Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Mystery of the Returned Ficus

I came back from lunch a few days ago and there was a woman with a Ficus benjamina all wrapped up at the front counter next to her. And I thought, okay, we sold another Ficus benjamina, good on us.

Then I got back to the potting room, and there was a bagged up benjamina there too. A mystery was afoot! (Or ahand. Or ajar. At least, a mystery was a vailable. Maybe two vailables.)

So I went up to the counter and asked what the story was with this plant, and, after the lady and her tree left, I was told that this customer had called and complained that she bought a Ficus from us some weeks ago, and that when she got it home, it started dropping tons of leaves and generally acted miserable.

Oh, she was told over the phone, they'll do that. Just keep it away from heat vents and give it plenty of light, and it'll come around eventually. Customer's response: oh, no, I have the perfect spot for it; it's the plant, not me, and you sold it to me so it's really all your fault.

Long story short, the customer talked long enough, and hard enough, to a large enough number of people, that eventually she wore us down. We don't do exchanges on houseplants because they're not guaranteed, and they're not guaranteed because there's no way to be sure that people are giving appropriate care to the plants. We encourage people to call and ask questions, and we're even willing to do a physical inspection if someone's willing to go to the trouble of bringing a plant in to us, but we don't do exchanges for non-guaranteed plants.

And this is something I hate about customer service: you can have a perfectly reasonable policy, for perfectly reasonable reasons, and most of the customers will be fine with that and play within those rules. There will also be a handful of customers who are likeable enough, or disadvantaged enough, or regular enough, or whatever, that you don't feel bad about offering to bend the rules for them without them even having to ask. And then there's the handful of customers who comprehend that there are rules, but somehow don't feel like the rules should have to apply to them. And it actually drives me crazy that those customers, more often than not, get whatever completely unreasonable thing they're asking for, and set precedents, and then before you know it, every time Mrs. So-and-so buys her groceries, somebody has to carry them to her car three blocks away because she's Mrs. So-and-so and that's just what you do for Mrs. So-and-so.


So this lady got to walk out with another perfectly healthy Ficus, fresh off the truck, and sticks us with one that isn't going to be sellable for at least a few months, because the perfectly healthy plant we sold her didn't work right in her perfect spot for it, under her perfect care. Grrr.

The best part happened when I took the plastic bags off of it, though, to assess the damage, and it was immediately obvious what had happened. In fact, it was so immediately obvious that it was hysterically funny, I thought (everybody else had a comment, but I was the only one who thought it was funny).

A minor factor in the situation is that she'd added a layer of what I assume is garden soil to the top of the pot. Don't do this. Not ever. Garden soil is too heavy, it won't drain, it'll lead you straight to root rot, plus it could have bug eggs or weed seeds or whatever. Potting soil for containerized plants is different from topsoil for a reason. But that wasn't the main problem. Can you solve the mystery of the returned Ficus just from examining the picture? This very thing was mentioned in passing, in the abovelinked Ficus benjamina profile. . . .

(Photo converted to black and white to heighten mysterious / noir / spooky effect.)

(Answer to be found in comments. No fair looking before you have your own theory, though.)


mr_subjunctive said...

The customer had pretty obviously stuck the plant in adark corner, or next to a dark wall: the plant held on to the leaves on its light side (to the left, in the picture), and on top, because those areas were barely bright enough, but everything else dropped because it was in shadow.

So, the customer clearly didn't have the perfect spot after all, didn't know what to expect from a Ficus that's been moved out of a bright greenhouse into a dark home, didn't know the difference between garden soil and houseplant soil, and is likely to be back on the phone to us in another month telling us that we sold her another bum tree, because she doesn't know what she's doing. Which we will not be able to tell her in terms she will understand, because we will have to tiptoe tactfully around the fact that the whole thing is her mistake and the plant was fine when it left us.

Hence the hating of certain aspects of customer service.

Sarah Sedwick Studio said...

I know exactly how you feel - the vagaries of customer service were some of the most frustrating aspects of some of my most notorious EX jobs.

One of the most frustrating things about this story for me is that your employer really took a bath on this deal. That ficus is probably never going to be salable - for a profit, anyway. And something tells me that this demanding customer is not going to be coming back and spending money each month like some of us do at our local plant retailers (*cough*). This gut reaction of mine is a bit of a mystery in itself - I'm not a business owner, neither are you - why should we care if 'the man' (or 'woman') loses money on a bad decision service-wise? I don't know, but it just seems like a shame to me right now.

Great post, BTW!

waterroots said...

Hmmm...I got frustrated just reading about that woman... I used to deal with those types of customers, years ago, in a hotel I worked at. Any time I think about those customers, I get anxiety-ridden...even after so many years.

I can't imagine that woman will be returning her new Ficus for yet another one. Do people have THAT much nerve? Would she really NOT get that it's her growing habits that are causing the problem?

Anyhow, this was a very interesting article. I can't say that I instantly guessed what had caused the major leaf loss on the Ficus. But your photo at the end is a HUGE clue, even if you do say it's just to create a spooky effect...**nudge, nudge, wink, wink**

mr_subjunctive said...

The original tree, I think, probably will be sellable fairly soon. It's already (less than a week later) budding. There'll still be that big empty space in the middle of the plant, but way worse-looking stuff has sold before, so I'm pretty optimistic about that. Whether or not we lose money on it, well, who knows: there's potentially a lot of payroll time spent watering it and stuff until it gets sellable, but I'm learning that there's no way to predict what's going to go and what isn't.

I also doubt that this customer will be back. As far as I can tell, we were perfectly nice about it, but if this second tree also defoliates on her, she really only has three ways to rationalize it: 1) I just can't grow Ficus trees; I've got a black thumb. 2) I can't believe they gave me another bum tree; what bastards. 3) Maybe I was doing it wrong; let's do some research. I'm pretty sure it's not going to be #3. So. . . .

As for whether she'd bring the second plant back and try again, I'm told that it was made very clear to her that the rules were only going to be bent for her just so far, and the situation was a two-strikes-and-you're-out kind of deal. What's more likely is that she'll call me, or WCW, and we'll have to explain things to her.