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Customer Service: Take the Long Term View

About a month ago, I discovered a problem—my favourite regular-use bag for the last two years, a TOM BIHN Brain Bag, had a hole in its left front pocket due to a seam coming loose. I probably could have lived with it but I was concerned that the pocket’s contents might fall out if the hole got any larger. The TOM BIHN website states that repairs can be done for a fee. So I e-mailed the manufacturer to ask for a quote. After a few days, Eliam, their Customer Service Representative, replied and told me that I could either send the bag back to Seattle, WA and they’d fix it at no charge or I could get a local company to do the repairs. I chose the first option. I was responsible for shipping the bag to the US (almost $50!) but they’d pay for the shipping back to Malaysia.

After nearly three weeks of using freebie bags picked up at various conferences, I finally received the long-awaited parcel from Seattle a couple of days ago.

Outcome: The crew at TOM BIHN didn’t just fix the loose seam which was the original issue; they did a whole lot more—the zipper of the front left pocket was changed (to a brand new one), the shoulder harness was changed (brand new), all straps and plastic hardware were changed (brand new), and a suspect seam was reinforced. It also appears that the bag was cleaned and re-treated with water-resistant coating. No doubt, this bag underwent a thorough quality check, and, as I put it in my e-mail to Eliam yesterday, it’s now “new” but still my “old bag”—the best of both worlds for me. All in all, I was/am one happy TOM BIHN customer!

I apologise if this sounds like an informercial—the punchline is coming soon.

In my delight, I started analyzing my customer experience. I was reminded of the following well-known mantras in customer service:

1. Don’t Just Meet Customer Expectations. Exceed Them.
Sure, this company exceeded my (previously already high) expectations, going beyond the minimum. Although cliché, consistently delivering beyond customers’ expectations is something often talked about but rarely accomplished. But TOM BIHN does this with high regularity—I should know; I own a few other TB products besides the Brain Bag.

2. A Happy Customer Tells 3 Friends. An Unhappy One Tells 10.
Business is about relationships. And if you want to grow your business, you’d want to keep your customers happy, and particularly, keep them from being unhappy. This way, (free) word-of-mouth marketing will grow your business like wild fire.

3. Be Passionate About Your Work.
I have followed TOM BIHN for more than a decade and exchanged e-mails with the staff (including Tom Bihn, the boss, himself) on several occasions. If anything is clear, it’s the fact that these people are passionate about making great travel products and they do it well. They certainly understand why they’re doing what they do.

Take the Long Term View

When I was first reflecting on my recent experience with the backpack, my impression was that this relatively small bag manufacturer in the USA could not be compared with hospitals and healthcare organizations. But I’ve reconsidered this point.

Think about this: here’s a manufacturing company that makes and sells bags. They deal primarily with physical goods. Even if their customer service standards were no where near what they are, people will still buy their products (at least in the short-term).

On the other hand, healthcare is a service industry. We ought to excel in customer service!

What proportion of hospital administrators, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals treat patients and their families with the level of respect and caring that they deserve? How consistently do they do this, on an individual basis and between different staff members?

When a medical error occurs, how quickly does the healthcare team tell the patient and/or family that they’ll fix the problem right away and at no charge to the patient? (vs apportioning blame). My experience is that the majority of hospital staff become highly defensive when things go wrong and portray a duty to protect the organization only instead of managing the situation in a fair and balanced way.

Unfortunately, the focus on short-term gains and a presumption that patients have little or no choice in healthcare provider often leads to very average results in terms of customer satisfaction, even if all therapeutic goals were met. Being disrespectful to patients and their families (or anyone else for that matter) is not OK—they will eventually seek care somewhere else.

On the other hand, healthcare managers and clinicians who take the long term view toward customer relationships and who embrace the customer service principles mentioned above will not only win patient loyalty but also create customer evangelists who will fuel their mission.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Karen August 28, 2013, 10:44 pm

    Hi Dr Teh,

    Interesting article. On first glance I assumed you were a travel enthusiast, and I like how you tied the customer service element back to your industry!

    I am a Malaysian thinking of purchasing a Tom Bihn bag. After stumbling across your article, I think I will definitely go ahead with the purchase. Do you know where I could go to purchase a Tom Bihn in Malaysia? Or is the easiest way to buy from their website?

    Many thanks,

    • Andy Teh August 29, 2013, 12:02 am

      @Karen—I like Tom Bihn products (a lot!). They don’t have a store in Malaysia, so your only choice is their website. It’s flat rate shipping to Malaysia but there is a chance you’ll be taxed at customs. I am indeed a travel enthusiast, partly because my work requires me to travel regularly, sometimes for long periods. As a matter of fact, I arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka this afternoon—we are providing consulting assistance to one of the large hospitals here. My trusty Brain bag followed me on this trip. Be sure to check out their accessories. I have about seven different pouches and a few key straps—I’ve found them extremely useful. The travel stuff sack, Guardian DF Light, and whistles less so as EDC.

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