Company to Complaining Customer: Don’t Waste Our Time…Our Staff Won't Tolerate it



Brian Cantor
09/30/2011

While most companies do what is within reason to turn the frowns of disgruntled customers upside down, Australian-based fashion company GASP has no qualms about telling frustrated shoppers to take their business elsewhere.

The recent release of an authentic email correspondence between an unhappy customer and an area manager for the fashion merchant epitomizes the extent to which GASP will not bend-over-backwards—or really at all—to regain the trust of those it let down.

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At no point in the correspondence does GASP dispute the allegation that one of its retail associates was rude, overbearing and disrespectful in his interaction with a group of female customers. Instead, it praises the stylist as "too good at what he does" and blames the disgruntled customer for creating the hostile situation.

The company’s official response, an epitome of the words "dismissive" and "condescending," has triggered vast outcry from media, celebrities and customers who want to plaster GASP’s logo on the "how not to treat customers" billboard. Yet insofar as the response is so extreme and so dismissive of the customer’s concerns, it seems impossible that it was not part of a calculated, deliberate corporate strategy.

Not Quite the Perfect Day

It all began on Saturday, September 24. Armed with three bridesmaids, Keara O’Neil, an experienced retail worker herself, visited the Chapel Street, Melbourne GASP location to find dresses for the bridesmaids and a hen dress (dress for a bachelorette party) for herself.

According to O’Neil, Chris, a male associate, immediately "pounced on" the group to help them through the process. "The staff member was initially funny and extremely helpful with sizes etc," wrote O’Neil in her email to GASP.

A bright pink dress caught O’Neil’s eye, but she could not fit into the size Chris initially brought out. "When I eventually got the correct size and came out of the change room I was unable to discuss the likes or dislikes of the dress with my bridesmaids as the sales assistant kept saying ‘you should just get it’," noted O’Neil, forecasting a customer experience that was about to go awry.

She requested the opportunity to think about the dress, prompting Chris to pull her aside and whisper, "Is it the price you’re worried about?" She again asked for the chance to think about the purchase, and she went back into the fitting room. At that point, she alleges that he half-pushed open the door to her changing room and reiterated that she should "just get it."

O’Neil admittedly brushed off his urgency with some attitude, prompting Chris to respond, "With your figure, I really think you should buy it." Based on the tone, O’Neil viewed his comment as inflammatory towards her "healthy size 12 frame."

At that point, O’Neil made the call to leave in a hurry, hoping her bridesmaids would follow. They did, but not before hearing, "Have fun finding something at Supre (another Australian clothing chain, apparently far less glamorous in Chris’ eyes)" and "I knew you girls were a joke the minute you walked in."

Citing her twelve year experience in retail, O’Neil concluded her note by claiming she had never encountered a customer complaint anywhere near as significant as that which she was levying on the GASP associate.

"I dread to think how many customers he has not only offended but how many customers have left your store due to the pressure placed on getting the sale, and then to be harassed when that sale hasn’t taken place," declared O’Neil.

Should GASP Make Things Right?

If a conciliatory response was what she wanted, she did not get it. Writing on behalf of "online customer care," GASP area manager Matthew Chidgey went fiercely to bat for his employee, supporting his assumption that O’Neil and his bridesmaids were indeed a "joke."

Remarking that GASP’s designs have been worn by red carpet standouts like Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry and Selena Gomez, he explained, "Our product offerings are very, very carefully selected, so to ensure that we do not appeal to a broad customer base." GASP, in his eyes, is for "fashion forward" shoppers—it takes negative reactions from mass consumers (ie, the dress looks like a "dead flamingo") as a sign that the designs are on point.

Even though GASP is not notorious for being the most expensive fashion line in Australia, Chidgey added, that because A-listers want to wear very exclusive clothing, "our items] are priced such that they remain inaccessible to the undesirable." In using words like "undesirable" to describe a group of fashion customers, Chidgey seems to be channelling elitist movie villains rather than typical customer service managers.

He added that employee selection is also done with an eye for the most exclusive, and Chris is a "qualified stylist who has a sixth sense for fashion...[his] only problem is that he is too good at what he does." Since he is so talented, Chris does not tolerate having his time wasted, "which is the reason you were provoked to leave the store."

Chidgey made a point to distinguish GASP from the "chain retailer" at which O’Neil worked; "Let me guess, you would never, ever hire Chris in the course of your duty, would you...it’s almost as though we are in a [sic] totally different industries.

"Chris is a retail superstar, who possess [sic] unparalleled ability, and I am sorry you feel upset by him, but he knew you were not going to buy anything before you even left your house."

O’Neil closed her email writing that in twelve years of retail work, she never came across a customer experience like the one she endured. Fittingly, the final paragraph of Chidgey’s email was a corporate response likely more insulting and direct than anything she had ever encountered:

"If you would like to do us any favours, please do not waste our retail staff’s time, because as you have already seen, they will not tolerate it. I am sure there are plenty of shops that appease your taste, so I respectfully ask that you side step our store during future window shopping expeditions."

Is the Situation Fair?

The odds of a customer management professional—or anyone in possession of common sense—justifying Chidgey’s response as "good service" are less than that person’s odds of winning the lottery without buying a ticket. Chidgey was dismissive, insulting, condescending and presumptive about a potential customer—there is nothing to commend.

But is his opinion fair? Though most reading this would never say so to their customers, if they were to identify a customer who clearly had no intention of buying, isn’t it possible that they, too, would at least understand their associate’s decision to be dismissive? They may have to deal with them, but in a perfect world, fashion retailers would probably not be expected to bend over backwards for customers who are window-shopping and looking for the experience of trying on nice clothes (with no intention of buying).

Here, however, the definitive conclusions from Chris and Chidgey seem somewhat surprising. From O’Neil’s story, there is no evidence to suggest that she and her group were not at least potentially-serious buyers. Chidgey also seems to be overstating the inflated pricing of his company’s clothing—while it is certainly no thrift line, GASP indeed has some affordable styles in its range.

Chris’ behavior also seems somewhat contradictory. If it can be assumed that O’Neil’s hesitation to follow his purchasing advice is what prompted him to get annoyed, then he obviously intended to help them. If he is a super-skilled stylist who can spot a joke customer from a mile away and can’t afford to waste time, why would he have "pounced" on them and then invested so much of himself into the situation? Would a Maserati dealer flip out if a haggardly-dressed browser dragged his feet about spending six figures on a car?

The absence of a reaction to Chris’ apparently-insulting comment about O’Neil’s weight is also intriguing. O’Neil’s class and viability as a GASP customer aside, figure should not be a factor, especially since the biggest name in contemporary music, and one for whom many elite fashion companies would like to design, is the full-figured Adele.

But is this really a mistake?

Amid all the outcry is the absence of a key question: isn’t this probably the message GASP wants to go viral?

Obviously, with such an explosive, negative email, the chance of collateral damage is significant (can someone like Selena Gomez, who wants to be a role model for all kinds of young girls, ever again wear something from this designer?). But, in theory, if a fashion company wanted to portray itself as elite, as the kind of line only meant for celebrities and the super-glamorous, wouldn’t it want to publicly tell an "average" shopper that she doesn’t deserve to be within a ten mile radius of its stores?

People may scoff at the meanness, but like the "cool table" in the high school cafeteria, many will ultimately seize on the opportunity to belong. If an upper-middle-class customer "made the cut" and received friendly, helpful service from Chris, she now feels doubly-special. Not only did she get a great dress, but she was recognized as superior—as above the average, "undesirable" customer.

That ego boost can be hard to resist.

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