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Fri 08 Jul 2005

The Nordstrom of the Software Business?

Category : Commentary/nordstrom.txt

I don't know but when I first started my own company I had dreams of providing the best service, the most thoughtfully designed software, the best quality bug-free systems, and the most enthusiastic passionate support. But over a decade, these dreams have gone through quite a bit of wear and tear.

Providing consistently good service over any length of time, in spite of the vagaries of human nature - that's really hard to do. And I've developed quite a jaundiced eye when I cast my mind over the prospects.

So it's always been a wonder to me : how did companies like Nordstrom do it? How do you keep your optimism in the face of all these disenchantments?

I've read my share of Nordstrom books, always looking for an answer. Here's a little bit of a clue, as I was reading yet another Nordstrom book from Robert Spector - if you can grow your business to a certain size, you can then pay people to do it, i.e., provide excellent service on your behalf.

Nordstrom's return policy is virtually an unconditional, money-back guarantee. If customers aren't completely satisfied with their purchase, for whatever reason, the store takes it back, no questions asked.

Doesn't that unconditional policy invite abuse? Sure it does, but central to the Nordstrom policy is a desire not to punish the many for the dishonesty of a few.

Which is not to say that returns are not often frustrating for Nordstrom salespeople. You have that customer who "borrows" a dress for a couple of years and then returns it. But top salespeople realize that returns are part of the game; they take back the returns with a smile, knowing that many of those customers will come back.

Some enterprising Nordstrom people will even send a thank-you note to a customer who has returned a purchase. Wouldn't a gesture like that get your attention as a customer?

That kind of resourceful thinking was exactly what Everett, Elmer, and Lloyd Nordstrom had in mind when they established this generous warranty back when Nordstrom was a two-store operation. The brothers dreaded having to deal with obviously outrageous or unreasonable returns, so, they reckoned, if they could pass off the responsibilities for the adjustments and complaints, the business would be more personally enjoyable.

So, it's good to know that they were also human after all. That's one way to do it - split the responsibilities so that you can do what's right for the business and "delight the customer", and yet maintain enough detachment to get over any sense of dread or outrage, over any perceived injustice or unfairness (which is really not a good thing to harbour when you're in business).

So, this is what I have learnt : among the customers, there are the many and there are the few. The many are mostly good. Among these, the best are the ones who show their appreciation. They're the ones to slog our heart out for. They're why we're in business. And business is meant to be enjoyable.

And then there are the bad. But the good vastly outnumber the bad.

So just focus on the good. And try to be happy. Otherwise there is no other reason to be taking this route. Perhaps, one day, we'll get to reach our Nirvana?

Posted at 6:06PM UTC | permalink

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