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How not to do customer service

I first wore Birkenstock sandals after my botched bunion surgery in 2014. I didn’t know it at the time, but the surgeon nicked a nerve that now inflames under normal walking pressure. It’s mildly painful, wildly uncomfortable, and permanent. The only fix is to deaden the nerve, which would make that part of my foot permanently numb. My other option, the one I’ve taken, is good shoes and an orthotic that redistributes pressure away from that spot.

Birkenstock’s famous footbed takes the pressure off so I can walk comfortably, no orthotic needed. As soon as the weather warms up enough each spring, I ditch my shoes and wear my Birks nearly exclusively, until the cold returns in the autumn. I alternate between two pairs, one with black leather and one with brown. A classic Birk is open at the heel, but I buy the style with a back strap so I’m extra sure they’ll stay on.

I have historically bought my Birks directly from Birkenstock, via their online store. I won’t be doing that anymore. Twice now I’ve received sandals with issues, and have run into brick walls getting the company to accept a return.

Their return policy is clear: they accept returns only of goods in “original purchase condition.” Trouble is, it can take several days of wearing new Birks, as they break in and conform to your foot, before you discover whether they are are comfortable or not. By then, the sandals are no longer in “original purchase condition” — your foot has imprinted upon and discolored the footbed, and the sole has curved a little bit.

Both times I’ve wanted to return a pair of Birks, after several days of wearing them some of the lumps and bumps in the footbed found themselves in the wrong places under my feet, and caused considerable discomfort. As you can imagine, when a shoe has a lumpy footbed, the lumps have to be in exactly the right places or walking is painful.

The first time this happened, I argued with Birkenstock customer service until they relented. The second time this happened, which was this year, they would not back down. I argued that this was surely a manufacturing defect. They replied that I was welcome to email them photographs to show the defect. But even if they agreed that there was a defect, the sandals would still need to be in “original purchase condition” for them to refund my money. I would have to ship the sandals back at my cost, and await their judgement.

I replied that I would henceforth buy from other sellers who had less restrictive return policies. I then ordered a pair of Birks from DSW’s online store. Zappos or Amazon would have worked just as well, but they were out of my size. All three companies have return policies that let me return the sandals if they’re not right, even if they no longer look perfectly new. You know — how it should be. Fortunately, it wasn’t necessary, as the new Birks were comfortable.

The official Birkenstock store’s return policy just doesn’t make sense.

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25 thoughts on “How not to do customer service

  1. Hmm, aren’t Birkenstocks German? I have read that German companies are notorious for customer service that is, let’s say, unenviable.

    It reminds me of the old joke that describes the difference between Heaven and Hell. Heaven is German efficiency, French cooking and English service. Hell is French efficiency, English cooking and German service.

    • The Germans do have expectations that when you buy something, you’ve checked it carefully first and know what you’re getting. But I was dealing with Birkenstock US, and they should know better.

      • Shirley B. says:

        Jim, I’m so sorry they treated you like this. Sadly, like JP wrote: German customer service can be awful. Also, you may have bought them at Birkenstock US, there is no way of knowing how controlling German HQ are (although after this, I think we have a pretty good guess). I know firsthand that German companies can be very strict in dictating what you (their customer) should and shouldn’t do with their product.

        My husband and I love to go to Germany on vacation, because their hospitality is great. In general their products are as well. But they do have a very strict way of adhering to rules, “because it’s the rule”.

      • Germans aren’t exactly known for their customer service. I once interviewed the owner of a German coffee shop. He told me that if someone isn’t happy with the product they are simply shown to the door. He isn’t interested in altering their way of doing things or finding a solution that might make the customer happy. The German is always right, he said. Lol. I didn’t put that in the story…..

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    Speaking as a guy who has spent half his life in retail advertising, let me say that the “virtually zero return” policy of shoes is a pretty common thing. And yep, really confusing because if you wear it enough to find out it hurts or doesn’t fit correctly, then it has enough wear to not be returnable. Silly!

    I will say that most department stores will let you return any shoe with a visual or construction defect; but sorry to say, these policies are predicated on the problem of women (and it’s always women) who buy, wear and return clothing and accessory items all the time! Huge amounts of product are damaged by people who purposefully do this: buy, wear for a night on the town, event, or party, and return. With shoes, scuffed soles are un-cleanable, and this policy was so prevalent, that they didn’t even have sample shoes to wear for advertising photos; we had to tape the soles and heels with masking tape to protect them while a model was wearing them, and we had to buy them (at wholesale, of course), if they were damaged in any way!

    The Amazon/Zappos route is the way to go, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they start to have qualifications on their returns at well. I remember that our local Lowe’s had a 90 day, no receipt needed return policy, until they realized people were “buying” lawn mowers, using them for the summer, and retuning them as “didn’t meet expectations” right at the 90 day point! Work at a large retailer of any kind for a year, and you will be disgusted with the ethics general public!

    • This falls under the “people suck” category. Here I am, trying to resolve a legitimate problem, and it might be because so many other people essentially steal from companies through their return policies, that I’m blocked.

    • people were “buying” lawn mowers, using them for the summer, and retuning them as “didn’t meet expectations” right at the 90 day point!

      That’s despicable.

    • During a previous life (1979), I worked in retail at a Filene’s store. Even back then, ladies and maybe some gents bought clothes around the Christmas holiday period and returned the items immediately afterwards.

  3. DougD says:

    My cousin (who lives in Holland) is a political science professor, and one day we were talking and I was mentioning that our head office in Finland has a different idea of customer service than we do in our Canadian office, which causes us a lot of angry customer problems.

    She told me “That’s because the rules are different. In North America the customer is always right. In Europe the service provider is always right. When I fly KLM I always make sure to speak English, because then North American rules apply. If I speak Dutch then European rules apply and you can tell the difference in the level of service.”

    This explanation has come is extremely handy over the years as I have shared it with many frustrated co workers. Sounds like it applies to your Birk situation as well.

  4. I’m very sorry about your foot nerve :( That sounds very uncomfortable! And when it comes to return policy, I have the same problem with pillows! I have a very picky shoulder and neck and have spent years (and a lot of money) trying to find the right pillow. Unfortunately, by the time I find out a pillow isn’t the right fit, I can’t return it because I’ve used it for a couple weeks.

  5. That’s a tricky one, I can see both sides here. A shoe that is worn too much just isn’t going to be able to be resold, though I’m not sure if I’d consider manufacturing defects in there. The only time I bought footwear online I returned them in just a week or so, and I would like to always try on in person before I buy. I would think that the curvature of the sole of the Birkenstocks shouldn’t be too much of an issue, or the imprint of your foot after just a few days, but wearing them outside is a no-no. In the future, do you think if you just wore them around the house for a week, with socks on the entire time, they would be in returnable condition? I’d think so, that’s all that was required when I bought boots back in June, it’s what my haberdashery requested.

    Incidentally, what are you wearing when the weather turns too cold for sandals? Have you ever tried Alden shoes/boots? That’s what I bought and they’re made in the USA, look stunning, are incredibly comfortable and historically known for making orthopedic yet dressy shoes. A lot of styles that are definitely suited to an office environment, very versatile designs. And Indiana Jones wore them too. I looked at their website and they have two retailers in Indianapolis: Lee’s and Raleigh Limited. If you’ve never tried on a pair before it might be worth going down there, trying a few different lasts, different leathers, seeing if there’s something that could work for you.

    • It’s true, shoes aren’t useful to anyone else after they’ve been worn a little bit. The weird thing about this particular pair of Birks is that I wore them inside only for a few days first — it wasn’t until I started really walking in them outside that the problem started to form. Birks with socks stretches the leather in ways that no socks doesn’t, so I generally avoid that.

      In the winter I wear regular shoes, but I have an orthotic from a podiatrist that goes in the left shoe. It works 85% as well as Birks. I’ve not heard of Alden shoes so I will have a look.

    • Andy Umbo says:

      If I’m not mistaken, I believe Alden also released a line of vintage styled shoes from their collection that were very fine! I remember a small men’s store in Washington DC carrying these and they created a lot of excitement!

      • I think that everything Alden releases is vintage styled, they don’t follow trends, just stick to the classics. But retailer-exclusive special makeups, rare color shell cordovan, there are definitely things that get people out there excited.

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