally stumbled into his Princeton shop one day and met him. Of course I’d heard about Norman Hilton and the Norman Hilton—Ralph Lauren lore of legend etc but I’d never been in Nick’s shop and I didn’t know him. Long story short, he was running a bit of a promo on some piece goods and twenty minutes later, he and I were designing a jacket. Surprise…windowpane…peak single breast…three/two…double vented…open patches…I’d be an easy mark for an assassin.
But there was one problem. Nick happily sent me a smart phone photo of the jacket when it arrived at his shop and my heart didn’t sink but I wasn’t ebullient. I don’t order open patch hip pockets and a jetted breast pocket. But that’s what came in. Not a deal breaker but not a crowd pleaser either. At least when the crowd consists of one person and that one is me…the tariff payer…ADG. But Nick and I couldn’t discern from our conversations or from the paperwork who fumbled the ball or quite frankly, whether or not a ball had even been fumbled. Ok, enough about balls.
I couldn’t swear to Nick that I emphatically asked for an open patch breast pocket and Nick couldn’t swear, paperwork wise, that I did or didn’t. I was prepared to be happy with the jacket and to chalk it up to a need for more precision in my communication. I made no demands for any adjustments, jacket or pricewise because I had no right to. Oh, and as is always my policy, Nick at that point, had no freakin’ clue that I blogged about things sartorial. You already know that I don’t play that card.
Perhaps miracle is too strong a word but it ain’t far off. After seeing the jacket in situ and discovering how they converted it from jetted to patch, I’ll tell you that the open patch breast pocket now adorning my jacket is nothing short of clever. If purveyors want customers for life, this is how you get ‘em and keep ‘em. I can only say good things about Nick Hilton and his crew.
Ok, ok, so you rightfully conclude that my examples are only relevant to the nuts like me who spend crazy money on custom things. Well, my advice is to compromise little when spending money in even our more mainstream places. If Macy’s doesn’t treat you right, offer objective, instructive feedback to their management and then go to Lord and Taylor or whatever comparable store you can access.
There’s a gas station near me…yes…a good ole gas station, well not just a gas station per se whose service bays are always packed to the gills. Why? Because they are focused and competent and professional and walk their talk about being customer centric. They charge a little more and people happily pay a little more. There’s no compromised asked by either party.
Even Brooks and Press et al no longer have but a few salespeople from the days when the value equation was Gospel. But the lethargy and benign indifference of a lot of their hourly workers is still better than what you get elsewhere and I can sometimes live with traces of that. But only traces. One of my biggest gripes with even the Polo Ralph Mothership Mansion is that there are very few people working there who can actually explain why you should pay Purple Label prices for Purple Label clothing. And here's another thought...If you don’t like the service at the Macy’s caliber establishments, prolong your purchase(s) for a while…save some additional money and then go to Saks or Nordstrom. Or seek out the few remaining independent retailers who still value your custom.
So I reckon I’ll close this with a point about trade-offs. When I lived in Montclair New Jersey in the 1980’s, I discovered nearby, a little shoe shop in a strip mall near Pal's Cabin where all of the Baker Benjes Polo shoe samples from NYC ended up. And most of them were my size. A colleague and I would hit it about once every two weeks during our lunch hour and gorge on the giveaway priced tasties. The look, the quality and the price trifecta was such that I wouldn’t then nor would I today, give two hoots and a damn about the experience or the attentiveness of the staff. What I got for what I paid was so incredible that they coulda had poo throwing gorillas tending the register and I’d a still navigated the gantlet to buy the goods. But whenever I’m spending amounts of time and money that even marginally exceeds my 1980’s shoe sample experience, I expect a baseline level of kindness and professional competency from everyone.
Ok. That’s it for now. Time to wake my not so tiny dancer, LFG and get her going for another round of dance recital nirvana. The "don't take photos Gestapo" was in full force last night so I could only sneak this little photo when the house lights came up. She's sixth from the left, front row. But you knew that.
Onward. Heading back to South Carolina on Tuesday to help out with my still deciding mama.