The apparel company I’m a part of, Cactus Outdoor, is all about under-promising and over-delivering. And when you’re a company that claims to make the toughest trousers in the world, over-delivering is no small feat. But, while we’d never advertise as such, the multiple emails we’ve had from people who have survived high-speed motorcycle crashes and venomous snake bites (seriously!) while wearing our pants gives us the confidence that, even though our claims are lofty, we deliver beyond that.

So it’s fair to say that I have a penchant for products and services that reliably deliver what they promise and, at the very least, give total transparency when things go wrong. I’ll admit that I’m a difficult customer, but some of my favourite products (thinking of my buddies at Fixx and Fog nut butter, The NZ Sock company and Timely software, among many others) have gone above and beyond to meet even my high expectations.

At Cactus, we have what is commonly referred to as an omnichannel approach to sales. We have two physical stores in Wellington and in Christchurch, sell via our own website and also do a bit of stuff through other digital channels. That’s a bunch of complexity and requires software that allows us to manage multiple warehouses, multiple stores and multiple channels.

For this need, we work with Retail Express, an Australian software vendor. We’ve used them for a few years now, but it is only in the past year or so that I’ve had much to do with them.

My first exposure to them was when we had a bit of a support issue around the lack of flexibility in their software. As is my usual modus operandi, I went on Twitter and posted a critical, but constructively critical, message about the software. Rather than engaging in dialogue around the issues, or reaching out to make contact privately, Retail Express decided to block me. Achieving the seeming self-goal of making me unable to read status updates about their software but also necessitating the need for me to chose other channels to complain about service issues.

Fast forward to this week and Cactus was within hours of its bi-annual sale. This is a big deal for us, while I personally despair of the modern trend towards regular sale events, the truth is that consumers have gotten used to this model and now many wait to make purchasing decisions until brands are on sale.

Anyway, I digress. The morning of the start of our sale period came and suddenly there were cries of despair around the office: “Retail Express is down!” It seems that the administration backend of the product, the place where products are created, prices are set and warehouse distribution occurs, was unavailable.

“Don’t panic,” I thought, “just go to their online status page and see whether this is a known problem and what an expected resolution time might be.” Good plan, however, unlike nearly every modern software vendor, Retail Express have no status page, don’t publish status updates anywhere that I could find them and seems to have a corporate policy of metaphorically hiding under their desks when something goes wrong. It seems that blocking criticism on Twitter was, rather than an isolated incident, an example of their corporate DNA.

I’m mindful of the contrast between Retail Express and Timely. While they operate in different areas (Timely is software that service businesses such as massage therapists and hairdressers use to take bookings), they are both software companies and hence you’d have thought they have similar approaches to businesses.

Not so, it seems. Timely’s founder and CEO, Ryan Baker has a policy of radical transparency. He is open and honest about his business and his software and this attitude also shines in the way Timely interacts with the outside world. Timely would and does always front-foot issues when they arise.

The modern world is a place where poor service is immensely visible and degrades a brand rapidly. In the past, an unhappy customer might have told 10 of her friends. Today, however, an unhappy customer tweets their disquietude to millions of prospective customers. No business can afford to screw up customer service these days.

Something tells me that Retail Express doesn’t quite understand that, yet.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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