Monday, 14 November 2011

The loyalty card that stretches loyalty to the limit

Membership sits at the heart of The Co-operative Group,” says the blurb. As a member of the Co-op, you get to “have a say” and enjoy a share of the profits. There are no nasty capitalist shareholders, which means all the more for the rest of us. In other words, the Co-op membership card isn’t just any old supermarket loyalty card – it’s a sign that you’re part of something special.

In October 2008, I sent off the paperwork for a Midcounties Co-op loyalty card. I was warned it might take a while, but when January 2009 rolled around and my card still hadn’t arrived, I prodded the membership department. They replied saying that there was no record of me on their system, but they could do the application over email. There followed an exchange where I tried to extract an apology for my four-month wait from the employee who was dealing with my case, a young man called Matthew Isoo. He steadfastly refused to either

a) apologise,
b) acknowledge that I was asking for an apology, or
c) use any punctuation.

In February 2009, my membership card finally arrived and I could start collecting points. As you might expect, a Midcounties Co-op membership card gives you points for spending at the Co-op, and those points turn into rewards. At the time I was living in a small village where the main food shop was a Co-op, so they were getting a lot of my money and I thought it would be nice to get something back. And without greedy capitalist shareholders, the Co-op can afford to give something back – oh yeah, I’ve done this bit.

So I carried on spending. Then one day I noticed that my points total had been reset to zero. All my points earned up to July 2009 had been converted to vouchers. I’d already seen how slowly the Co-op moves, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that those vouchers were scheduled to arrive during November 2009. But I’d moved house and I didn’t want the vouchers to go to my old address! I’d spent months and a lot of hard-earned cash accruing those points!

I contacted the Midcounties Co-op membership department to give them my new address. Yes, they could update the address on their system, and no, the vouchers hadn’t gone out yet. So, I said, since I’ve contacted you in time, you’ll be able to send them to my new address?

It took four days and two people to give me the answer “No.” But why not? I thought they might find a multiple-choice question easier to answer, so I suggested:
You can't send them to my new address because...

  1. The envelopes were printed weeks ago and have been sitting on somebody's desk all that time, and you can't possibly print a new envelope now.

  2. You need to go through your "security" procedures to confirm that I really have moved house and I'm not the victim of some master criminal who wants to steal my Co-op vouchers.

  3. Both of the above?

Lisa Hughes, Member Benefits Manager, replied:

When we do a voucher mailing it goes out to over 150 000 people. The actual printing and production of the vouchers, magazine and everything that goes in the pack take around 2 months. This is why we are not able to change 1 record in that file of 150k once the process has started.

If the vouchers have not reached you (not sure if you have your mail forwarded from your old address) by 14th December, please get in touch with us and we can arrange for compensation of the lost vouchers.

I responded:

So it's a little bit of option 1 and a little bit of option 3: your business processes are so non-agile and slow that you need two months' notice to be sure of getting the right address on an envelope.
I have set up mail forwarding from my old address, but your mailing is exquisitely timed to arrive in the one-day window between me handing over the keys to the house and the postal redirect beginning. All the other organisations on my long list for address updates were perfectly capable of updating my details in time for any future mailings, which is why I foolishly thought that even the Co-op might manage this. (My address update list includes the National Union of Journalists, which has thousands of members but still managed to update my details in time to send me the bi-monthly union magazine.)
Mind you, I must say it's nice to actually get a response to a query out of the Midcounties Co-op for once. But it says a lot about your business that it took over two working days to get a simple answer to a simple question, and that the administrator I originally emailed couldn't answer it himself but had to drag in his supervisor. Still, I suppose he's a lot more polite and competent than Matthew Isoo.

Nobody bothered replying to my little outbreak of petulance. I duly put a note in my calendar for December to contact them if the vouchers didn’t arrive.

Of course the vouchers didn’t arrive. I wrote to Customer Services again in mid-January 2010:

...You therefore asked me to contact you again for compensation if I hadn't received [the vouchers] by mid-December. Well, of course I haven't bloody received them; as you know perfectly well, they were sent to the wrong address. But you refused to send anything to my new address until I'd contacted you a second time to confirm this.
I am therefore writing again to ask you to please send compensation to the correct address...

Four days later, I hadn’t had a reply. I tried again, with an email that ended:

...Are you going to send my vouchers out or are you going to continue ignoring me and thereby force me to make a complaint?

Clearly the Midcounties team were going for the latter, because they ignored that email too. I waited until February, to be absolutely sure they weren’t just being slow. Then I found the personal email address of the Midcounties Co-op’s chief executive and emailed him with a more concise version of the whole sorry tale.

My email began

Are you aware of how bad your Member Communications team is?
and ended
Although I have spent plenty of money in your shops and accrued hundreds of points, I will never receive any reward for my loyalty because your staff were too incompetent to send my vouchers to the correct address and too lazy to respond to any of my messages. What, precisely, is the point of becoming a member of the Midcounties Co-op? It's been a lot of hard work for absolutely no reward.
I should make it clear that not once throughout this period have I received anything resembling an apology from any member of your Member Communications team. Nor have I seen any sign that they understand why I am frustrated with their incompetence.

That did the trick. Within hours I had a very concerned phone call from Di Bateman, the membership manager, and we had a long chat. She told me she’d been through the emails on the system and was appalled at what she’d seen. She apologised profusely and told me that as a result of my experience, they would be overhauling their systems to make sure that kind of thing never happened again. Matthew Isoo would be receiving “retraining” and there would be a new system in place so that an email never went unanswered for more than a set period of time.

She explained that my spending that year might not actually have been enough to qualify me for any vouchers anyway, but that someone should have explained this to me. They sent me a £20 Co-op voucher just to say sorry.

I was delighted. Delighted that I’d succeeded in getting this incompetent but ultimately well-meaning organisation to permanently change its systems for the better. Delighted that someone was listening, and she'd actually said sorry!

Sadly, the postscript to this happy tale isn’t so good. Summer 2010 rolled around and I still didn’t get any vouchers, which seemed odd given that I’d bought home insurance through the Midcounties Co-op as well as using their pharmacy and making the occasional grocery shop. I figured it was because we’d moved out of the village and were mostly doing our food shopping elsewhere.

Then summer 2011 rolled around and I still hadn’t received any vouchers. My husband, who shops there roughly as much as I do, received a nice bundle of vouchers plus a magazine. I was starting to get suspicious. Surely even if I hadn’t earned many points they would still have sent me the nice fluffy magazine, right?

In November 2011 I contacted the membership department again, just to confirm that they had the right address for me. My message ended:

I don't quite see the point of a loyalty scheme where I get absolutely nothing after three years of membership. Could you look into this?

They looked my details up on the system. And guess what? IT WAS MY OLD ADDRESS. After two-and-a-bit years, multiple complaints, a direct message to the chief executive and the overhaul of their internal systems, the Midcounties Co-op membership department still hadn’t actually succeeded in updating my address details.

They didn’t offer to compensate me for all the vouchers that have gone to my old address, though they did offer to send me the value of the most recent voucher issue – a princely £4.

That £4 is my total reward for nearly three years’ membership. It’s my reward for persisting with my membership application after they lost it. It’s my reward for spending almost all my grocery budget at the Co-op over a period of years. It’s my reward for using their pharmacies, for taking out their home and contents insurance (and renewing it twice).

Not really enough, is it?

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Can't buy me love: Groupon says it will return my money.

A follow up to this: After a further week with no watch, no communication from Groupon and no refund, I wrote to them again, yesterday, asking for a refund and pointing them at my last post.

Here's my email:

I have had no reply from you further than this email (apart from an automatically generated 'tell us about our customer service' form). You can imagine how I replied.

I have not had a watch from South Lane.

Please return me my money forthwith. This will be the amount I paid for an express delivery voucher (£13.60) plus interest plus payment for the time I have spent on this so far (about three hours at £20 per hour).

You may be interested in this website on which I have related the details of this interaction up until last weekend:

Yours faithfully

Online Blogger

I have just now recieved an email from the Slightly More Important Minion:

SMIMinion, Nov-06 16:29 (GMT):

Dear Online,

Thank you for your response. I would like to sincerely apologise for the trouble that you have experienced as a result of purchasing this deal. This is obviously not the kind of experience we wish our customers to have when they make a purchase from our site, and I have forwarded the issue to all involved parties - informing us of what happened will, I hope, help us to ensure this doesn't happen again.

I do understand your frustration with this situation; you have paid for an item and would of course expect it to arrive within the designated timescale, and I can only reiterate my apologies that this has not been the case.

As explained in our previous correspondence, we are not involved in monitoring the dispatch processes of the individual companies with whom we feature deals. This is because we feature deals with thousands of different companies, and it has never been part of our operations to manage them in this respect.

This, as pointed out previously, is stated in our terms and conditions which you have admitted to not reading. The terms and conditions offered by Groupon are in place to protect both our customers and the partners we work with, and we do recommend that prospective Groupon customers read these thoroughly before making a
purchase from our site.
Given the circumstances, I am happy to process a full refund of the £13.60 which you paid to us for the voucher. This has been implemented immediately and you should receive the money back into your bank account within 5 working days.

Kind regards


So, kudos to Groupon in that they have, finally, agreed to return the money that I paid to them for goods that I didn't receive.

There is no acknowledgement, however, that getting this money returned has taken me time and effort and Groupon have offerend me no compensation for my time and effort, either.  I'd like to remind you all that all I have had back from them is the money that I paid for goods that I didn't receive. 

All I have is exactly what I started with, minus a few hours of my time and a fair few calories burnt in crossness. 

It shouldn't have taken two weeks for Groupon to decide to give me my money back - my money, not Groupon's money - and I think we should all heed the T&C, as advised by the SMIMinion; if you buy a voucher from Groupon for the purchase of goods from a different website, you are not guaranteed the delivery of those goods, and Groupon will say that they are not obliged to chase the other website for you, and you'll have to keep emailing them with increasing levels of crossness, to get that money returned.

I think they were obliged to return my money, which is why they finally did return it, when I pointed out that I had written the story of the non-delivery of the watch and Groupon's refusal to do anything about it, and published it. 


But thanks, anyway, Groupon.  Now please take me off your mailing lists.

EDIT: I have now been emailed by the SMIMinion, very politely informing me that I have been removed from the mailing lists without me having to remove myself, in response to the comment made above, on my blog. 

To be fair to Groupon, I need to record this example of excellent customer service - so thank you.  There's not many companies that respond so quickly to requests on blogs.

It might now be a good idea if Groupon tried to introduce the same quick response time to emails complaining about the non-receipt of goods and asking for money to be reimbursed.  One step at a time, though. 

Time to draw a line under this.  I'm really not into baiting the underlings.  I suspect, if you dig deep into Groupon's hierarchies and structures, most of this debacle can be traced back to a lack of support,  a lack of training of people hired to deal with cross customers such as myself, possibly an insecure work place so that people feel scared to escalate issues, and too much work for the customer service people in a company that is expanding too fast.   That still doesn't excuse the T&C, though, but at least we all know what they mean, now.