Monday 13 May 2013

"chickengate": the new technique companies are using to deal with customer complaints

The world of customer complaints isn't what it used to be.

This story begins last week, when I decided to write to Woolworths supermarkets to document a stoush I had with store management regarding a chicken.  Correspondence follows.



I have a question about your "fresh or free guarantee".

A few months ago I purchased a packaged raw chicken from my local Woolworths.  When I opened the chicken the following evening in order to roast it, my kitchen was suddenly filled with a rank odour.  The chicken, like my dinner plans, was off.

Annoyed at having pre-heated the oven for nothing, I threw the chicken in a plastic bag, tied it shut, and marched the chook outside to the wheelie bin.

Upon my next trip to Woolworths, I enquired at the service counter about how I might get a replacement chicken and/or a refund.  I was told that in order for any of this to occur, I would be required to bring the chicken into the store for inspection.  Simply presenting a receipt, I was told, would not suffice.

I questioned the rationale behind this policy, especially seeing as said chicken had now been in my wheelie bin for three days.  In response, I was told that I needed to present the chicken in order for Woolworths to:

a) ascertain that the chicken actually was off; and if so
b) send the chicken back to the supplier for inspection.

Vainly, I tried to point out the oddness of this approach.  Bringing in the chicken at this stage would not prove the chicken's unfitness for eating at the time of purchase; all that would be proven was that I now had a rancid chicken that had been fermenting inside my wheelie bin for three days.  Even if I had bought the greatest chicken in the world—the legendary "naked neck" bird from France—three days roosting inside a green plastic garbage receptacle in the middle of summer would be enough to turn even a live bird into something resembling the detritus lining King Street in the early hours of Saturday morning.

I furthermore questioned whether Woolworths was actually going to place my chicken into a little box and ship it back to the manufacturer for autopsy.  Yes, was the answer from the unrelenting store detective—the chicken must appear.

"Very well then", I said, "I'll get you your chicken."  By this stage I was more incensed than a Tibetan temple, and strode home muttering promises of revenge under my breath.

After negotiating with several thousand houseflies for the chicken's release, I took a deep breath, removed the bird from the wheelie bin, placed it inside a second plastic bag, and promptly returned to Woolworths.

"Oh...", said the store detective upon my return, wearing really the only facial expression possible when faced with a fetid chicken laying on the customer service counter (in a leaky bag).

I promptly received a refund and a replacement chicken.

Much more recently, I was back in the same store and purchased (for novelty value) a spatchcock, intending to see in how many bites I could eat it.  Alas, upon returning home, I once again discovered an unpleasant odour—the spatchcock was most fowl.  Not wanting a repeat of "chickengate", I sealed up the spatchcock inside another bag, refrigerated it, and brought it back to the store for a refund the following day (however, no replacement spatchcock was offered).

Anyway, my question is: as this poultry exercise is likely to happen again (Woolworths has obviously not put the money saved from squeezing the Australian dairy industry toward adequate refrigeration of chickens), do I need to store the offending bird inside my refrigerator (and risk being charged under federal anti-terrorism legislation with cultivating a biological weapon) until I can get back to Woolworths and return the product, or is proof of purchase enough to receive the full range of remedies available under your "fresh or free guarantee"? 




Even before I finished my letter, I had become quite excited about the response I might get.

From my perspective, this was a return to my blogging origins.  Winding up companies had served me well in the past: loyal readers of Melbourne Surprise might recall my very first article, in which I questioned Uncle Tobys' claim to have "spinkled" their Oat Crisp cereal with delicious oat clusters, as well as Uncle Tobys' response—a haughty, legalistic reply, in which Uncle Tobys pulled out the old chestnut of being "sorry I felt that way" (and I gave away my secret plans to set up a fraudulent dog-walking business).

There was the infamous spanish onion incident, where an innocent query lodged with Woolworths as to the size and shape of spanish onions was met with a frosty response that suggested that I have no friends.

And, also from the early days of this website, an innocent enquiry regarding Leggo's pasta bake that went entirely unanswered until I pretended to be a suburban housewife.

Recalling that entire blogging fiefdoms have been built off letters of complaint, I had high hopes for "chickengate".  Just as John Lennon returned to his roots by paying homage to his early musical influences on 1975's Rock 'n' Roll, I was rediscovering what first inspired me to plonk myself behind a laptop at odd hours of the day and patter out fortnightly nonsense so that I might add "slash, blogger" to my job title at at social occasions.

Yes, I was assured that "chickengate" would be a story for the ages.  Until I received Woolworths' response.


Hi Dave, thanks for getting in touch. Our sincerest apologies for the experiences you encountered.

We are so sorry to hear about the chicken and spatchcock you bought from us - proof of purchase is enough for you to receive a full refund and replacement on these products.

Can you please let us know which store this occurred at so that we can look into it? Thanks.


I was stunned!  This was a never-seen-before complaint management technique.  A complete, sincere, "so sorry" apology.

In a way, I had got everything I wanted.  But in another, more vindictive way, I was left horribly empty.  There would be no wit-sodden replies.  There would be no online gloating.  There would be no public shaming; no "look at me I have a blog and I have brought a giant to its knees" self-aggrandisement.  I had received a humane and polite apology.

My thoughts initially turned to a search for error.  What had I done wrong in failing to wind Woolworths up?  Perhaps I should have inserted an angrier tone; flawed logic; and multiple spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes into my letter to ensure that my communication was siphoned away from the Woolworths customer service team that handles mildly educated nitwits with blogs, and instead was directed toward the easily-agitated "the customer is not always right and I am going to tell them why this is so" team. 

Or perhaps (for once) I was actually in the right.

But maybe this response is representative of a greater trend across customer complaints departments in Australia.  Given that [author's note: insert lazy sentence about the empowering effects of social media to make blog appear cutting-edge], I wonder whether companies—tired of public relations scandals such as this, this, this, and this—are simply beginning to see that a quick, earnest apology will shut up even the most vociferous whingers and (in doing so) insure the corporate reputation from future harm.

Has social media killed the Internet's favourite non-cat source of entertainment? Is it now impossible to wind up large companies via letters of complaint?  Am I totally misguided (in life, as well as in blog)?

I would love to hear your opinions on the above in the comments box below.  Melbourne Surprise values each and every one of you; my very, very dear readers.


  1. my favourite part of this is you bought a spatchcock in order to see how many bites you could eat it in.

  2. KG here. Excellent blog post, I empathise with your disappointment with such a bland and humble apology letter.
    I have another bone to pick with social media and product complaints. Back when I was growing up in the bowels of Bunyip, times were tough, money was tight. My mother and I had a hobby of finding products from the supermarket which fell below par. We would write a letter and sometimes send off the purchased item if feasible. I remember sending off a packet of marshmallows which housed a rogue, covered in mould and hair. Other times we would just send a detailed description (ie we complained that there were not enough potato chips in the packet and the seal broke too easily).
    By way of apology, supermarkets would respond by sending us free stuff. For the marshmallows we received a box of ten packets (interestingly brand named ones, not the generic brand originally purchased).
    However, in more recent times of complaining, I never get free stuff. Never. I blame social media for this, whingeing has become too accessible and there just aren't enough packets of free marshmallows to go around.
    Did you eventually purchase an unspoiled spatchcock, and how many bites did it take?

    1. No spatchcock yet. But I agree with your thoughts. Perhaps the budget that companies USED to spend on mailing free stuff to malcontents is now instead put toward extra personnel to handle social media complaints.

      Or perhaps the democratisation of whinging has simply lowered the bar. There's currently a complaint (complete with picture!) on Woolworths' facebook page about steak, pancakes and body wash being placed in the same bag together. The horror.

  3. Disclaimer: I'm an American, and so am ingrained with the usual capitalist cynicism, etc. But I think the reason they want you to bring back the chicken is not to smell it themselves to confirm, but to prove you didn't just eat it and lie about it being bad.