I have a love-hate relationship with Levenger. Whoever writes their catalog copy has some kind of secret window into my psyche. Who else knows how much I want 3x5 cards that won't feather when I write on them with a fountain pen? Who else would dare dream I would pay $8 for a pad of paper? Or that I have a deep-seated passion for grass green fountain pen ink?
The Levenger catalog is one of my many guilty pleasures, on a par with ABBA and the Supernanny. Dreaming about owning Levenger's products is such a pleasure. If only actually placing an order was as enjoyable.
Do not love
Over the years I've had different issues with Levenger. I bought a few fountain pens from them, none of which worked very well. (They've since quit carrying any pens other than their own.) For a couple of years they were constitutionally incapable of keeping my customer data in their shopping cart system—I think that one has been worked out. Just this week I was ready to order something—only to find that it's significantly more expensive on the Web site than it is in the catalog. But my longtime favorite is their shipping and handling.
We'll start with the fact that I'm always slightly appalled by what I'm paying for shipping, especially if I've ordered an item that isn't physically large. I'm willing to pay 5-10 times what a keychain should cost—don't penalize me further by charging me $15 to ship it to me.
But I would forget about the pain of their expensive shipping in two seconds if they got the rest of it right.
If you're in the mail order business, the bar has been set very high. Companies like Amazon and Lands' End ship immediately. If there's something that will prevent them from shipping the next business day, they let you know before you place your order.
That standard of service is just a fact, and it's been a fact for at least ten years. If you run a mail order company, you don't have a lot of room to redefine that expectation.
Levenger, on the other hand, has rather old-fashioned ideas about preparing items to ship. Three or four or five days, whatever. Let's call it a week-ish. Even if you pay for overnight shipping.
Folks, if I'm paying you double or triple shipping charges for overnight shipping, the expectation is that you're going to, you know, step on it.
No one cares that what you do is hard.
Is it really hard to ship the next day? I'm sure it is. And if you're a tiny family-run organization like Dharma Trading Company, you could probably get away with shipping in a couple of days.
Except, guess what, Dharma routinely ships the same day if you order before 10:30 their time. Next day otherwise. When you're a multimillion dollar mail order company with a well-established brand and you can't execute as well as a busy mom-n-pop shop that sells tie-dye supplies, you have a problem.
Also, Levenger uses FedEx Ground. Now I love FedEx Air without reservation. They do a complex job unbelievably well. But FedEx Ground is approximately one million times less good than FedEx Air. It's also one million times less good than USPS Priority Mail, which, frankly, is hard to beat.
FedEx aggressively pursues business by granting highly competitive rates for bulk commitments. I get that, but I don't really care. A premium product needs to deliver their desirable little pleasures to their customers in the best way possible, not the cheapest way. (All the more so when they're charging a fortune for it.)
The love part
Here's what's interesting. I still buy from Levenger. (Although I try to hold my purchases until I'm in a city where they have a retail presence. When you sell things people don't need, they can wait a long time for them.) There's something their story I love. The idea that my words flow so much more smoothly in a lab notebook with a red leather cover. The appreciative looks I get when I lend out my one rollerball—a TrueWriter Kyoto—which is beautiful and hefty and feels expensive. The sexy little blank card holders (in several iterations—one's integrated with a wallet, another with a keychain, etc.) so I can always write myself a note on really swanky paper.
But how much more would I buy if I didn't get an angry sinking feeling every time I added something to their shopping cart? (And because I expect problems, I always get them. Always. That's part of how stories work—we see what we think we're going to see.)
Your story is made of more than words
Are these nitpicks? Yes. The quality of Levenger's products is mostly good. But the story they tell with their actions, the emotional quality that arises when customers order from them, isn't good. An individual problem may be small, but systematic and repeated problems like this communicate a lack of respect for your customer.
Just like in your relationships with individual human beings, what you do always carries more weight than what you say. If your behavior is consistent and positive, people begin to trust you (and will forgive the occasional lapse). If your behavior is inconsistent or disrespectful (or both), customers will start to associate you with that bad taste you leave in their mouth.
It's brutally simple. If you make people feel bad, they will avoid you.
On the other hand, I guess I should love Levenger's approach. Over the years, my anticipation of frustration and annoyance has saved me a hell of a lot of money.