Ann Taylor Flops in Customer Experience Showcase



Brian Cantor
06/25/2012

Customer service is a performance and not the kind that is delivered with a hairbrush in front of a bathroom mirror.

The rise of social media, coupled with an increased market focus on the customer experience, assures that no such performance is safely hidden in the garage or private rehearsal room. The microphone is always on, the volume is always turned up, and every success or failure is broadcast and subject to a vast audience’s observation and scrutiny.

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If a beloved television icon could not escape a firestorm of social controversy after a racially-charged tirade at a single comedy club, brands have no business assuming their incidents of customer disrespect and dismissal will go unnoticed. Their audience is paying close attention, and when the brand begins operating with blindness towards their paying customers, tomatoes will be thrown.

The intent of likening customer service to a stage show is not to advise organizations to adopt customer-centricity as an act. In today’s "age of the customer," it is anything but a pretense, and a commitment to creating an elite customer experience must be a way of life for business.

It is, however, offered as a reminder that any interaction at any touch point can be the one that forever etches the brand’s reputation in stone. Customers are always sharing and, more importantly, always listening. Just as boxers and mixed martial arts fighters are cautioned to "never leave it in the hands of the judges," brands need to remember not to leave customer experience gaffes in the hands of judgmental customers.

For if they feel your organization operated with a blindness to their needs and wants, their verdict will doubtfully be favorable.

A suddenly-infamous Ann Taylor retail location likely wishes it heeded the aforementioned advice.

Barking up the wrong tree

Earlier this month, Becky Andrews went public with a negative experience at the City Creek Center Ann Taylor location, alleging that the Ann Taylor location violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing her entry into the store.

In a blog post entitled "Disappointed in Ann Taylor," Andrews, who suffers from Retinitis Pigmentosa and is legally blind, details an upsetting experience at the storefront. Excited to shop at the location, Becky was refused entry on the grounds that she wanted to bring a dog into the store.

The problem? Cricket is her guide dog and her only means of navigating public places.

"Unfortunately, I was greeted by a clerk with her first words indicating I needed to leave the store with my dog. I politely explained that she was a guide dog and allowed to be here. She indicated again dogs were not allowed and she would need to talk to her store manager," recalls the customer. "Unfortunately, the manager also was not too helpful and indicated that dogs were not allowed."

As a general rule, brands and their customer service representatives need to carefully consider the circumstance before applying broad "policies" to the situation. Customers are paying for the customer experience they want, not the one the brand feels most comfortable creating. By evidently refusing to even consider Becky’s situation, Ann Taylor was already revealing its own blindness to the concerns of its audience.

But this situation was far bigger than a question of sacrificing rules for generosity. As a legally blind American, Becky’s right to enter public premises with her guide dog is protected by law. Even organizations willing to endure the backlash of ruling against a blind customer have no legal right to refuse a person’s entry because of her guide dog.

Whether onlookers wanted to engage in the moral debate about customer-centricity or the legal debate about keeping doors opened for those with disabilities, they had significant ammunition to chastise Ann Taylor. Here was a store that not only refused to fight for its customer’s satisfaction but was objectively wrong in how it handled the situation. And because we live in a world of constant customer broadcast, this was not a minor screw-up the store could sweep under the rug. It was projected onto a big screen for all to witness, and Ann Taylor now faced the challenge of trying to win back those customers it disappointed.

As random customers flocked to support Becky by sending emails of their own to Ann Taylor’s corporate office, the retailer was forced to respond. That response, however, only made things worse, as a "misinformed" Ann Taylor organization claimed that Becky’s dog was refused entry because it was not on a harness.

Not only was that claim untrue, but it would not have even mattered if it were true. The disability provisions that mandate the admission of blind persons with their guide dogs only require that the animal be under the owner’s control. If Becky has other sensory means of controlling the dog, such as voice direction, a harness is not required.

The organization thus had further egg on its face. In addition to insensitively and improperly barring a disabled person from entering its storefront, Ann Taylor also presented its broader customer base with what was dismissed as a bogus claim. Instead of apologizing for its error, it attempted to justify its perspective. And it erred again in the process.

Under the hammer of backlash, Ann Taylor responded with a corrected apology, blaming the harness story on "misinformation." It apologized for both Becky’s in-store experience and the errant follow-up statement and vowed to make the situation right for Becky and her family.

Speaking to the Consumerist blog, Becky’s daughter anticipated that her mother will be pleased with the apology.

While Becky’s satisfaction will likely prevent the exacerbation of the issue, it unfortunately does not remove the impression the countless articles left on thousands of readers. It does not erase the black mark Ann Taylor received for placing a wedge between its own practices and the demands of its customers.

No dimming the spotlight

Though no formal explanation has been offered for why the clerk and manager refused Becky entry into the Ann Taylor location, it is unfathomable that the employees truly wanted to wage a war on blind customers.

Only they know their motivations for sure, but a more probable scenario is that the workers were unaware an exception to the "no animals" policy was legally required to be made for guide dogs. Approaching the store’s anti-animal policy as a black and white one, they likely did the only thing they knew they could do—enforce the rule even in an instance that seemed callous.

If that remotely resembles the case, it might speak more positively about the character of the Ann Taylor workers, but it unfortunately does not speak favorably about the store’s appreciation for the "customer age."

Now that all customer interactions are subject to global broadcast, every single interaction at every single touchpoint is a branding initiative. Ann Taylor and its staff are always under the spotlight, and as a result, they cannot risk ever turning a blind eye to the needs of customers.

Under that notion, management should have assured that there was no staff ambiguity about whether blind customers can enter the store with their guide animals. Because a brand can neither flawlessly predict which staff member will interact with which customer nor how that customer will respond and to whom he will convey that response, all customer interactions must be made "ready for primetime." All staff must not only be educated properly but empowered to perform the show the customer wants to experience.

With organizations thrust into the brightest spotlight they have ever encountered, now is not the time to ignore potential gaps in the customer experience or play with matches of the "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" variety. If any element of your organization stands to interface with customers, it must be thoroughly readied to deliver the experience the customers deem most satisfying.