Learn From West Elm’s Missed Opportunity


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One of the most critical findings from our 100+ interviews with CX pros over the course of 2020 was the importance of selecting one emotional outcome for your experience and using it as a design target. This is because emotions are the heart of your customer experience.

But for some reason, few programs deliberately measure and manage their emotional outcomes, even though emotions strongly outweigh effectiveness and ease. (This holds true even for B2B, as Jen Zamora of Dow so eloquently demonstrated in my interview with her.)

This omission was particularly glaring for me during my recent experience with West Elm, Williams-Sonoma’s chain of high-end, artfully designed furniture stores.

The saga begins

With a tagline like “mindfully made & expertly crafted,” and a brand promise of quality that’s good for both customers and the planet, the West Elm line seems carefully designed to generate excitement and evoke strong positive emotions.

My shopping experience resulted in neither of those things. But it does provide a valuable lesson for CX practitioners in any business sector.

Here’s what happened: I decided to indulge myself and spend some recently received royalties from my first book on a comfortable new chair that I could sit in to finish writing my second book (exciting news on that front coming soon!). I headed to an attractive West Elm location about a mile from my house.

I’ll be the first to admit that shopping isn’t generally my thing, and in hindsight, some of my expectations were somewhat naïve. (Well if I’m being totally honest, maybe a little more than naïve – woefully unprepared for the task at hand might be more accurate.)

Design fail

I entered the store excited, thinking I’d complete my purchase in about a half hour, head home with my pricey-but-perfect chair of choice, and settle in to start writing that evening. (Okay, okay, maybe a little more than woefully unprepared…)

The experience started well, with an attentive associate showing me both in-store and online options. He listened to my needs and asked questions I wasn’t expecting…like the color of the room the chair would be going in. (Yes, I was that unprepared.) Luckily my wife Sue, who is also Heart of the Customer’s Ops Guru, was there to help me answer those tricky questions.

Over the next two hours, it was one hassle after another. I found a chair that I liked online in a perfect color. But when they brought me back into a storage area to try a sample there, I found it stiff and uncomfortable. I tried to get the same fabric on a style with more padding, but it doesn’t work that way; each chair had its own options for fabrics and colors.

I sat on all the chairs in the store and found another one I liked…but it didn’t come in a color that would work for us. Then the sales associate found me one that was the right color, but the style was all wrong.

I was getting tired and frustrated. There were so many options – too many – yet no combination met more than two of our three needs for style, comfort, and color.

My excitement was long gone, but I was still determined to get something that day. I adjusted my expectations from pricey-but-perfect to good enough and found a chair in a color we could live with.

Or so I thought.

Unwelcome surprises

Only when just about to pay did I find out it would take about three months for West Elm to build my chair. I shopped in early November, and the shipping date range they gave me was February 1-15. But I was so beat down by then I decided to go ahead with the purchase anyway.

But then the total the sales associate charged me seemed much higher than what he’d quoted when I first looked at the chair. He had added a $300 delivery fee without mentioning it to me. I had planned on picking the chair up at the store myself once it came in, but that wasn’t allowed. So it was surprising not only because it was so much, but because it was, in effect, mandatory.

I started to balk and the associate said he could “do something” for me and then lowered the fee to $150. It felt more like I’d caught him scamming me than that he had done me a favor. Nonetheless I bit the bullet and bought the chair. But the transaction ended on such a sour note, I wasn’t particularly happy about it.

The waiting game

Fast forward almost three months. I realized the other day that I hadn’t heard anything, so I clicked on the link in my purchase confirmation to see what was going on. According to the website, my chair would now be available sometime between January 23 (more than a week prior) and February 5.

So the date range had changed, but no one thought to notify me.

And now here we are. It’s February 5. Still no sign of my chair. And no communication from the company since I made the purchase almost three months ago.

Now this certainly isn’t the first bad retail experience I’ve had, or the worst. What makes it stand out is how avoidable it was.

I don’t mean because I should have gone to IKEA (though maybe I should have gone to IKEA). I mean because of the fundamental CX missteps during this journey that by now everyone should know how to avoid. Especially a company that seems savvy enough to design a superior customer experience.

Here’s where West Elm got it wrong:

1. Build a choice architecture

As we say in CX, “Customers want choices, but that doesn’t mean they want to choose.” Smart brands – retail or not – create the ability to narrow options through smart questions. That way customers don’t feel overwhelmed, no matter how uninformed they are.

2. Be transparent about tradeoffs.

The long wait and mandatory delivery fee were unwelcome surprises after I’d made my selection. Tell the customers these things before they finalize their choices and it feels informative instead of like a betrayal of trust and goodwill.

And lastly, the most important (and tragic) oversight of the entire experience:

3. For CX’s sake, build excitement!

I still can’t get over the fact that there has been no communication from West Elm in the three months since I purchased the chair. Operational transparency is a fundamental best practice in any experience.

West Elm blew a fantastic opportunity. Don’t make the same mistake!

What might have been

For three months, they could have been building my excitement with informative updates, showing me when (and even where and how) my chair was being built.

They could have shared new products that might complement my new chair or fit elsewhere in my home.

They could have reminded me the chair is coming soon by sending status updates.

They could have spent almost three months building my anticipation – and an emotional connection – by sending pictures of the chair to remind me of the wonderful outcome awaiting me.

Instead? Zip, zilch, nada.

If customers must wait, use the time to share what’s happening and build a relationship, especially for an aspirational purchase.

Above all, design for a specific emotion. Because that’s what experiences are all about.

West Elm’s branding and reputation suggest they designed this experience. But my experience suggests they didn’t.

As disappointed as I am as a customer, I’m even more disappointed as a CX professional. It’s almost criminal that a company would blow such a “gimme” opportunity. Designing for excitement is an ideal emotional North Star.

Whether you’re selling furniture or school supplies, providing software for sales or financial services, supporting members or accountholders, select one emotion and design your experience to deliver against it so your customers will look forward to every interaction with your company.


When the chair did not ship by February 5 as promised, I checked the website the following day (since the company still hasn’t communicated with me). Get this: the shipping date has now been postponed an additional THREE MONTHS. But that’s not even the worst of it – even though the vendor hasn’t started building the chair, I can’t cancel the order. I have to wait until they notify me that they’re ready to deliver it. Only then I can do what’s called a “dock return” and get a refund. That policy doesn’t benefit the customer OR the company.

Any doubt whether West Elm has earned the loyalty of this customer?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jim Tincher
Jim sees the world in a special way: through the eyes of customers. This lifelong passion for CX, and a thirst for knowledge, led him to found his customer experience consulting firm, Heart of the Customer (HoC). HoC sets the bar for best practices and are emulated throughout the industry. He is the author of Do B2B Better and co-author of How Hard Is It to Be Your Customer?, and he also writes Heart of the Customer’s popular CX blog.


  1. I have had the exact experience and am CURRENTLY waiting for a sofa. I made sure to order a non custom made product, but still the excessive wait. I will cancel my order when they want to schedule delivery, they should not be compensated for their lousy Customer Service.
    I will NEVER order or recommend West Elm to anyone, and if fact will steer friends away.


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