An empty seat at the table

It’s taken me a long time to write this post. Every time I sat down to write, all of the anxiety felt during the few days leading to Thanksgiving returned. It wasn’t a feeling I was eager to relive. At the same time, it’s a story that I craved to tell because in it are important lessons every business leader must learn.

For months we had known that Thanksgiving would not be normal. The pandemic had made indoor gatherings unsafe. My elderly in-laws would not be able to leave their nursing home. My sister and her family couldn’t travel back to MA from Florida. My 19 year old would return from campus, but have to be in isolation until we could get their COVID test results back – and getting an appointment was becoming harder than getting disinfecting wipes. Then right before Halloween my mother and father, the only guests we had hoped to host, let me know that the “outdoor for airflow” meal I had planned didn’t feel right. That’s when I made the call to my 21-year old who lives almost 400 miles away in another state. As much as we both wanted to be together on this holiday, it simply didn’t make sense to juggle state travel restrictions, for just two days together when our usual family gathering couldn’t happen. I hung up the phone teary-eyed but resolved to make the best family Zoom Thanksgiving possible.

Being the planner I am, I went straight to work figuring out how to make this highly unusual holiday feel festive and unified. A few years before my nephew wasn’t able to join us for the holiday. He had been living in CA at the time and I ordered him a Thanksgiving Feast from a famous gift basket company to enjoy with his roommates.  He reported the food was really good and everything had arrived well packaged and on time. I thought – this is my salvation. I could set aside the sadness knowing my 21-year-old would get an amazing meal to enjoy with their roommates.  On the last day of October, almost a month in advance of Thanksgiving, I placed an order. I got a confirmation email and I was feeling confident. I was still going to miss them, but the crushing weight of sadness I had been feeling was lifted.  Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday. What’s not to love about a holiday that is all about eating with the people we love. I could salvage this one.

I’m a little neurotic about the holidays so when I placed the order I made sure to have the meal arrive on Tuesday before the Thursday holiday. Just in case there was a slight delay in shipping we had a buffer to address it. A few days before the holiday I logged into my account and everything looked good in the system. My order was there correctly and it still shows the guaranteed delivery date I had set.  On Monday before Thanksgiving, I realize I haven’t gotten a shipping notification. At this point, I’m not too worried because I had set a buffer for shipping, but I decide to chat with the fulfillment company. To my absolute shock, they tell me that they aren’t going to fill my order because they don’t have enough Turkey. They offer a refund. I can’t believe it. Not only were they not honoring an order they took a month ago because they oversold, they hadn’t even planned to tell me. Completely unsatisfied I did what every consumer does today, I sent a Tweet to the company.  I was heartbroken.

That tweet led to an exchange with a different part of their customer service who offered me a pretty acceptable alternative. They didn’t have any turkey but they had everything else. They could send a roast beef meal with all the sides. I jumped on it with a sigh of relief. The kids would eat after all and we could laugh about the turkey later. I wondered why they hadn’t proactively called me to offer this when they saw supply was low in the first place, but I welcomed the slowing of my heart. I text my 21-year-old and let them know of the switch.  The customer service person promised the shipment would go out that day.

The next day I logged into the customer portal to get a tracking code and check on delivery. It hadn’t shipped. Crushing anxiety swept over me again. It’s now Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I went back to my direct messages with the customer service agent and they put in writing they “guaranteed” the shipment would arrive on time. Eight hours later it still hadn’t shipped. I confirmed again and was promised again. I reconnected with customer support who then told me it had shipped but wouldn’t arrive until Friday – AFTER the holiday had passed. They were now sending it for free – but free didn’t fix my problem. It didn’t make me feel any better at all.

I’m completely distraught as I text my child to tell them they aren’t getting Thanksgiving after all. My kid said all the right things but to try and make me feel better but all I felt was helpless.  You do not want your brand to make customers feel helpless!

While all of this was going on I continued to get emails from the company trying to sell me more things.  At this point, I am livid with the brand and I mentally commit myself never to buy from them again.

It didn’t have to be this way.

No one, including this company, could have predicted we would be in the middle of a pandemic and the call for delivered meals with small turkeys would spike so dramatically. BUT, the company absolutely could have limited how many orders they accepted to avoid a shortage. By mid-October, before I placed my order, the news was already reporting an expected turkey shortage.

OK, so they didn’t heed the warnings and now they had too many orders to fill. It’s hard to say no to incoming orders. A week or two before the holiday they could have proactively contacted customers and offered them an alternative meal (with time to still ship) or a refund giving people time to react. Instead, they were just going to let customers begin their Thanksgiving day without food and without warning.

They did a terrible job preparing their customer service agents for the situation. Everyone I contacted was nice, and they were empathetic, but they made promises they couldn’t keep. It made the situation worse. Nice is not enough. Your team has to set expectations even when those expectations aren’t what the customer wants to hear.

I am not the only one whose order was disrupted. Their Twitter feed shows it had a big impact on lots of customers. This was a known problem.  Marketing should have been paused for those who were impacted. When you can’t fulfill an order you have already accepted, don’t try to sell the customer more things.

A refund was a very unsatisfying resolution. Yes, I would expect the company to refund my money, but it didn’t resolve my dispute.  Two months have passed since the encounter and the company continues to send me advertisements and promotions. I don’t want a coupon, I want an apology. I want to know what they are changing to make sure this won’t happen again. I want a senior person in the organization to send me a note or call me showing me they understand the distress they caused. I want to know they really care about me, not just my money.  I want them to rebuild my trust.

I share this with you not to bash the company, but because every business can find themselves in uncomfortable situations having to disappoint a customer.  It’s what we do in those moments of stress that can create brand affection, or push customers away for good.



p.s. No one went hungry. Because I’m me, I spent the day before Thanksgiving calling a dozen restaurants near my 21-year old’s apartment who were all sold out of their holiday meals. I found one that took pity on me and arranged a pick-up time for the next morning. The food was great and the holiday was saved!