Nice people, broken systems: How I bought some equipment and everything went wrong

Good business isn't only 'all about people.' It's also about the processes they are saddled with. Paul Greenberg shares his customer's lament about a sale that turned into a nightmare.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

I get pleasure from helping people when I am in a position to do so. I’m a customer advocate when it comes to CRM-related stuff. So you would think that I love hearing the catchphrase “It’s all about the people” or other permutations that say it’s really the people that make all the difference.

Well, I don’t. I don’t because it’s not true, especially when you’re dealing with businesses. There's a lot more involved than just friendly faces, pleasant demeanors and kind voices.

The Nordic Track Elite Pro 9700

Think I’m wrong? Let me tell you the story of Icon Health and Fitness, a company I never will buy from again even though all the people along the chain are very nice.  This company is the slide deck case study of how not to do something.

The other day, I ordered a new treadmill, a Nordic Track Elite Pro 9700. It can’t be bought in stores, so I bought it through what I presumed was a reliable distributor, Icon Health and Fitness. I also paid an additional $299 for not just delivery, but assembly of the new unit and removal of an older unit in the house, since it was beyond my skills, experience and strength to do this myself.

Because my travel schedule is so ridiculous, I wanted to make sure it would arrive on September 9 at the latest, before I left for a long round of travel. I was assured by a very nice, intelligent sales rep that it would be, though it was at the edge of the window of that likelihood. He told me that the unit would be shipped the next day. 

The same day, I was sent a link to track the order’s progress with my emailed receipt for this rather pricey machine. Starting the next day, since I thought that’s when it would be shipped, I began clicking the order-tracking link. I got an order parts list but nothing else. Click.click.click every day for several days. Nothing. Nada. Nunca. No change. Just a parts listing. Nothing that indicated a thing when it came to what was happening with the order.

First problem: No order tracking?

This was not order tracking, this was an order list. Period. Misrepresentation? Broken system? Either possible, even both possible, but the net result, regardless, was that I had no idea day to day what was happening with my order when using their “order tracking” system. Though I did repeatedly get reminded of what parts my order had. PROBLEM # 1

Finally after a week of this, I called on September 2, the day after Labor Day and was told by another very nice rep that it had just shipped that day.


Nope. I found out that while it shipped today, it would take two weeks to deliver it. Unacceptable. Apparently the reason it had just shipped was that it had been on back order. Not only hadn’t the so-called “order tracking” system indicated this, but I had gotten no information via any channel whatever that there was a problem with my order.  If I had known that, I would have been able to operate very differently. PROBLEM #2

Needless to say I was not happy with this since the delivery date would coincide with me and my wife being away in Newfoundland for my mother in law’s ninety-first birthday so no one at all would be at home. A third rep, again very nice, who was appalled at the situation said, “Oh, they will call a day in advance to set things up” clearly missing the point that no one would be home to take the call.  Her response was “Oh, that would be a problem.” But despite this rather obvious conclusion, to her credit, she was genuinely perturbed at the situation and trying to figure it out.

I asked her if it would be possible to expedite shipment and her answer, was, no, once it was shipped they had no provisions to deal with it. It was sent to a division of UPS that dealt with white glove delivery services, in this case, NVC Logistics, and they couldn’t change anything. PROBLEM #3

She and another very nice rep tried to do something over the ensuing days, but the ultimate response was “There is nothing we can do. We have no procedure that allows us to do anything.” PROBLEM #4

In the interim, I got the UPS shipping notice that said the expected delivery date to the white glove service was September 12.  I called UPS and spoke with a wonderful guy (Robert) who explained why it took so long to get to where it was going — UPS Ground etc.  I asked him if the white glove service could deliver within 24 hours of the device’s delivery. His answer was they were hamstrung by Icon and couldn’t do anything that Icon didn’t tell them to do. PROBLEM #5. But he gave me the info for the white glove guys, NVC Logistics, and I called them.

“I can’t make this happen on Saturday. The ticket calls for full assembly and I have no techs available to handle a full delivery and assembly in that zip code this Saturday. If customer is willing to accept a threshold or room of choice drop only, then I can make it happen.” 

I spoke with their representative and again, a great guy, highly service-oriented himself but he said they (NVC) didn’t like to schedule a delivery until they received the unit, even though they had a UPS expected delivery date. PROBLEM #6, though understandable.  

He told me that he’d track things over the next few days. He also told me that the only days that they deliver in my area are Tuesdays through Saturday so they couldn’t deliver on September 14, a Sunday or September 15, a Monday, even though those happened to be THE two days that I would actually be home. No exception handling. PROBLEM #7. 

Over the next few days he tracked the order and communicated with me when he had something and he told me that it seemed it would arrive on September 12 a Friday. I asked him if he could then deliver it on the thirteenth. Even though I wouldn’t be home until the afternoon, my wife would be there.

His agent’s answer was “I can’t make this happen on Saturday. The ticket calls for full assembly and I have no techs available to handle a full delivery and assembly in that zip code this Saturday. If customer is willing to accept a threshold or room of choice drop only, then I can make it happen.”  Meaning, if I’m willing to accept a considerably lower level of service I could have it on Saturday. Needless to say, since I paid $299 to get the thing assembled and another removed because I can’t do it, that was completely unacceptable.

So, at this point, the only delivery date I could get it on that I would be home for is September 26, a full 17 days after I was assured I would get it. And that’s where it stands.

But there is one more part to this.

Finally back from London, I picked up a message on my business phone from some agent of NVC Logistics that was time stamped September 11 (when I was in London) that said, we want to schedule your delivery – meaning it was in the hands of the delivery service on September 11 and could have been scheduled with my wife being there on the September 12. That would have been my bad, but I already had been told it was arriving the twelfth and the rest you know. The message was lost in the interim since I didn’t pick it up until I arrived back from London. Apparently, there were crossed signals involved, which damaged any chance I had of getting this in even a reasonably timely way. PROBLEM #8

But it continues: "Operator is unavailable, exiting the system, goodbye" 

I got a call on September 15 from another subcontractor called Tobin to confirm September 26 as the delivery date. I said okay, but, my bad here, I forgot that I had a very important thing that I had to go to that day so I couldn't do it. I realized that early this morning and sent a note to NVC Logistics outlining the issue and asked if, given that they had suggested from the 23rd to the 26th, if we could make it the 23rd or 24th. I was told I should call Tobin and work it out with them.

I called Tobin and got a message that said, "The operator is unavailable, exiting the system, goodbye" and it hung up abruptly. PROBLEM #9

So what’s the problem? Each of the people, while remorseful and apparently sympathetic, have told me that “there is nothing I can do about it” and the reason is always the system. 

I then asked NVC Logistics for help and was told, after they had reached Tobin, that nothing else was available that week and it would have to be 9/19 (which I had told them my wife and I were out of town already) or 9/30 or 10/4. PROBLEM #10

Meaning the whole thing is a hot mess and to be entirely honest, has me at a boiling point. 

Yet, almost all the people I’ve dealt with along the way have been perfectly nice representatives of their respective companies – polite, concerned, and trying to help. The “people," which it theoretically is all about, are incredibly nice.

So what’s the problem? Each of the people, while remorseful and apparently sympathetic, have told me that “there is nothing I can do about it” and the reason is always the system. Always. And a slavish devotion to process over the people that they are supposed to serve. 

So let’s review this via the problems:

  1. Icon’s order tracking system is broken so it never told me that the order was backordered or I would have used the knowledge to call sooner and that would have prevented the order from having been shipped before other options could be explored.
  2. Icon has no system for informing the customer of a change in status at all. None. No email, no working order tracking. No nothing. Who doesn’t tell a customer that there is a problem with their order? I guess Icon Health and Fitness doesn’t. 
  3. The system they have that determines how things and when things get delivered to specific areas have no way to handle exceptions, so that it becomes the convenience of the service and the company, not the customer, even though the customer is paying a premium price and for premium services above that price. For example, given a problem like this, find someone for a Sunday. 
  4. Icon has no exception handling and is tied to its own system as it is, regardless of circumstance. Reps are not empowered to do anything because there is nothing they can do.
  5. Icon allows no leeway in its value chain so that the total value chain is hamstrung by Icon’s already rigid and broken practices and processes. The implication, though to be clear, it is an implication, not something I’ve got definitive proof of here, is that Icon is unwilling to spend anything to address issues.
  6. While it is easy to understand why NVC is reluctant to assign delivery dates w/o the unit in hand, given that things can go wrong and deliveries can be messed up, it would be, in exceptional cases, easier for the customer if they would assign it with caveats that the delivery might have to change and there would be immediate notification if it does, than to leave the customer at a level of uncertainty without an inkling on what to do or when it’s coming. Plus it would allow the customer to be in the queue earlier than later.
  7. Given the problem, the fact that the customer (me) would be home on a Sunday or a Monday, being inflexible about finding someone for those days, once again says that the system matters more than the customer.
  8. Again, no way of knowing that the machine had showed early when I was told with certainty it wouldn’t, prevented a reasonable delivery date. A phone message unanswered, given that this was something that was at the level of case management, should have been followed up with an email asking to set up a date if there was no response. This was already escalated to something beyond an ordinary query.
  9. The problem here is a phone system that abruptly hangs up with no recourse or explanation. Given the issues discussed here, the hang-up message about "exiting the system, goodbye" is ironic as hell.
  10. I can understand that there is a scheduling issue, but given the circumstances, what would you do? I would have tried to accommodate the customer and maybe even schedule an extra run that day. But slavish adherence to their logistics supercede the customer issue.  

What does this tell you?

There are several things that this tells us:

  1. This is one of those issues where a rigid system compounds each misstep along the way and makes each misstep 10 times worse than the last one, amounting to a seriously horrid customer experience. There were multiple points along the way when it could have been solved and wasn't. 
  2.  Icon Health's value chain has procedures so inflexible that the customer is never really part of the discussion. The feeling is that the "love" stopped once Icon Health and Fitness got the $2,778 from me. From there on it was all them and I was really nothing more than an appointment time and date that was entirely to their convenience regardless of whatever I had going in my life — even though they screwed up the date and time agreed to prior to the sale.
  3. The irony is that there is only one thing that Icon Health and Fitness has to do to fix this. But it's too late for my situation. My situation is now not only unfixable but they handled it so poorly, I'm not just their dissatisfied customer, but one who will be speaking to my audiences about them as the case study for doing something wrong. 
  4. That one thing is to add a procedure (since they clearly, dearly love procedure) for customer exception handling. That means when the system breaks when dealing with a customer, you do what is necessary to fix the customer's situation so that there is a satisfactory outcome. For example, in my case, it would have been, "Well, Mr. Greenberg, we are sorry for what has happened, so we will add a delivery on one day suitable to you, since we messed up your schedule and didn't fulfill the commitment we made to you which led to you spending $2,778. We'll pay the delivery guys whatever their going rate is - to make this right for you."  In other cases it might have been other things. The key is that a good business is always smart to have an exception-handling process in place.  

Before we get to more on this, keep in mind that we are dealing not just with Icon Health and Fitness, but also Nordic Track, UPS, NVC Logistics and Tobin Transport. This is a value chain that theoretically should be seamlessly working to satisfy the company’s requirements to make a sale and fulfill an order in a timely way. That way the customers are happy and the company is happy.

But sometimes things happen. Because I paid Icon Health and Fitness, they are the responsible party for the entire value chain, regardless of where it breaks. To make the analogy, if I buy something using Amazon Prime and it takes three days, a day more than the promised two, to deliver, it is Amazon’s issue, not the courier’s, even though the courier caused the problem. Same deal here. Icon Health and Fitness has the overall responsibility for their value chain. 

The way you deal with broken processes and systems is to have a means to fix it. But with Icon Health, at no juncture did I get that solution, just apologies for not being able to do a thing about it. This was nothing more than a huge #FAIL. Not because I didn’t get my goods on time, not because they offered nothing but apologies, but because a terribly broken set of processes dominated the entire farce — leaving a terrible experience and a determination to never buy from Icon Health and Fitness again, which is sad.

The lessons? Have an exception handling system. Recognize that organizations are complex and it's always about more than just the people. 

Again, I spoke with unfailingly polite, decent human beings the entire time. There wasn’t a seriously problematic person in the whole bunch. But the system was irrevocably broken and there was no way to fix it, so my overall experience was horrible and I’m getting something I ordered 21 days after I was promised it would be delivered.

Look, the mantra “it’s all about the people” is true in the grandest sense. For example, human beings are the designers of the systems we use and are responsible for both sides of interactions we engage in. But cultures and organizations can be complex. The rules that they have are not designed to satisfy all individuals but to really maintain an order that at least keeps the extreme, damaging impulses in check and hopefully, more broadly, contributes to an orderly progress for businesses.

But systems can be flawed – they are not designed for everyone nor can they do everything. Done well, they are designed to satisfy a commonwealth of interests that a business has to support, which includes its customers. Sometimes, since they aren’t perfect, the system breaks down. When it comes to customers, it can breakdown because it’s flawed or because the customers’ requirements fall outside what the system is designed to do. But what makes human beings so smart, is that we can build in fail-safes to deal with problems like that.  

But did Icon Health and Fitness do this? Nooooooo. So we operated the entire time with an inflexible, rigid system that the staff members along the value chain spent their time apologizing for while they did nothing to help because they were unable to. 

The overarching lesson here is, please stop repeating “it’s all about the people” and recognize that people only have so much leeway regardless of how nice they may be. It helps to have great people but the systems that are in place limit their ability to respond appropriately, so it’s about that too.  

Okay. Enough said. The lessons? Have an exception handling system. Recognize that organizations are complex and it's always about more than just the people. Don't ever buy anything from Icon Health and Fitness — unless you get confirmed proof — not of due dates, but that they've fixed their system.  

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