Much to my surprise, a published account of a bad FedEx shipping experience and a managerial view of that customer service failure struck a nerve and elicited a strong and swift response from FedEx (FDX) employees, executives, and fans. While the passionate demonstration of loyalty on all sides of the FedEx delivery equation to a random customer service complaint was reassuring, the additional information revealed about the inner workings of the FedEx system was not so reassuring.
Not long after the original FedEx customer service story was posted, Teresa W. from the FedEx corporate office was hot on my trail. With aggressive diligence and persistence that hadn't been demonstrated by any other FedEx employee, I had dealt with throughout my two-week FedEx ordeal, Teresa W. sent e-mails, made phone calls, and left messages with every e-mail address and mobile phone associated with my name and my ill-fated shipment. I appreciated the concerted effort, and I was curious about the purpose of the contact. So, of course, I called her back.
I spent 45 minutes on the phone with Teresa, who identified herself only as "someone who reports directly to executive management," and she couldn't have been a better FedEx representative. It could be that she was just an extremely polished mid-level service recovery placate, but I wanted to believe that she was sincere, so I gave her the benefit of the doubt.
The conversation started with an apology from Teresa on behalf of her company, which was a great place to start. This was followed by the statement "I wish you had contacted us before you wrote the article," which was a bit of a misstep. After reminding Teresa that three different customers had contacted FedEx no less than two dozen times via phone, e-mail, and social media, I asked her how much more "contact" a customer was expected to make. Apology #2 was the answer I got to that question and the subject was quickly changed.
When I asked Teresa directly what the purpose of the call was, she told me that executives at the highest level of FedEx were aware of my experience, and wanted to get more information so that they could determine what actions, if any, needed to be taken in response. Again, I wanted to believe that she was sincere so I recounted the entire ordeal in complicated detail.
In the original written recounting of the story, I left out much of the detail for three reasons, because it was too complicated to easily explain, because prior to this I was a big FedeEx fan and was trying to be kind and because the gory details weren't really the point of that original story. But the gory details were an important point to Teresa so she got to hear it all.
Teresa was the lucky one to hear about each of the two dozen or so interactions with each of the FedEx employees, the incorrect information, the miscommunications, the process breakdowns, the system failures, the broken promises, the lack of follow-through, the multiple incorrect and nonexistent tracking numbers, the unmarked package abandoned on the warehouse floor for more than a week, and the relentless effort it took three frustrated customers to coerce unmotivated FedEx employees to sort it all out.
I said it in the first article, I said it to Teresa, and I'll say it again. If one piece of incorrect address information can trigger two weeks of chaos, then the FedEx system has some serious challenges and the FedEx company is in a world of hurt.
Teresa listened to all the messy details, asked some clarifying questions and after she felt like she understood it all said she was "shocked, disappointed and embarrassed." She sounded sincere and I wanted to believe that she was, so I gave her the benefit of the doubt.
And then it was my turn to ask the questions, and Teresa was quite gracious with her time in allowing me to do so.
My questions and Teresa's (paraphrased) answers were:
Me: Is this the kind of experience that any customer should expect whenever they make a mistake like an incorrect number on a street address?
Teresa: Of course not.
Me: Based on how you know the system should work, where did it fail?
Teresa: There was a failure with the drivers, the dispatcher, the warehouse, numerous failures with customer service rep misinformation, failure to escalate to an "advocate" who could have intervened, and repeated failures in communications with all of the above.
Me: Was the information I was given (three times by three different people) about the type of form to submit correct information?
Me: Should the first driver have called the customer when he realized there was a mistake on the address?
Teresa: No. (It was a new revelation to me that FedEx drivers are not allowed to use mobile phones while on the clock, due to "safety" and "productivity" issues.)
Me: Does anybody use the phone number that shippers are required to provide?
Me: Was it the same driver who repeatedly couldn't find the house or the package?
Teresa: No, it was different drivers and they should have communicated to each other, but apparently didn't. (Another new revelation is that there are different drivers/trucks for Ground and Express packages.)
Me: Why didn't any of the numerous customer service reps who were involved take charge of the situation and proactively work to solve it?
Teresa: Only customer service "advocates" have the time and resources to take care of difficult shipments. The situation needed to be escalated to one of the advocates.
Me: How and when do problem shipments get escalated to the advocates?
Teresa: If the customer is dissatisfied, they can ask for an escalation.
Me: How do customers know to ask for an "escalation?"
Teresa: Just like you know to ask for a manager in any kind of customer service situation that you're not happy with.
Me: Shouldn't one of the many customer service reps that were involved have made the decision to escalate the problem without waiting for the customer to ask for the escalation?
This exchange answered most of the major questions I had as a FedEx customer and I appreciated Teresa's patience in answering them all.
I'm not sure exactly what questions FedEx leaders have been or will be asking as a follow-up to this transaction, but if I was a member of that executive leadership team, I would have many. The two most important questions that I hope FedEx leaders have been asking in response to this particular situation are:: exceptions" well?
2) What do employees with direct customer contact think about how we could handle our customer service exceptions better?
I have to say that the position that FedEx employees have taken about handling "exceptions" is the one thing that is still the most disturbing to me. In reading through the comments posted in response to the original article, there were several people who identified themselves as FedEx employees (including a couple of people who have subsequently removed their comments). Their consistent position was if a customer makes a mistake, then the customer deserves whatever dismal service experience they get after that mistake.
Wow. So does that means the FedEx terms and conditions should read something like this...
"FedEx promises to deliver time-sensitive packages containing your important military supplies in a timely manner unless any human being on the sender's side of the transaction makes any type of error, at which time FedEx takes no responsibility for anything which does or doesn't happen after that, even if the package is in the possession of FedEx and lost in the Fedex processing system. Please note that there are no workable systems in place to handle things such as address errors and such mistakes could cause two-day shipments to take up to two weeks or more to deliver, depending on how much time and effort the shipper is willing to expand to assist FedEx in figuring out how to handle an exception."
This is not the kind of agreement I ever thought FedEx had with its customers. It has, unfortunately, been the position that has been consistently taken by FedEx employees in my most recent shipping melodrama. Except for Teresa's position. She wanted to make it very clear to me that the opinions expressed by the blog commenters were not representative of the official position of the company. That disclaimer, of course, revealed the disconnect between corporate intent and frontline reality.
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Actually, there are quite a few disconnects. And Teresa told me that her next step was to forward a report outlining those disconnects to FedEx executives so that they could be discussed along with several "coaching opportunities." I wanted to believe that such a report would be filed and read so I chose to believe her.
But just in case, I have one final piece of the story that will serve as my own follow-up report to the FedEx executive team.
During the course of my conversation with Teresa, I expressed my belief that the recipient of the package shouldn't be charged for the shipment since it took two weeks to deliver instead of two days and caused a considerable amount of hassle along the way. Teresa agreed and told me that nothing had been charged to the recipient's credit card yet, and assured me that nothing would.
After 45 minutes on the phone with Teresa, I felt much better about FedEx again and considered the possibility that my bad experience had been an anomaly.
That lasted about a week until the recipient of the ill-fated shipment contacted me to tell me that he had, in fact, been charged for the shipment after all. He also forwarded me a copy of the following e-mail that he received from FedEx about it...
"Hello [customer name]:
I apologize the credit was not issued for your shipment. The new tracking number showed the commitment time was met, so the system automatically canceled the credit.
I spoke with our revenue service department regarding this issue. This morning, they issued the credit for the shipping fees. Please allow 48 to 72 hours for that credit to appear on your credit card.
On behalf of FedEx, I apologize for any inconvenience or frustration that may have been caused by this matter.
Point, game, and match goes to "the system." I couldn't stop laughing.
"The system" proved one last time that it was in charge, and even more powerful than "someone who reports directly to executive management." One more broken promise. Two more customer service employee interventions needed. One more obligatory apology.
(No matter how it might seem, I have much more compassion for FedEx employees than animosity because I know what it's like to be the one stuck in between a human customer with human needs and an inhumane system with rigid processes that aren't built to service those needs.)
With this final cyber thump on the head, the FedEx "system" eradicated any doubt that I was having about my expectations being too high and my assessment being too harsh. I stand by my original conclusion that employees who are slaves to "the system" will end up spending an inordinate amount of time trying to fix the transactions and interactions that are exceptions to the system.
And to that, I will add that as long as there are human beings involved in any part of the transaction, there will always be exceptions. So you might as well figure out how to deal with the exceptions in a way that doesn't continually piss customers off. That is, of course, if you want to continue to have customers.
The last time I moved residences, instead of hiring a moving company, I decided to ship my possessions in boxes using FedEx. All of my worldly possessions in dozens of boxes which cost thousands of dollars to ship cross country - I gave it all to FedEx. And even though this was the more costly choice, I decided it was worth it for one big reason. I trusted FedEx and I didn't trust any of the moving companies that I had never done business with before.
I trusted that FedEx would handle my packages with care, and that FedEx would get all my worldly possessions from point A to point B without mishap. I trusted that if there was any type of service failure along the way that FedEx would have appropriate service recovery in place to handle it. I trusted FedEx without reservation because they had earned it - one transaction, one on-time shipment, and one superior service experience at a time.
Every consumer in the world wants to have that kind of complete, stress-free, unwavering trust in any kind of company they do business with. It pains me that where there was once complete trust, there is now doubt and mistrust in my relationship with FedEx. It annoys me that I will now be searching for FedEx alternatives for any future shipments that are important or time-sensitive. It stresses me that I will have uncertainty attached to my shipping experiences again.
It wasn't one unforgivable FedEx fiasco that destroyed the trust that FedEx had built with me over several years. The package did finally make it to its destination and in one piece. It was still a fiasco, but it was a forgivable one.
The real reason that FedEx lost my trust is because one transaction that was out of the ordinary revealed to me that the FedEx system is built to function well under perfect circumstances, but not in imperfect circumstances. And sadly, FedEx employees don't seem to be well supported nor managerially motivated to deal well with imperfect circumstances either.
There's no need for customer trust when everything goes perfectly. There's no replacement for customer trust when everything goes wrong.
Neither this story nor the previous one was written as a FedEx indictment. It's just a leadership case study and a cautionary IT tale. No matter what you want to believe, this customer service situation, response, and the outcome are not unique to FedEx. Getting burned by "the system" is a common consumer experience these days. And just because your customers aren't writing about it in a blog doesn't mean it's not happening in your operation too.