Customer Service: Silly solution leaves customer baffled

Good customer service is a hallmark that separates good businesses from bad like wheat from chaff. It is the difference between being a company that can rightfully boast about brand loyalty and the ability to sell products that command a premium, and a company that is selling based on price alone because it has nothing else to talk about.
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Good customer service is a hallmark that separates good businesses from bad like wheat from chaff. It is the difference between being a company that can rightfully boast about brand loyalty and the ability to sell products that command a premium, and a company that is selling based on price alone because it has nothing else to talk about.

In an ever more competitive marketplace, specialty businesses will come to realize that without excellent customer service, a most critical point of differentiation between specialty and every other business becomes moot.

To that end, we are launching a column that will appear regularly in SNEWS®, focused on customer service adventures -- good and bad -- that our team experiences in stores and with businesses representing all walks of life. Mostly, the tales will come from a world outside the outdoor and fitness realm, as we believe we have much to learn by looking at how others do it well, or, as is the case with this tale, fumble the ball badly.

Lumatec garnered much attention in 1992 with a very popular product that became a staple in its line until recently -- the NiteOwl Book Light. The company is well known for its Flash Card as well -- a small, plastic-covered, card-shaped flashlight that is often branded with a private label message. Squeeze the card, the light goes on. A number of years ago, the company also sold a NightOwl Travel Alarm -- since replaced with TravelTime LED, which appears to be essentially the same light, only with an LED lamp instead.

Our team owns two of the NightOwl Travel Alarms, neither of which ever worked properly and, as a result, both had subsequently been relegated to a dusty back shelf in the gear closet. In clearing out and cleaning up, we decided to give Lumatec another chance, and this is where our story begins.

On Lumatec's website -- www.lumatec.com -- in the about us section, a statement reads: "Since the introduction of our wildly successful NiteOwl Book Light in 1992, the Lumatec collection has grown to include 'best sellers' across all major product categories and price points. We don't just make lights. We make 'great gifts' for the home, adventure and travel... backed by a strong customer service ethic that stands behind the success of our retailers."

Buoyed by the promise of strong customer service, we sent an email to the company on Nov. 9, identifying ourselves as journalists with a problem -- we owned two NiteOwl Travel Alarms that didn't operate satisfactorily.

As we pointed out in the email, both travel alarms feature a nifty extendable light that failed to lock into place securely, despite our best efforts. This meant the light would click on without fail, anytime it was in a suitcase, carry on bag, or other piece of luggage. The end result left us arriving at our destinations with travel alarms that were no longer able to illuminate a bedside table as promised, nor able to operate as a flashlight as needed.

The good news is we did receive an email from Stephanie Helms, an official Lumatec customer service person, within 24 hours. However, her reply wasn't exactly what we were expecting:

"The best way that we have found to keep the travel time light from coming on when packing your bags is to either take a little piece of Scotch tape and securing the neck from rising up to activate the light and/or a small piece of Scotch tape on the slide that turns the unit on and off on the bottom side of the unit. I have also had problems with it doing that while I travel. I usually take the batteries out if I don't happen to have a piece of tape available."

Hmmm. Perhaps we should refer again to the Lumatec website, where further down on the About Us page, it says, "From our 30,000 sq. ft. manufacturing and distribution facility in Austin, Texas, the Lumatec team strives to set the standard for cutting-edge design, functionality and utility…"

Apparently, the company hopes that its customers will find the use of Scotch tape -- a mandatory accessory notably overlooked in the instruction manual, and one the company appears to know is needed to ensure the product works properly -- is a cutting-edge design feature that adds functionality and utility. At least the customer service rep didn't recommend using Duct tape. As for the recommendation of removing the batteries every time we travel as another solution, we're not exactly thrilled about having to add an extra level of effort into a process that should require precious little.

What were we expecting? Frankly, we had hopes that customer service would tell us that the company was aware of the problem and had since found a fix, and then apologize for the inconvenience and offer to replace our obviously unsatisfactory product with one that worked properly.

We are left to assume that perhaps the same problem exists with the TravelTime, which is why a replacement product was not offered. The bottom line here is that now having no further use for two Lumatec NightOwl Alarm Clocks that don't work, and having no desire to "fix" the problem with Scotch tape or by removing the batteries every time we travel, the clocks are being trashed. Would we buy another Lumatec product? Not a chance.

And there lies a series of lessons for all:
1. Don't sell your customer a product that does not work in a manner that should be expected by any reasonable person. A travel light and alarm that turns itself on and burns out the batteries and bulb every time one travels unless Scotch tape is employed is not working as expected.

2. If your customer comes to you with a problem with one of your products, especially a problem you are aware of, make it easy for the customer by offering to exchange it, repair it, or refund it.

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