This zipper could have been the value-add of a middleman

IMG_5260The picture is a zipper from a pretty recent Samsonite suitcase. The suitcase did not 100% survive one of my business trips. Too bad. Must have happened when they were checking the contents of the suitcase, because the handler or customs agent was kind enough to put the zipper inside the suitcase before closing it. So now I have a zipper and a suitcase with only one zipper. I can still use the suitcase, but why not repair it asap – just in case the other zipper fails one day, and the suitcase becomes obsolete.

Well, do not try this at home, I would say. It is pretty hard to get it done – let alone you would have it done for free according to the fantastic 10 years warranty that went along with the suitcase.

Want to know what happened?

The sad story of bad middleman support

I thought I’d first call the shop where I bought that suitcase. This clever initiative at least saved me driving to the city centre, trying to park the car somewhere near the shop, and walking and driving back afterwards. The shop where I bought the suitcase is a small shop in the centre of a small town in Flanders. The lady who runs the shop knows many of her clients. Definitely she knows the frequent traveling single business men, who might regularly need a suitcase, some laptop cases, a wallet now and then, and who can still appreciate the smile of a beautiful sales woman. You know what I mean. When I pass by her shop to the hairdressers, she salutes from a distance. So yes, she immediately knew it was me who called her on the phone. She even knew what suitcases I had bought. She even knew which of the suitcases I referred to, when I told her it was the whine-red one. I was happy at first, because I was recognised, there was no discussion about who bought what when and where, and she mentioned there was a ten year warranty on these suitcases.

Yes! I love the old-school middlemen that know how to serve a customer. But my smile was gone quickly. She also told me I had to bring the original Samsonite warranty card. Moreover, it had to be the right one. The one that goes along with that single suitcase. No invoice, ticket, or whatever.

“It has to be the warranty card that I gave you when you bought that specific suitcase. There is a secret reference number in every suitcase, so Samsonite knows for sure that the warranty document refers to the suitcase that needs the repairs”.

“How to know whether the warranty card refers to the right suitcase?”

“Impossible to know, since it is on a secret place in the suitcase – in order for customers not to cheat.”

“But you know I bought it at your place. You have my invoice in your accounting system, and you know I am not cheating. Even stronger, the suitcase can not be older than 10 years, because it is a recent model. I just want the zipper to be repaired.”

“Samsonite will not do anything unless the card with the right number is shown to them”.

“But you know I bought many suitcases at your place. Even if I bring a set of cards, how do I know whether the right warranty card is even there?”

“You don’t. You have to wait until the suitcase returns from the factory – repaired for free or not repaired and then you pay for the transport”.

OK. Well actually, not OK. Not OK at all. So here I was. I had to try and find all of the original warranty cards somewhere, guess what could have been the right one (or just bring them all, and hope they would return the suitcase and ALL of the warranty cards one day), drive to the centre of the town, park, walk with a broken suitcase to the shop, sign some documents, walk back, drive back, wait some time – unknown how long – and than pray that, when the phone will be ringing within some weeks time, they will confirm the repair, and tell me to come and get it.  Then drive back, park, walk, get the case, walk back with the case, drive back home, and done. That’s a whole lot of if’s and todo’s for one broken zipper, isn’t it.

So I decided not to do that.

I also decided never to buy a Samsonite again – and I decided never to buy anything from that shop again. Do you know this saying “a good reputation comes by foot, and leaves you on a horseback”? They have been spending tons of money at Samsonite on publicity, since I was a little kid. They told me their suitcases never break. They even had elephants standing on a suitcase featuring on television in the eighties. Tons of money were spent to try and make me become a loyal customer from the day onwards I had enough money to afford this quality of suitcases. And now all that is gone because of poor service to help me repair a broken zipper.

Is there any value-add with the middlemen ?

Now tell me, what’s the use of a shop, when the shop isn’t even capable of handling this basic issue? If the only advantage of a shop is the salute of a smiling lady – which I will no longer return after this Kafka situation – that is a very expensive salute, isn’t it? I admit there was a small advantage, since I was able to see and touch the suitcase before buying it. Also, I bought it on the same day my plane was leaving, and I could take it home with me immediately. The question is, how valuable is that? Buying via an online platform might have been more easy, since I might have ordered the suitcase some evenings before, when I discovered my old case was in an embarrassingly bad state. In this case, I had to wait until the day I left, in order to get some free time and enter the shop during opening hours. With the online platform, they might have brought the case to my house even some days earlier – which could have given me some more time to pack. And, with some extra luck, they might even gotten it back, if I would have been dissatisfied.

So why I put this story on the Quarturn news roll?

Because it is about adding value to customers. It also poses the actual question on what role middlemen can play in making customers happy. The rise of big companies and even more now, the rise of digital platforms with a global reach, has increased the distance between the customers and the manufacturer (or platform). The advantage of manufacturing and platform scale clearly has a customer-facing downside. Middlemen could be key in bridging that downside. If they are set up in the right way to make customers happy, and have their attitude geared towards making the customer happy, they could create great value for customers, and for manufacturers.

Just imagine the shop would have created a little spreadsheet or a small database that kept a picture of all of the warranty cards, connected with the customer and their suitcases. They could have won my smile in no time. I would keep on going back for ever, and I would tell all my friends to go there. The shop owner knows I am not keeping any admin on shopping, since I told her some years ago a loyalty card is of no use to me, since I always lose them. But I remember, she is only at the service-level of offering a free coffee and chat to by-passers, the last time I passed by (and turned down the free coffee because I had no time). I did ask her then, why she did offer free coffee, and I now remember she told me that there had to be some extra value of going to a shop, now that everyone is buying on the unfair competitor, the internet.

They could have kept a small stock of second-hand suitcases to bridge the waiting time for the repairs. They could have gotten in touch with a small handicraft atelier for small repairs on leather and cases. They could have offered me to collect the suitcase and bring it back to me – I would even want to pay for that. No problem. Time-savers are worth some money. But no, there was no other way, than to drive over during shop opening hours, with the right card, or … bad luck. No repair. Not even when I would like to pay for it.

The Samsonite way, or the highway? Too bad.

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