Driving to SIBA in the Springtime, I was just coming up on the outskirts of Augusta, Georgia, when the battery warning light came on in the car. Being one of those people who stresses out at nearly any indicator light, I pulled into the first mechanic I could find that was open on a Sunday afternoon. The mechanic determined that the alternator needed to be replaced. But, not having the part on hand, he sent me to the closest auto parts store to pick one up and said he'd be able to put it in if I got back before he closed.
I made it, barely:
AUTOPARTS CHAIN STORE #1:
Me: I broke down on the highway. I need to get to Atlanta tonight. I need an alternator for my 2001 Dodge Caravan. 4.2 liters, 2 wheel drive
VERY ENTHUSIASTIC YOUNG SALES CLERK: Let me check! Are you an AUTOPARTS CHAIN STORE VERY SPECIAL CUSTOMER?
VERY ENTHUSIASTIC CLERK: What's your phone number
Me: (gives number)
VERY ENTHUSIASTIC CLERK: I'll make you a member. (pause for much data entry) Oh. We don't have that part in stock. Let me check our warehouse...ok, I can have it for you tomorrow.
Me: No, I'm on the road now. I need it today. Do you have it in another location close by?
VERY ENTHUSIASTIC CLERK: Let me check. (pause for much clicking of search buttons). Yes! This part is available in our location across town! I can have it delivered for you tomorrow.
Me: No, I need it now. Can they hold it for me and I'll go pick it up there?
VERY ENTHUSIASTIC CLERK: OH SURE! I'll mark it as "hold" for you! What's your phone number?
ME: (gives number) Can you call them and make absolutely sure it is there on the shelf?
VERY ENTHUSIASTIC CLERK: YES! Let me do that. (ten minute phone call to other location). Yes, it is there on the shelf. I am having them hold it for you and marking it as on hold in our system. (clicks more buttons) Did you want to go ahead and pay for it now so you can just pick it up from them?
ME: Sure. I can do that. (fishes out American Express card)
VERY ENTHUSIASTIC CLERK: (hands me very long receipt 20% of which is transaction and 80% of which is a limited warranty and liability disclaimer) Here you go. THANK YOU for becoming an AUTOPARTS CHAIN STORE VERY SPECIAL CUSTOMER! Have a great day!
AUTOPARTS CHAIN STORE #2:
Me: Hi. The VERY ENTHUSIASTIC CLERK at AUTOPARTS CHAIN STORE #1 called a few minutes ago and had you hold an alternator for me.
GRUMPY CLERK WHO WANTS TO GO HOME: Do you have an AUTOPARTS CHAIN STORE VERY SPECIAL CUSTOMER account?
Me: I guess I do.
GRUMPY CLERK WHO WANTS TO GO HOME: What is your phone number?
Me: (gives number) And here is my receipt for the alternator.
GRUMPY CLERK WHO WANTS TO GO HOME: What? (stares at receipt) They aren't supposed to do that. It messes up the inventory.
Me: the VERY ENTHUSIAST CLERK didn't say anything about that. My car broke down on the highway and I need to get to Atlanta tonight. The mechanic closes in two hours, so I need to get this to him so he can install it.
GRUMPY CLERK WHO WANTS TO GO HOME: (staring at his computer) I'm not sure what to do. This is supposed to go on the truck to deliver to you tomorrow.
Me: I need it today. They said I could pick it up. Here's my receipt (waves receipt at GRUMPY CLERK WHO WANTS TO GO HOME)
GRUMPY CLERK WHO WANTS TO GO HOME: Let me get the manager.
(GRUMPY CLERK WHO WANTS TO GO HOME, manager, and two other store clerks huddle behind the counter for five minutes. GRUMPY CLERK WHO WANTS TO GO HOME returns and calls central office. But, as it is a Sunday afternoon, no one is available to help him)
GRUMPY CLERK WHO WANTS TO GO HOME: No one told me we were doing this. I have make sure our inventory is correct.
Me: But the alternator is here? They called and someone checked and said it was.
GRUMPY CLERK WHO WANTS TO GO HOME: Yes. But I can't give it out without you signing for it, or our inventory will be off.
Me: I'll sign for it.
GRUMPY CLERK WHO WANTS TO GO HOME: (calls manager over). I don't know how to do this so our stock levels aren't wrong.
MANAGER: (to grumpy clerk) Check the current inventory. (to me) I'm sorry. It will be a few more minutes. If we don't have you sign for this, then you could keep coming back with the same receipt to claim more alternators.
Me: I don't live here. I just need to get my car fixed so I can get back on the road. (briefly contemplates the viability of a career in alternator fraud but gives it up as a bad idea).
MANAGER: Let me go find the alternator.
GRUMPY CLERK WHO WANTS TO GO HOME: I need to take a picture of your receipt.
Me: Sure. (I hand him the receipt)
MANAGER: (returning with the alternator and setting it down on the counter) I really shouldn't be giving this to you, but I'm going to. VERY ENTHUSIAST CLERK at AUTOPARTS CHAIN STORE #1 did this completely wrong. It isn't our fault. Our hands are tied here.
Me: But you have a picture of my receipt. I need this alternator. I now have an hour and a half to get it installed so I can get back on the road.
GRUMPY CLERK WHO WANTS TO GO HOME: (to MANAGER) So is this policy now? No one ever told me about it.
MANAGER: Let me just print something out for you to sign. (clicks buttons for a few minutes). Here you go.
Me: (signs without reading). Okay, can I have my alternator now?
MANAGER: Yes, here you go.
Me: (clutches box. it's heavy). Do you need anything else from me? (I am ready to submit a DNA sample if it will mean I can take my alternator)
GRUMPY CLERK WHO WANTS TO GO HOME: No, you can go. THANK YOU for being an AUTOPARTS CHAIN STORE VERY SPECIAL CUSTOMER! Have a great day!
Me: Thank you. (hustles out of the store before they can change their mind.
This story has a happy ending, in that I did get back on the road and managed to reach Atlanta before midnight. Halfway through trying to convince the auto parts store to let me have the alternator I had paid for, I found myself wishing I had the guts to video the whole thing on my phone, it seemed so absurd. It also seemed like a cautionary tale on all the things NOT to do when attempting to provide good customer service, which is why I couldn't resist posting the account of it.
What did they do wrong? What would you have done differently?
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