Service Industry Failure – Happy Holidays

Normally this time of year I am thinking about what sort of Holiday themed architectural posts I can share with people. Normally these are pretty silly and represent a Sunday afternoon spent making myself giggle. I’ve written posts on the best and worst Christmas songs, Christmas cards from famous architects, even put together recipes for proper holiday cocktails … everything is fun and games all the time, right?

This is Ebenezer Scrooge, not Bob Borson

Of course not. Things go wrong and how you handle yourself in those moments is important, especially if you are in a service industry like architecture. This is not particularly enlightening for some, but every year at the holidays I am reminded that so few people actually connect the dots and realize that between the delivery failures and snotty retorts, they are the face of the company for which they work and the lasting impression they leave can have far-reaching consequences.

I don’t care for shopping in general but it becomes intolerable at this time of the year. I doubt you could find a happier individual than myself when online shopping became a reality and I could avoid the congestion of people fighting for parking spots at the local shopping mall. In addition to holiday shopping, we also tend to purchase items for the office (computers, 3D printers, etc.) right before the end of the year so we can avoid paying the taxes on money we leave in our corporate bank account. I would like to present two scenarios, both started off the same way but my opinions of the two companies represented at the end could not be more different.


Company #1 – FedEx

FedEx LogoAs part of our end-of-the-year equipment haul, we purchased an HTC Vive Pro virtual reality headset with all the trimmings. We excitedly waited for our packages to be delivered, knowing that in fairly short order, FedEx would have them delivered to the office. Yesterday, two of the three packages showed up … the missing package contained the actual VR headset. I go online to check the status where I am informed that the package was already delivered hours before.

What? No, it wasn’t, at least not to me and my office is so large that I am not aware of every delivery made when I am sitting at my desk.

For the next few hours, I spent time on the phone with various customer service agents from FedEx trying to determine the location of this missing box only to be told: “I don’t know what to tell you, you’ll have to follow up with the shipper and have them take care of it.” Wait a minute, this is a problem completely of your own making yet the solution involves everyone except you? I asked for the name of the person who signed for it as the delivery required a direct signature … the person who signed for it was “Receiving” and the delivery address was “Dallas, Texas.”

Ugh. Not helpful.

As I pressed on, the obvious next question (to me) was how do I prove to HTC that I didn’t actually receive my package? Again, I received the response “I don’t know what to tell you, it’s never been an issue before.” Using the word “before” as part of their response suggests that this is something that happens with regularity but they haven’t internalized this well enough to come up with an actual answer. At my request, my call was escalated to a supervisor, who proceeded to tell me that FedEx and their drivers are 1) really busy, 2) they are behind schedule, and 3) in their efforts to keep up, mistakes happen … as if any of those “reasons” should be of some comfort to me. I don’t think they realize that this is a terrible answer – everyone I spoke with was quick to point out all the reasons why they felt justified that losing my package wasn’t really that big of a deal. A much better way to handle this would have been easy,  they could have spoken about how they were addressing the problem, what steps were being taken to remedy the current situation, and what happens next if the package isn’t located. All of these things would have placated me rather than dismiss my concerns outright as if I had something to do with the missteps that had taken place, instead I hung up the phone with a bad taste in my mouth.

On the exact same day as I was dealing with FedEx, I was dealing with another delivery issue.


Company #2 – Amazon

Amazon Logo

I buy a lot of stuff through Amazon – a shameful amount probably. About 90% of my holiday shopping is done using Amazon and this year has been no different. There was one last item I wanted to get my family and rather than drive across town and go to the local big box retailer (the very idea of which still makes my face hurt), I just ordered it through Amazon. Since I have a Prime membership, I was given the option that “if you buy this item within the next 3 hours and 11 minutes, you can have this item delivered today at no additional cost …

Amazing! So, at 6:34 am, that’s exactly what I did.

Fast forward to 3:30 pm, and I still don’t have my item. That’s cool, although I am a bit anxious because I am having it delivered to the office and I don’t want them to try and deliver it after the office has closed for the day. I’ll just go online and check the status …

Your Item is expected to be delivered on Wednesday, December 19th.

Wait a minute, that’s not the same day, that’s two days from now. WTH?

So I go online and I start chatting with an account representative from Amazon and I ask why my same day delivery not being delivered on the same day? His response was direct – that product had to come from a different distribution center than originally thought and as a result, they were not able to deliver it on the same day. My next line of questions centered around 1) this felt a little like bait and switch since I could have simply run down the street and picked it up today, and 2) why was I not alerted and given the chance to cancel my order?

The Amazon representative apologized for the poor communication and told me that he would move it to priority delivery which meant I would get it the next morning, which was essentially 1-day delivery and that it would be delivered before noon. Not bad, but still not what I had expected when I originally placed the order. As I was preparing to end the chat session, the Amazon representative apologized further and said that they would credit my account some $$ and that they sincerely hoped that this negative experience would not linger, that they valued our relationship.

This is a great way to handle a problem, right? Identify the issue, acknowledge responsibility, and present a solution, all the while avoiding language that makes me feel like this is somehow my fault or that I am being unreasonable for being disappointed. Amazon went above and beyond my expectations.


The main difference between the FedEx and Amazon exchanges are readily apparent. Amazon took responsibility for the situation and told me what they were doing to remedy the problems. FedEx essentially told me that mistakes happen, they’re really busy, and I should get over it.

Architecture is a service industry – we work against expected deliverables and typically have expectations set by our clients as to what should happen and when it is supposed to happen. These recent exchanges with FedEx and Amazon have cemented what my experience has already taught me – taking accountability for your actions (or inactions as it were) has more to do with allowing others to deal with the effects or ramifications of you not doing your part then the misstep that took place.

It has been my experience that the people I work with realize that I have their best interests at heart and that in addition to the work I am responsible for creating, I am at the mercy of others following through on their promises as well. I explain that as soon as you realize that you can’t make good on delivering your promise, let the other party know so that they have time to deal with whatever problem you have just created for them.

Take a moment and let that sink in, it’s important. The problem that you just created for them.

If I can limit the damage of not making a schedule or a delivery, the other person has some time to react accordingly. Sure there is going to be some disappointment in the results but you can recover from that if this is not a pattern of behavior – it’s their disappointment in you that is hard to recover from. If you are creating problems that other people have to deal with – what good are you as a service professional? Why would you expect someone to keep you around?

Happy Holidays, and Bah Humbug.

Bob signature FAIA


Source: Life of an Architect