As product consumers, I’m pretty sure most of us would have something to say about the customer service of one or more companies we’ve transacted with. Either we were dissatisfied or pleasantly surprised, it nevertheless leaves a mark and forms our overall impression of a company brand.

The whole process of shipping back the Macbook Air to the company I recently resigned from has given me constant headaches since mid-November. I had been working with a Malaysian company from 2007 until 2009 but my contract was generously extended for another two-year period and I was allowed to work from home since 2010. However, since I resigned last month, I was required to return the laptop to headquarters via courier. And if you’re wondering why I couldn’t hand over the laptop to a local branch, the answer to that is no as the company I worked for only has its main office overseas.

Since mid-November I have communicated with my colleague from the human resources department for the exit interview. She had contacted the courier company DHL to schedule the pickup from my address and I would not have to pay for shipping as the charges for the latter would be borne by my company.

The laptop was picked up at my address, Cagayan de Oro, but it was held up by customs in Manila for 3 days. DHL knew that I was shipping a laptop but I wasn’t informed that they would need a document called Material Safety Data Sheet. It was my first time shipping a laptop via courier and I had no idea what it was. The DHL staff from Manila advised us over the phone that a Material Safety Data Sheet or MSDS is a document signed by a licensed chemist to prove that the laptop was non-hazardous. Unlike other conventional laptops with removable batteries, the Macbook Air (and not just the Macbook but even their iPhones) has a built-in battery. My sister’s friend who is a licensed chemist informed us that the MSDS is not just any document signed by a licensed chemist, rather it is actually an official document signed by an authorized body that even she who was licensed could not produce a document like it. On the third day we called to follow up, I could not believe one DHL staff’s alibi on why they could not ship the item – the staff said the import account to charge the shipping cost to could not be found in their system.

As a result of the lack of MSDS (I did not believe the import account could not be found in their system as DHL Malaysia could verify it), Macbook Air was shipped back to my address. I could not find any document called MSDS in the Macbook package and my former colleague in Malaysia who kept the invoices affirmed they didn’t have the MSDS when they purchased the laptop for me. My colleague had called the Apple store they bought it from but the store said they do not give out the MSDS. Apparently Apple is not so fond of removable batteries, hence the non-issuance of MSDS for their products.

Nevertheless I tried to research online for the MSDS of the Macbook Air but could not find any. I got hold of Apple’s 1-800 number in the Philippines. The service was so quick and efficient though I wasn’t sure the PDF document I got from them titled Macbook Air 13-inch Environmental Report was what the Philippine customs needed for the item to be approved for shipping.

I wanted to make sure it was the right document so I consulted DHL by e-mail and asked them to verify if Apple’s Environmental Report for the Macbook Air 13-inch laptop was equivalent to the compulsory Material Safety Data Sheet. I clearly explained in my e-mail that the item was returned to me. What I got in return made my blood boil. I was told curtly by the girl who handled my inquiry that “the item was shipped back and was received by “. She even misspelled my last name. I told her that she obviously did not even try to understand what I was driving at, which was for her to solely verify if the PDF document I sent would suffice. I never got any reply from her, not even to apologize for not fully comprehending my message. Unbelievable. Even if their courier company couldn’t do anything about it, she should have had the gumption to tell me that. Seriously, it makes me wonder if she has ever had proper training on how to cogently respond to inquiries such as mine. I didn’t feel her heart and dedication in her reply, no sense of tactfulness even came through. I was really sad because if I were in her position, I wouldn’t answer anyone coldly as she had done with me. I don’t know what their customer service mission statement is like but from the impression her reply created, I felt like my urgent concern was nothing but a nuisance to her daily job routine.

My former colleague did her part by consulting their DHL Account Manager about how they can get through customs. I thought that move was futile and a waste of time, and, yes, we did waste two more days going back and forth with them. Their Account Manager responded that what they actually needed was a specific MSDS for the built-in battery of the Macbook Air itself.

With the help of my mom, we tried to contact Apple again and requested an MSDS specifically for the built-in battery only. The customer service agent at Apple Singapore took over the matter. They explained that Apple doesn’t have a specific MSDS for the lithium ion polymer battery of the Macbook Air. However, they requested that we transfer them to the person in-charge of the final clearance for shipping the item overseas. DHL said that suggestion is not going to work because all they need was the MSDS.

DHL made it seem like it was really hopeless to deal with them. Even my colleague gave up and conceded to my suggestion to use FedEx instead.

When we dealt with FedEx, they told us that DHL in the Philippines do not use their own plane – they tie up with the local airlines to ship items. I was in doubt about this until I noticed that the storage box which was returned to us by DHL had a Cebu Pacific sticker on the side. I then realized what he meant when he said the reason why the MSDS was required. Since they just tie up with the local airline, Cebu Pacific in this case, DHL had no control over airline rules and regulations for shipping laptops with built-in batteries.

Still, how difficult can it be to tactly refuse a customer? How difficult is it to apologize and inform me that it was the airline regulations they were up against? Is it so much nuisance to write a proper response and admit she misunderstood my concern?

As of this writing, FedEx has successfully DELIVERED the item to Malaysia.

Clearly, DHL couldn’t ship the Macbook without the MSDS and Apple couldn’t provide the MSDS. What this experience has proven to me is that even if Apple didn’t provide the document which was essentially required for final clearance, the way they treated me didn’t make me feel angry for them at all. Why? Because I felt their concern in trying to go out of their way to resolve my issue by proactively asking to speak with the person in-charge of the final clearance of the item. I did, however, make the suggestion to at least have the Apple management consider including an MSDS in the near future in the product package just in case.

People never forget how you make them feel. The essence of customer service is built around making customers feel good and important even if you couldn’t provide what they want. The words and the sentences you choose when responding to your clients can make a big difference in keeping your customers or driving them away.