Sunday, January 25, 2015

Owning up to overpayment keeps professional relationship solid

Start-up companies often have growing pains, and J.L., a reader from the Northeast, recently found himself on the receiving end of such pain. The incident challenged him on just how honest he should be.

After agreeing to do a small amount of contract work for a start-up, J.L. was sent a check for his services. As he'd grown accustomed to doing, J.L. used an app on his smartphone that allowed him to photograph and deposit checks into his bank account remotely. The process seemed to work seamlessly, as it had in the past.

A day or so later, J.L. received an email from his contact at the start-up.

"I wanted to let you know that I was just notified about a problem with the company's checking account," the email read, "which means that if you deposited the check I sent you it may not have gone through. If so, I'll be happy to send you a new check and cover any fees you may have been charged. So sorry!"

J.L. went online to check his bank account and saw that the check was still processing, so he didn't know if there were any problems. He emailed his contact back to say he'd inform her if the check bounced and any fees were incurred.

Two days later, J.L. checked online again and found that the check had indeed been returned for insufficient funds. There was also a $12 fee assessed his account because of the bad check.

J.L. emailed his contact, who asked him to send her a copy of the statement with the bank charge on it. J.L. did and within days a new check arrived for the original amount plus the additional $12 to cover the cost of the bad check fee. J.L. deposited the check by using his smartphone app again, and this time the check cleared within a few days with no problems.

A day or so after the check cleared, however, J.L. checked his account balance online and saw that his bank had waived the bad check fee and credited his account for the $12 he'd been charged. He still has no idea why the bank did this, although he suspects it had something to do with the size of the balance he keeps in his account.

J.L. had already been paid for his work plus the additional $12. His contact would never know that he'd been credited for that $12 for the bank. Should he tell her and offer to return the $12? Or should he let things lie and chalk up the extra loot to a bank error in his favor?

Without question, the right thing for J.L. to do is tell his contact and offer to return the $12. J.L. recognized this and dutifully told his contact.

"Please keep the $12," she emailed back, expressing her appreciation for his honesty. It's likely to be the beginning of a long working relationship. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Driver could have avoided gnawing guilt over a car accident

Years ago, a reader and his wife were driving in New York City to a meeting. They were running late and the reader who was driving recalls that he was "tearing down Park Avenue."

He veered into the right-hand lane and cut off a cabbie. Luckily for the reader, the cab driver didn't hit his car, but swerved, striking the side of a light-colored luxury car "parked in front of a fancy building."

The reader slowed down. The cab driver also slowed down. They made eye contact. Then the cabbie turned right onto the nearest cross street and took off.

While the reader didn't hit the parked car, he knew he'd caused the accident. He and his wife considered for a moment leaving a note on the windshield of the car sideswiped by the cab. Ultimately, he writes, "we made like the cabbie and left the scene."

The couple made their meeting in time, but the reader writes that he was "so freaked out" when he got home that he called a lawyer friend to ask whether he'd be hauled off to jail. The lawyer friend told him not to worry.

Nevertheless, the incident still nags at the reader, not because he's afraid of being arrested, but because he believes the owner of the parked car deserved an explanation.

"Were we responsible for paying for the damage to the luxury car since we probably caused the cab driver -- who undoubtedly was driving too fast -- to change lanes and hit him?" he asks.

Whether or not the reader was responsible for the damage is not the first question he should be asking himself. Leaving a note and/or reporting the incident were more important issues to consider. Of course, the cabbie who hit the parked car certainly didn't do the right thing by leaving. He should have at least let the parked car's owner know he's sideswiped him.

The reader who saw the accident, felt guilty and likewise did nothing also fell short of doing the right thing.

Granted, he didn't hit the parked car, nor would his guilty conscience necessarily have  translated into being found at fault for the damage. He certainly wasn't obligated to leave a blank check to cover repairs that might have been the cabbie's responsibility. Ultimately, since he was involved in the incident, the right thing to do would have been to let the owner of the parked car know what happened.

Doing so might have made the reader late for his meeting, but would have tempered the gnawing sense of guilt he still feels. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Shopper sticks her neck out to make things right

Several years ago, M.A., a reader from Ohio, was shopping for tops in a women's boutique.

After trying on one of the tops she was considering buying, she left the dressing room to look in the mirror on the sales floor. A sales clerk rushed over and clasped a necklace around M.A.'s neck.

"This would look great with that top," the clerk said.

Then the clerk brought over other tops for M.A. to try on. When she was through and had selected one to purchase, M.A., changed back into the sweater she'd been wearing, made her purchase, and left the store.

Several hours later, M.A. realized she was still wearing the inexpensive necklace.

"I wasn't sure what to do!" she writes. "If I took the necklace back, would I be accused of shoplifting?"

M.A. hadn't even been looking for a necklace; the eager clerk had chosen it and placed it around her neck. But would the boutique staff believe her?

 M.A. contemplated what to do. Simply keeping the necklace without having paid for it seemed wrong. She thought about returning to the store and leaving the necklace in a dressing room without saying anything.

After waiting several days, M.A. decided she wanted to keep the necklace, but felt she couldn't bring herself to wear it until the situation was settled.

M.A. was right not to simply keep the necklace. The right thing was to let the store know that she'd mistakenly left without removing the necklace after a clerk had placed it on her. She could call the store, let the staff know what happened and ask how she to rectify the situation. Or she could show up to the store with the necklace, explain what happened and offer to pay for the necklace. In which case, the right thing would be for the store to accept her cash and thank her for her business.

After struggling with what to do, M.A. returned to the store without the necklace, but found another just like it on the jewelry rack. She took it to the cash register, explained what had happened and asked if she could pay now for the same necklace she had at home.

"The clerk laughed and told me to just keep the necklace -- no need to pay for it," writes M.A. "Her simple approach relieved me. After that, I could wear and enjoy the necklace without guilt."

The clerk recognized that M.A. had made an honest mistake. She could have accepted payment for the necklace, but perhaps recognizing that forgiving the cost of an inexpensive necklace might translate into an even more loyal customer, she told M.A. to keep it. As long as the clerk had the authority to make such a decision without consulting the boutique owner, and as long as she told the owner what she'd done, M.A.'s decision to do the right thing not only resulted in setting things right, but also in a small reward to her for doing so. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, January 04, 2015

Adding a softer touch to customer service can boost business

Are customer service representatives ethically obligated to thank customers for correcting errors? Should they be expected to show sympathy for customers undergoing personal loss? That's what P.W., a reader from the Midwest, would like to know.

Before last Christmas, P.W. had ordered several items from an online gift catalog. She received all of them in time for Christmas.

Two months later, she received another package from the same company. She hadn't ordered anything since Christmas, so she double-checked the shipping label to make sure it had her name and address on it. It did. But when P.W. opened the package, she discovered it was intended for a woman who lived two states away.

"I will not say that I didn't think for a second about keeping it," writes P.W., "but I am a believer in what comes around goes around." So she called the company and reported the wrongly-delivered package.

The customer service person peppered P.W. with questions to make sure the package was indeed sent to the wrong person.

"I don't think she believed me at first because she kept asking me how this could happen and whether my name and address were on the shipping label," writes P.W. She even asked P.W. if the rightful recipient of the package lived close by so P.W. might take it to her.

"I had to remind her that she lived two states away from me," writes P.W.

P.W. asked the customer service representative to send her a shipping label so she could return the package to the company. The customer service rep agreed to send the label, but never thanked P.W. for her honesty. When P.W. received the shipping label three weeks later, there was no note thanking her.

"It would have been nice to have gotten at least a thank you," writes P.W., who went on to recall a similar experience shortly after her stepmother died last month. P.W. called 12 companies to cancel magazines her stepmother had been receiving. Each of the companies complied with P.W.'s request, but out of the 12 publishers she called, only three of the customer service reps expressed any sympathy.

Would it have been nice if the company that sent the goods to P.W. erroneously had thanked her for her honesty? Yes. Would it have been equally nice had each of the publishing companies' customer service reps expressed sympathy? Yes, again. Were they ethically obligated to do anything beyond responding professionally and efficiently to P.W.'s requests? No.

P.W. did the right thing by alerting the catalog company about the erroneous delivery. That company and each of the publishers she contacted about her stepmother's subscriptions did the right thing by providing P.W. with a solution to the problem she was trying to solve.

But beyond encouraging customer service reps to be "nice" by expressing thanks or sympathy, it might also be wise for companies to train customer service people to express gratitude to honest customers and sympathy to grieving ones. Each shows human decency. If this isn't a strong enough motivator, simply expressing care for current or prospective customers can go a long way toward building a business relationship for the long-term.

Three of the publishing company reps likely recognized this fact. The others and the catalog company may have done the right thing, but they blew an opportunity to do more at no cost to themselves or their companies. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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