Online promise, offline reality and the case of the missing parasol…

Joined-up service

The Great British Summer has finally arrived (though if you blink it might disappear again). So last week, I decided it was out with the old and in with the new – and so began the hunt for the perfect garden furniture set. 

I started online, just to get an idea of what was out there. But I knew I’d have to go offline before buying – just like I do with clothes. I’ve had too many baggy jumpers, misshapen jeans and ill-fitting shoes delivered to ever want to buy online again.

Garden furniture is the same. The potential for lumpy cushions, rickety chairs, impractically small tables, and parasols that don’t provide adequate shade from the sol is enough to send me in store to check out the goods.

Which is exactly what I did, with chain A.

The illusion of choice

Of course they’d have less stock in store than online, but that was OK. I was sure to find something I liked, and could carry it off in my car. Instant gratification was just a short ride away.

And I did quickly find something I liked: a lovely mosaic table, wrought-iron chairs, and a generous parasol. I even used the in-store WiFi to have a video chat with a friend to get a second opinion. We were both agreed that this patio set with the seductively Italian name was the one for me. So I headed to the customer services desk. 

Naturally, they didn’t have it in stock.

They couldn’t order it in, they told me, for some complex systems-related reason. But I could order online. 

Now sure of my choice, I headed home, went onto their website and found the mosaic marvel. Delivery within 5 days, it said. Which was OK – at least I was sure of getting exactly what I wanted. 

But as I got to the payment step, the delivery window suddenly widened: delivery within 14 days. And when I confirmed payment, the confirmation email had no delivery date at all. Instead, I’d have to contact customer services.

Which is what I did, and they arranged a delivery within nine days. Not ideal, but I accepted that I’d have to wait. 

Then the very next day, I was browsing another website and up popped a targeted advert from Chain A. Summer’s here! it trilled, and invited me to buy garden furniture. The advert showed a really nice set for £100 less than I’d paid. 

So I went back to their site (without clicking on the sponsored ad, I now regret to say) to look at this cheaper offer. It was really attractive, so I checked stock availability at my local store. None. And the next nearest store? Bingo! I reserved it online, and resolved to drive the 15 miles to pick it up. 

Just one thing to do: cancel my online order, which was straightforward enough. And then I drove to the other store, with my reservation printout nestling in my wallet. 

Needless to say, there was a problem. Systems-related, again.

The garden furniture set isn’t actually a set, so the elements are picked by one of the warehouse staff individually. And though I had a confirmed reservation, the very last parasol had been sold earlier that morning.

The customer services lady said she was very sorry, but there was nothing she could do. Unless I wanted her to order in the parasol from the next store along in the chain, which meant I’d have to make another 30-mile round trip to pick it up.

I took a deep breath, smiled weakly and politely declined.  

Chain reaction

So I headed home, and went online again. Chain B caught my eye, with their stylish patio set, priced the same as the parasol-less one, and with next-day delivery. PayPal payment, instant confirmation, order tracking, email, text messages, two-hour delivery window.

Never mind trying before you buy. Chain B was sending out all the right signals, so I clicked buy now without a moment’s hesitation. 

The very next day, five days ahead of the original schedule, my garden furniture arrived. In a kit – that was actually a kit. In a big box, so there was no missing parasol, or missing anything in fact. And with the clearest, most well-written instructions I’ve ever seen. 

This was self-assembly, but not like I’d ever experienced it. In fact, it was so easy, it almost assembled itself.

And the moral of the story? That good service isn’t any one thing, but all the little things. That you either get it or you don’t. That your people and systems are either aligned, or they’re not. That you value your customer, or you don’t.

That you’re either Chain A or Chain B.

Naturally, now that I have my new garden furniture installed, the sun has gone in. So much for the Great British Summer.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying better weather.