A Big-Box Success Story

Williams-Sonoma's above-and-beyond customer service has us hooked

The bigger the company, the more likely we are to be told—in a recorded message—how important our call is and how much our business is appreciated, appreciation shown by the succession of recorded messages that follow and lead nowhere. We have, begrudgingly, come to expect the worst. And that’s why our experiences with Williams-Sonoma have been such an extraordinary surprise and, we thought, worthy of this column.

But we’d better start at the beginning. About ten years ago, we returned from a trip to Italy and one of us had developed a pretty serious cappuccino habit. Like, no-day-should-start-without-one serious. But the daily outlay to the local cappuccino barista was also quite serious, so we started exploring espresso machines. Our research pointed us to the Breville line, and we found what we were looking for at Williams-Sonoma at West Towne. We made the purchase and life was good.

But just about the time we’d recouped our investment the machine started acting up. We took it back to Williams-Sonoma. And they gave us a new one. No questions asked. Later, after four years of daily use, the power died. We tried the local small appliance repair shop but the boss said he couldn’t get parts and wouldn’t take the machine.

So we again called Williams-Sonoma. They asked if we still had the receipt (we did, from the first return), and said while the model we had was not being made anymore, they’d give us credit toward the newer, fancier model that also cost $175 more. But it turns out $175 was all they charged us. After four years of use they still honored our purchase and basically swapped it out for a new machine for just the increased price of the newer model. Again, no questions asked, no hassles. We were blown away. We thought they’d give us a credit of some kind toward a new purchase, but not the entire difference of the first machine. And we left with not just a new espresso maker, but restored faith in a business.

Several years ago, on a local public affairs show one of us hosts each week, Orange Tree Imports owner Orange Schroeder was promoting Dane Buy Local, and she was asked how one should respond if, for example, a big-box outfit offered better value or better service, and to her credit Schroeder never hesitated. Dane Buy Local asks consumers to always consider the local retailer and the fact that purchases at a local business keep dollars at work in our community. It’s a policy we wholeheartedly subscribe to. But, she said, if you can get a better deal and service at a chain outlet, of course it’s just smart business to shop there.

These days we’re looking for integrity and a commitment to the customer that seems in danger of extinction. To the extent it can be found in our community-based businesses, we’re all in favor of buying local. But even some of our locally owned businesses can learn something about customer service, and we would recommend they consider how Williams-Sonoma treated us as an example of building trust and appreciation for a business that’s willing to go beyond what’s expected. How refreshing is that?

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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