You've probably heard the term "last mile" in the context of wired phone service. It's that last mile of wire that connects to a customer's home and makes phone calls possible after all the complex infrastructure has done its job.
The last mile exists in the realm of retail customer experience as well; it's the final part of the purchase/product usage experience. It might include delivery, product registration, installation, support, or warranty repair, and sometimes it's handled by a third party vendor, like a delivery company, installer, or support/warranty provider. The precarious part is that, to many customers, there's no distinction between merchant and supporting vendor. For them, there's just one end-to-end shopping experience. So what happens when the last mile breaks down?
Recently, this concept was severely tested when Amazon, the wunderkind of everything e-tail, didn't get last minute shipments to customers in time for Christmas. As the story goes, it really wasn't Amazon that faltered. It was reported that a large end-of-season sales upturn coupled with bad weather conditions in a number of regions overwhelmed the e-commerce giant's delivery services, UPS and FedEx. Rather than shy away from its disappointed consumers or point the finger of blame while disavowing itself, the company did the right thing and took ownership. They quickly acknowledged the problem, offered affected customers a $20 gift card, and waived shipping charges. Walmart, Kohl's and 1-800-flowers.com took similar steps.
While we don't know what manner of finger pointing went on in private between these colossal companies regarding the issue, none of that's relevant. What matters is simple: Amazon recognized that a hitch occurred in the last mile for a number of their valued customers and sent a clear message that they are responsible for their customer's happiness. Period.
It's a cue that's lost on many retailers — physical or digital, large or small — who choose to find an easy exit and offload similar problems on vendors and customers. Ostensibly, they don't realize that the covenant between seller and buyer is sacred, regardless of who participates in the purchase cycle.
Most significantly, many don't see breakdowns as an opportunity to demonstrate brand value to shoppers by turning lemons into lemonade and disgruntlement into respect, even after they've gone most of the distance, right up to the last mile.
How much of the blame do retailers get for customer experience shortfalls caused by third party vendors around delivery, support, repair and other post-purchase functions?