What Lawyers Can Learn About Trust From MakeSpace

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We saved four cardboard boxes full of stuff. I’ve given away nearly everything I own. But we hung on to a few things.

We gave one box to each kid; both filled them with personal mementos and other small items. We put winter clothing in one box, and the last box has some personal items of my wife, Lisa, and I. Otherwise, the rest of our stuff is gone. We’ve flown the coop and needed to be lightweight, flexible, and nimble to stay aloft.

The four boxes are living in a warehouse in New Jersey. The warehouse is run by a company called MakeSpace.

The Sorry Tale of MakeSpace

Today, MakeSpace provides a service disaster story we can use as a learning experience.

Here are the facts:

  1. MakeSpace sent me four empty boxes (great quality boxes, by the way). The boxes came by UPS months ago. We filled them up, sealed them (really cool zip tie system), and went on the MakeSpace site to have them picked up.
  2. MakeSpace directed UPS to come pick up the boxes between noon and 4 PM on a Monday as we requested. At 3:58 PM, the UPS driver breezed in with a hand truck and seconds later walked out with the boxes. Excellent experience so far.
  3. A week passed, during which we moved ourselves and our carry-on bags to Berlin. Nice flight (business class, which I love with all of my heart). On Monday, a week after pickup, I got curious about the boxes. I’d heard nothing from MakeSpace, so I started to wonder whether they’d arrived at the warehouse.
  4. I checked the website, and the boxes had not arrived. I messaged MakeSpace. The company reported that three of our four boxes had, in fact, arrived. It was submitting a follow-up request with UPS to search for the missing box (it threw in a not-so-subtle UPS jab). MakeSpace hadn’t processed the other three boxes because it said it usually processes all the boxes at once. However, the company said that it’d go ahead and process the three boxes so we’d know which one was missing (I was curious).
  5. I added a task on my to-do list (that’s a pro tip) to check again the next day. The next day, I messaged MakeSpace using its online messaging system. I got the same story: UPS, search, process boxes it had, yada…yada. Interestingly, most MakeSpace interactions involved a jab at UPS and how it wasn’t very good, it’d like to use someone else, etc. UPS was the fall guy here.
  6. Repeat contact, same story, frustration entering picture. Repeated again the next day. Same answers to the same questions, with me saying, “Those are the same answers.”
  7. On Thursday, MakeSpace explained that a manager would call me back with details. No call was forthcoming. No contact. No information. In fact, every contact (except the last one—more later) was initiated by me. The company never called me, nor did it e-mail.
  8. Now I’m starting to really get concerned. If MakeSpace really has three of the boxes, why isn’t it uploading them to its online system (it uploads a photo of the box)? What’s the deal? Why is the company telling me one thing, doing another, and then not using its system? What’s really going on? Why won’t the company call me? Why does it keep saying the exact same thing and doing nothing? Does the company really have a warehouse in New Jersey or just a slick website? Trust? What trust?
  9. By Tuesday, more than a week after this hunt for my stuff started, I’d lost trust. I decided to push a little harder, since calling and messaging was still getting me the same old story. It was time to be heard. These boxes may be filled with stupid crap, but it’s MY stupid crap.
  10. I went rogue. I posted messages on Twitter (using the @sign and not making this particularly public) to the CEO, co-founder, and the company itself. I posted about four messages in rapid sequence. I got responses from the company that were Twitter versions of the same old story (sorry, working on it, yada, yada). I suspect having a bunch of followers on Twitter caused someone to take note of my messages. Suddenly, things started happening.
  11. The Twitter messages apparently got read by someone who cared (maybe after I tweeted at MakeSpace’s lead investor?). Within two hours, I got two concerned e-mails, a credit on my account, a written apology, and a phone call apology. My boxes were immediately found, photographed, uploaded to the system, etc. I then got 7 or 8 e-mails confirming everything. Problem solved. Now we’re all best friends.

Here’s the best part. What did UPS do with my boxes? Was the company full of the evil, inept, incompetent delivery people I’d been hearing about in messages with MakeSpace? Nope. UPS delivered the boxes as promised. They were delivered on time to the right place and arrived before I first contacted MakeSpace. In fact, UPS got the boxes from Raleigh to New Jersey in just three days.

The boxes had been sitting in the MakeSpace warehouse all along. Crazy, huh? MakeSpace, even after finding the boxes in its warehouse, explained that it was really the fault of UPS because it hadn’t properly scanned the box upon delivery. Yeah, that’s the problem—yep. This was one of my favorite e-mails from MakeSpace (continuing to blame UPS):

I would like to apologize for the inconvenience and the lack of communication in regards to your case.

When you first reached out to us, based on your UPS tracking information we realized 3/4 of your boxes had arrived at our warehouse. At that point, we started an investigation with UPS to locate the missing box (UPS Tracking Number: 1ZE779360390573754). Unfortunately, due to the holiday we did not hear back from UPS until yesterday afternoon.

UPS informed us there most likely was a scanning error and the box in question was never marked as delivered. After we received this information from UPS, our warehouse team searched our warehouse and found the missing box. As a result, your four boxes are scheduled to be processed today.

If you strip out the bullshit and blaming, the e-mail would look like this:

Oops, we had your box. We didn’t know we had it because our tracking system failed. After you contacted us six times, we looked for your box and found it. Sorry we lost your box, glad we found it, and don’t worry, we’ll now put it on the shelf.

(That’s in quotes, but MakeSpace never said any of that.)

Lessons Learned by MakeSpace (Maybe?)

1. Silence is deadly.

It kills trust. Oddly, box storage is, not unlike law firm business, all about trust.

2. Call.

Even if you have nothing to say, you should call. Fill the vacuum. If you don’t fill it, they will, and it won’t be pretty. “I haven’t heard from them about the problem and I’m sure that means they care and have it under control” said no one, ever.

3. Own it and don’t blame.

Don’t blame someone else (UPS), especially when you don’t know what happened. The box is your problem. Take it on and own it. “We lost it and we’ll find it” is much more comforting than “Yeah we have trouble with them all the time.” That’s especially true when you’re the people who sent UPS to come get my boxes.

4. Escalate.

Have someone of authority take over when it’s going badly. Sure, titles are baloney. But it feels like you’re taking the problem seriously when you have the manager call instead of the front line person. Of course, you could empower the front line person to solve the problem, but he’d have to actually solve the problem. These people can’t just keep repeating themselves and providing inaccurate information (e.g., UPS has the box. Um, nope. You have the box).

5. Be good.

If you’re in the box storage business, you need to be good at storing boxes. Sure, you’ll make mistakes, but receiving the box at your warehouse and having it sit in a corner for a week without accounting for it doesn’t make sense. What else have you got to do? You’re in the business of putting boxes on shelves and letting them sit there. There really shouldn’t be any mystery boxes sitting around unaccounted for, right? It’s box storage, not rocket science. And you’ve taken $10.1 million in venture funding to manage those boxes. What’s it being spent on? Apparently not software for tracking boxes.

6. Avoid embarrassment.

The “we’re sorry and we’re blaming others” response doesn’t work for long. You’ve got to find the box or take an alternative approach. I went public on Twitter and you jumped. Don’t force your customers to write a bad review on Yelp in order to get information from you. Don’t make customers @message your Series A lead investor.

7. Apologize (and mean it).

Get someone of authority to make the call. Interestingly, the phone apology call came from the same customer service person I’d chatted with on several occasions. No call from a manager, supervisor, or any level of management. The woman who called was very nice but not especially good at the apology game. She continued to blame UPS even after it was clear that MakeSpace had the box all along. Maybe MakeSpace needs a system for tracking the boxes it possesses in the warehouse. (Can you say “core function”?)

We’ll see how well MakeSpace learns these lessons. Only time will tell. I’ve been paying attention to the company since it started. It’s good at getting attention, gaining investment, and producing slick marketing materials and public relations. We’ll have to see whether it has any talent for putting boxes on shelves. That’s ultimately where the rubber meets the road. It’s all about the product.

It’s easy and kind of entertaining (which is why I’ve now told the story a dozen times) to make fun of MakeSpace in this situation (which is also why bad news spreads so fast). After all, MakeSpace is in the business of picking up boxes, putting them on the shelf, and watching them sit there. When that’s all you do and you then lose the box, you’re going to be the butt of jokes.

What We Can Learn From MakeSpace

There are also lessons we can learn from MakeSpace. Lawyers are doing things considerably more complicated than watching boxes sit, so we’re even more likely to make mistakes. What does the MakeSpace debacle teach us? What can we learn from this MakeSpace performance review?

Let’s keep this simple:

1. Communicate.

Tell your clients what’s happening all the time. Keep them in the loop. Be proactive about it. Don’t wait for them to call. If they’re not paying you enough to fund your communication, you need to charge them more because they’re going to tell the world you suck if you undercommunicate.

2. Do it right.

Do it right the first time (don’t lose the box). Build a system for making things flow properly. Keep it simple. MakeSpace asked me for a Yelp review before it had the boxes back. That’s not much of a system. The company should get the box thing right first, then worry about Yelp.

3. Fix it.

It’s going to go badly sometimes. Fix it quickly. Fix it before it even becomes obvious to the client. You can’t avoid all mistakes, but it’s really important to get the primary stuff right. Losing the box ranks up there with spelling the client’s name wrong on the pleading. Fix it—fast.

4. Apologize.

When you screw up, go ahead and apologize. If you’re freaking out about what to say and how to say it, then go ahead and ask your malpractice carrier for advice (now, don’t wait until you need it). When you apologize, go ahead and apologize. Don’t blame others. Take responsibility and make an unconditional apology. What if MakeSpace had said:

We blew it. We had the box all along. We told you things that turned out to be wrong. We screwed up. We’re terribly sorry, and we’re now reviewing everything we do so it won’t happen again. Please give us the chance to restore your trust. We’ve got your boxes, and we’re going to keep them safe from here on out. We’re really, really sorry.

What if that had been followed up with a message from the CEO that said:

I know you got a message from our team apologizing, but I wanted to e-mail directly. We put you through stress you didn’t deserve. We dropped the ball. I’m truly sorry. I’m personally working to fix the problems we discovered while handling your boxes. I promise you that I won’t rest until I’m sure we’re doing things the way we know they need to be done. Again, I’m sorry.

That’s it: communicate, do it right, fix it, and apologize. Doing those things makes clients and customers happy, regardless of whether it’s legal services or storing boxes. It’s basic, it’s fundamental, and it’s the kind of systematic thinking that MakeSpace isn’t yet doing. Learn from its mistakes. Be sure you’re doing the basics in your practice. The trust of your clients is hanging in the balance.

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