Ecommerce and Tolerance

I’ve ranted verbosely in the past about the customer service industry going down the tubes (Adventures in Small Business Banking, One Voice, A Representative Will Be With You Shortly, Network Solutions is Utter Garbage, and recently, Guaranteed Value vs. Value Assessments) where much was stemming from experiences with online orders, so the following short tirade will certainly not seem out of character.

In an industry where 90% of the transaction is automated and inexpensive, unlike that of real estate, used car sales or even graphic design, it would seem pretty obvious that the best way to retain ecommerce customers is through a gratifying and easy online experience. If I collected money from a client under the agreement that I would deliver a design work on-time, I could assume the client would be dissatisfied when I followed up with a form letter informing them of upcoming truancy.

Their anger might even be compounded if the letter was cold, impersonal and offered no explanation for the reason of this delay—other than the fact that the issue was on my end and I’m working on it. To further add insult to the client, I might also include that I couldn’t tell them how long the delay was, except that it could be as short as 12 hours. Not communicating the reason for an issue, but sending a templated response informing the client of the second best possible scenario (other than the product being delivered on-time) is an empty method to pacify the disgruntled. I certainly understand that not all industries can quantify this equally, so providing graphic design services and mailing a widget from a colossal warehouse do not perfectly correlate. However I do think that expectations correlate, customers—particularly in a competitive market—correlate, and the services-for-cash system correlates.

Worst Case Scenario
Imagine I’m your doctor. I sit you down and tell you that the surgery we scheduled for your burst appendix may need to be delayed. It’s my fault, I say, but I won’t tell you why. Theoretically, your surgery may only be delayed 15 minutes, though. Feel better?

Imagine I’m your pharmacist. You approach my pick-up counter and I tell you that your prescription for rash ointment will not be able to be filled within the hour, as promised and advertised. It might take days, I say, however there’s a chance it could be available while you wait. How relieved you must feel to learn that it’s not your fault that there is a delay, but the pharmacy’s. Now you can sit comfortably for a nondescript amount of time, dealing with the itchiness and the peace of mind that the prescription will be filled, at some point.

Why Do We Tolerate It?

In my opinion, our tolerance stems from the cold, hard nature of ecommerce. We either deal with the bad service or cancel the order and gamble on getting better bad service elsewhere. If we were standing at the counter of a pharmacy or laying in an O.R., we’d raise holy hell about mistreatment and castigate their inability to provide an advertised service in a timely manner. But the internet is different. The salesman is a server humming somewhere across the world. It has no compassion and there’s nothing but miles and hours of hold music between you and its manager. It doesn’t care if you re-order in the future and it certainly isn’t worried about losing its job. You can be certain, hanging above the door in this salesman’s breakroom, there is no sign that says “The customer is always right”. And because of this paradox, click-and-mortar retailers have felt quite comfortable getting away with the irritating sales tactics that their brick-and-mortar predecessors cannot.

What Can We Do to Prevent It?
Naturally, this diatribe stems from the email you see below, generated by The Target Corporation for an online order which will not arrive in time to watch my friend blow out his birthday candles. I like The Target Corporation. They’ve hired me to provide environmental design for some pretty incredible events in New York City, including the Target Holiday Boat, in 2002, and Target Benchmarks Central Park, in 2003. They donate about a million dollars a week to charity and they’re a socially conscious, employee-focused company. So the only reason I felt compelled to write this article is because of the follow-up letter they sent.

About seven years ago, the same thing happened with 1-800-FLOWERS when a number of their online orders were delayed for Valentine’s Day, mine included. I was irritated that my girlfriend didn’t receive her bouquet, at her place of business, as my expedited order (and express shipping payment) promised. However their response to the issue was quite beautiful. The CEO of the company wrote a letter explaining that their servers malfunctioned and apologized profusely. He begged his customers to stay, assured that measures were taken to prevent the issue from happening in the future—and so far has made good on his promise—and offered all customers that were victims of the glitch a $25.00 discount off future bouquets. No limitations such as “…on orders of 75.00 or more” and no tricks. He paid through the nose to keep his customers happy and, as a result, I’ve continued to use their services since. Strategically, I don’t know how the PR affected 1-800-FLOWERS. Maybe it hurt them in the long-run, maybe the slashdot and technews blogs made them look like a pristine example of online etailers. Either way, the impact taught a lesson: Just because your salespeople are machines, it doesn’t mean your customers are.

I continually shout from the rafters that the only way to prevent the kind of abuse perpetuated by, and other etailers that take advantage of online users’ and their growing complacency and futility in dealing with online orders, is to stop tolerating it. I was riled up enough to write a post about it, you can be sure I was irked enough to stay on the phone long enough to speak with someone. Their apathetic and saccharine apologies aside, you can achieve great justice if you just have the patience. Orders will be comp’d, shipping will be free, and the customer will once again, after a long technological hiatus, be right.

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