‘Santa of Sears’ and other lessons from the demise of an iconic company

It was probably around this time of year when the Macaulay kids would patiently wait for the magic of the Sears Wish Book to find its way to Bute Arran. The Sears Wish Book was a special treat — we got to peruse and dog-ear the pages of fantastic toys we’d like to see under the tree: ‘baby twins’ and bunk beds, Barbies, Ninja Turtles and on any given year (1990-present) there’s been inquiry to our folks surrounding the chances of a ‘Power Wheels Jeep’ showing up under the tree. (Note: we never did get one of those, despite dog-earing the heck out of the Wish Book y/y!)

With the discontinuation of the Wish Book, I’m sad that my kids won’t have that tradition; bookmarking a website just isn’t the same.

When I was a kid, much of the shopping was done via Sears. It was an interesting experience of finding something in the catalogue, calling it in and then eagerly awaiting a message from the Blue Heron Gift Shop to let us know the parcel had arrived in Cape Breton. Despite the fact that the clothes never did look as good on me as they did on the models, we kept coming back — it was easy, Sears made it so.

Like many Canadians, I was heart-sick to hear that Sears would be closing its doors (even though it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise as we’ve found ourselves shopping elsewhere in recent years.) Reading headlines such as: “Who killed Sears Canada?” reminded me of one of the last experiences we had with Sears several years ago.

As a ‘new mom’ back in 2012, I was planning Christmas months in advance. I wanted to make sure our sons Christmas was just as magical as ones we had had as kids. Nostalgic for the days of wooden toys and Tonka trucks made of metal, I searched the Sears website and landed on “Melissa and Doug” — a company dedicated to “take back childhood.” Their toys were spot-on for our young son, so without hesitation and because I’d done this many times before, I ordered with plenty of time to arrive by Christmas.

I’m foggy on certain details, but by mid-November we got a heads up that some of the toys wouldn’t actually arrive on time. Our hopes were quickly dashed in early December when one toy arrived, but broken.

In the age of digital, the first thing I did was touch base via Twitter with the Sears Social Media team. Back then, providing customer care via social media was still in its infancy- but they were terrific. Once I had a number, I phoned for help where our experience dealing with regular CSRs was abysmal at best.

Somewhere along the line I was introduced to Meredith, from the Executive Office at Sears. God love Meredith. I’m sure by the time she got to talk to me I was a real treat to deal with. She let me vent, made me feel heard and then she earnestly offered to help. Meredith understood our frustration and disappointment but she also assured us that she’d do everything to make Christmas a memorable one. {As I reflect now, I realize that having gifts for Christmas wasn’t a big deal — it would’ve been amazing without them. But at that moment in time, to parents who had scrimped and saved to buy special gifts — it was disappointing.}

To give some depth to how archaic the operations were at Sears, there was no way to cancel the order — the computer systems at Sears simply wouldn’t allow for it. So with numerous roadblocks (a sign of a broken system within the organization) — Meredith jumped in when the others couldn’t (or wouldn’t) to find a solution. She maintained constant communication and worked directly with Melissa & Doug to arrange a few substitute gifts which would be delivered before Christmas — that’s when she became known as the “Santa of Sears” in our home.

Just a week before Christmas, there were still other gifts that remained on backorder. However, no one in regular customer service knew what was going on — there was nothing in the system. I shot the entire executive team an email to thank Meredith for the work she had done to help us. I thought it was important to let her leadership team know that her extensive efforts were appreciated by our family. But I also wanted to let them know that their system was really broken and how unfair that was to their front-line staff. One Executive VP replied with: “I apologize for your experience and will have this looked into right away.” (Right sincere, eh?)

What set Meredith apart from others is her passion and accountability. In a position that I can only imagine is stressful, perhaps thankless and even frustrating, given the systems she had to work within, she was an excellent ambassador for the company. A good listener, compassionate, empathetic, proactive, patient, kind, thoughtful and deeply invested in helping others — can you think of better qualities to represent your business or brand?

Recently I heard from Meredith, just shortly after the news broke about Sears. Her message began with, “ Hi Kat, Not sure if you remember me from years ago. We met via Sears Canada, and making sure some Christmas gifts arrived for your beautiful son…” As soon as I saw the message, I thought “How in the world could we forget ‘Santa of Sears’?”

Not one Christmas has gone by that we’ve not thought about her. In fact, every time I drive by Sears on my way to the Trico Centre, I think of her — this is the impact of an invaluable employee & brand ambassador. But as more is uncovered about Sears in the last few days, I realized that she’s probably had many similar encounters over the years, helping others just as she had us.

Has a Customer Service professional ever left that kind of lasting impression on you?

Good Customer Service should never be underestimated. Beyond the fact that our companies would not exist without our customers, did you know that responding to a customer complaint can increase advocacy by 25%? Or that by not responding, you could decrease your customer advocacy by nearly 50%? [Hug Your Haters]

But in the case of Sears, it didn’t matter how talented their frontline employees were. It didn’t matter that they were responsive and handled things as quickly or as professionally as they could, it didn’t matter how much ‘hugging of the haters’ their frontline staff did, it was not enough. It was simple fact that Sears let their operations deteriorate far too long before attempting to turn things around From 2011 to present, there were major leadership changes almost annually (some occurring within the same year!) But here’s how bad it really was; people invested their time setting up Facebook pages, websites, blogs & submitting their stories to media to let Sears know just how unhappy they were. (Check out this video!)

It’s not easy task to be a brand ambassador and provide top notch customer service when you know the company you’re meant to cheerlead isn’t following through on their brand promise. But, Meredith did. In one email correspondence she noted that helping people is what made her job wonderful.

Like others affected by the closure of Sears, Meredith is currently searching for the right position, within the right company. If you think you might be the right fit for Meredith, make sure to get in touch. You won’t be disappointed!

p.s.: Which Sears Wish Book cover was your favourite?

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