Editor's note: Ray Keener says he wrote the column below as a consumer of bike goods and services and not in his roles as BPSA executive director, Community Cycles president, or BRAIN contributing editor.
I am troubled by three recent negative experiences with IBDs. One each of the warranty, special-order and rental varieties.
Troubled, not because they happened to me, or because they were especially heinous. But because they represent similar experiences that I hear about from friends and read about on Facebook.
So here goes. And no names of stores or people will be—or need be—included here. I’m trying to make a broader point, not make anyone feel or look bad.
1: The Special Order: I ordered a pair of size 48 road shoes from a Boulder, Colorado, shop on Aug. 28. Didn’t really expect them to have my stupid-big size in stock.
A couple weeks later, I hadn’t heard anything (a common thread, as you’ll see). So I decided to stop by and see if they had come in yet.
Cue 10 minutes of mad scrambling through paperwork, computer files, befuddlement all around. The guy I placed the order with was doing a fitting; they finally interrupted him.
Sheepishly: “Oh wow, sorry man, I forgot to order those.” Two weeks later, still hearing nothing, I stopped by again. “Nope, haven’t seen 'em.”
At least I know I’m in the system. Small consolation—it’s been 32 days since I placed the order. Would have gotten the same pair, same price, from Zappos in two days.
Confession: When I was in retail, we were terrible at special orders. I’d cringe and cross my fingers every time we took one.
2: The Warranty: For the second time in a year, a frame component failed on my integrated-mast carbon fiber road bike. The first time, I chalked it up to random bad luck. The second time, I’m a little more concerned. Riding home standing up is an interesting experience, and I don’t wish to repeat it.
So I take the bike to the shop that carries the brand, and the owner greets me. We chat about the situation, I express my preference that I get a newer, redesigned frame so the same failure doesn’t occur a third time, and he says, “I’ll see what I can do. I’ll get on this first thing tomorrow.”
A week goes by. No communication. So I call the shop. “He’s on the other line. He’ll call you right back.” He doesn’t. Not a good sign for my new frame.
Another week goes by. Still nothing. So I stop by the shop. “Oh yeah, they’re sending another one [of the same part that broke twice before]. We’ll have it ready next week.” Swell.
So I go in after Interbike to pick up the bike. Say a friendly, “Hi, how ya doin’” to the owner. He goes and hides out in the back and leaves me with the service manager.
Who gives me chapter-and-verse about the company’s policy, nothing they can do, etc. etc. I ask him, “If this was your bike and it broke twice before, would you be happy getting the same fix the third time?” He stares at his shoes.
I was hoping to at least get some kind of an apology, an acknowledgement of my inconvenience, a call from the owner. Still waiting.
3. The Rental: Gotta get outta Boulder and do some mountain biking. Our trails are basically gone from the flood. So I fly south in search of a rental bike that fits me (I’m 6-foot-8) and some not-too-fast riding company.
First shop I call, one I know well, only has a large, Second shop, SCORE! A 22-inch frame, plenty of stock, not-too-outlandish rental rate ($35 a day). BYOS (bring your own SPuDs).
So I go in to pick up the bike, looks good, has a pump and seat pack attached, all I need is the pedals installed and the seat height adjusted. Big sigh from the guy helping me. What a hassle.
I tell him, “My seat height’s 88.5 centimeters, center of the BB to top of saddle.” Sigh. So he gets out a tape and a 5mm, chatting with his fellow employee all the while. Chat with her, sigh at me. “85, right?’, he asks. “No, 88.5.” Sigh.
He does the adjustment, hands me the bike. “There you go, 85.” No. Sigh.
Gives it one more try. Chat, loosen, chat, adjust, chat, tighten. “Well, all I can do is 88, it’s right at the limit line.” I decide to give in and get out of there.
Except: They only have one POS, and it’s tied up because the female chat-ee is bickering with another customer about how a credit should be applied to her gift card. Wait. Bicker. 10 more minutes.
So finally I get checked out and find my way to my destination. All’s well that ends well, right? Well, no.
The next day on the first of two days of riding, I feel my seat slowly descending. At the end of an hour, it’s about 10 cm lower than when I started. Mr. Chat-n-Sigh didn’t tighten the binder bolt tightly enough.
No tools in the seatpack. Pushing the bike up the loose-and-steep to keep from messing up my knees even worse than they already are.
The Happy Ending: I’m so done with this bike. We decide to take it back and spend Ride Day Two museum-hopping.
So I walk the bike in and describe my experience in a calm but clearly unhappy tone to a young woman named Kate McGaughey, the hero of our story.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry that happened!,” Kate said. “That must have been awful for you! Here, let me credit you the rental fee for yesterday and today!”
It’s like she memorized Liza LeClaire’s “Dealing with Unhappy Customers” script. Liza works at Wheel & Sprocket, as many of you know, and collaborated on Selling Cycling a decade or so back.
Look, I understand that everyone has bad days, forgets stuff, is forced to defend their vendor’s warranty policies that they don’t agree with. And it’s not like I’m going to stop frequenting any of these three shops from one bad experience.
And … there are three things I’d like to recommend to the IBD community based on my experience in the past month and the past 40 years.
I know full well that many of you have these issues dialed in your stores. So please, skip the ones that don't apply and hopefully put some winter training energy into the ones that might.
And don’t expect anything earth-shaking. These are tips that Bill Fields used to call “blocking and tackling.” Get the basics right and the rest will take care of itself.
Pre-ramble: When I follow the various threads of the “the Internet is killing the IBD” discussion, I get a very limited picture of what constitutes customer service.
In typical form, IBDs focus on high-end services like bike fitting, Di2 tuning, expert repair and pro-level product. Which of course is what a small segment of their high-end consumers is looking for as well.
To me, that high-end market has more or less already been lost to web sellers. So my three “better customer service” points will focus on the majority of your customers, who don’t care that your tech expertise or bike builds are 2 percent better than the shop across town.
1. Be Friendly: A smile and a friendly greeting sets the stage for an interaction that the customer will consider “great service.” If you’re hiring people based on their tech savvy rather than their people skills, you’ll get more sighs than repeat business.
2. Pay Attention: When did retail staff get the idea that it’s appropriate to talk to their fellow staffers when they are helping customers? I see it across the board, at the grocery store and the airport counter, not just in bike shops.
Call me old-school if you will: There are two choices when you’re helping a customer. Focus on them, or focus on what you’re doing for them. Chatting with co-workers sends the pretty clear message that the customer’s needs aren’t really that important.
3. Communicate: The most common complaint I hear about IBDs, whether on special orders, repairs, warranty issues, whatever: I never heard back. They never called me. I went to pick up the bike and they charged me more and didn’t tell me.
Guess what: Amazon doesn’t lose your order. You get an email anytime there’s a delay or your order status changes in any way. That’s the standard now.
And for sure, in the crazy, fast-paced bike retail environment, it’s a tough standard to meet. Maybe it’s time to build a new system. Have someone call every special order, once a week, to update them.
Don’t give up after one call or text when you need to increase the cost of a repair. I know, it’s a pain to hang up a bike in the middle of servicing it.
And … if you’re going to hang on to your current customers and make new ones in the process, you need to tweak your approach.
People are looking for excuses to buy stuff cheaper online. Don’t give them one by providing less-than-stellar customer service.