Consumer affairs: Putting the (n)ice into customer service


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The Independent Online

As a piece of public relations, it was pretty deft. Seven-year-old Luka Apps from Highworth in Wiltshire had written to Lego's head office after losing his Jay ZX figurine during a post-Christmas shopping trip. "Daddy said to send you an email to see if you will send me another one," he wrote. "I promise I won't take him to the shop again if you can."

The publicity-minded folk in the Lego customer-services department immediately twirled into action. A staffer named Richard wrote back to say that his bosses at Lego couldn't help but he'd spoken directly to Sensei Wu, Jay ZX's master in the Ninjago toy series, and he'd agreed to send him a replacement figurine – plus some extra baddies to battle. He cautioned that one must "protect your Ninjago minifigures like the dragons protect the weapons of Spinjitzu" (it makes sense if you have the toys).

It was a case of the perfect PR dovetail. A cute child (with his own Twitter account) writes even cuter letter asking for something which a major corporation can do easily, and at very little cost. But it was also something else besides: a highly personalised bit of customer service.

It's not the first incidence we've seen of late, of course.

Who can forget the goings-on last year when a letter from three-and-a-half-year-old Lily Robinson, pointing out Tiger bread looked a lot more like Giraffe bread, led Sainsbury's to change its name in 1,063 stores and send her a £3 voucher for her trouble. Or when Bill Bennett wrote to M&S demanding a refund and a "hand-drawn picture of a smiley dinosaur" in a dispute over the price of a salmon sandwich. He was duly rewarded with an original work by Steve Jones, of the Marks' customer service department.

Brian Weston, director of the Institute of Customer Services, thinks there are lessons for all companies here. "Customers increasingly want personalisation, for big companies to show they understand and can talk in a meaningful way.

Businesses have to know who they are talking to and calibrate their response to that. These were unusual requests and they responded in kind, so it strikes a chord with everyone".

Still, some requests are too much for even the most customer-friendly corporations. Australian David Thorne's offer to settle his gas bill in full with a picture of a spider back in 2008 was met with a firm, if polite, no thank-you.