Issue 217, January 29, 2001  

Customer Service Revisited: The Holiday Rush

By Stephen M. Lawton

      During the past few weeks, statisticians have had a field day trying to determine if the dot-coms did a better job of responding to customers during the 2000 holidays than they did in 1999. According to some industry pundits, this was the make-or-break year for retailers — if they blew it in 2000, shoppers would be less likely to look online in 2001 for their gifts. To paraphrase that old cliché, burn me once [in 1999], shame on you; burn me twice [in 2000], you've lost me forever as a customer!
      This year I, too, was among those who spent more money and time online buying holiday gifts. And as I expected, I had some very good and very bad experiences. It seems that some companies still don't get it about customer service. Sure, they have a "Track Your Order" button and a 24-hour toll-free phone number for customer service. That's good, sort of. But that's not enough. The problems arise when customer service won't serve.
      This point was driven home when I tried to buy a book from I already knew the book was being shipped late from the publisher; etoys' site said it would ship in six to eight weeks. Nonetheless, I placed an order in mid-November. In late December, the book was showing up on and as being in and shippable in 24 hours.
      Great, I thought. Etoys should be shipping soon. But alas, it was not to be.
      Even when the book hit the local bookstores, it still was listed as not available, with a four- to five-week waiting period from etoys. Needless to say, I canceled my order and bought the book locally. (Etoys' problems could have resulted from its current financial difficulty, which resulted in layoffs and shuttering of its U.K. operations. The company wouldn't say.)
      Even had problems shipping me two books that it listed as being in stock when, in fact, they were not.
      However, after a couple of e-mails back and forth, the company decided to split my shipment, sending me four books that were in stock and waiting on the final two.
      As an apology for misstating the books' availability, the company waived shipping charges. That's the way to do things right — keep the customer satisfied.
      Not every e-commerce site had problems, of course. Land's End, for example, performed just as well this year as last, which is to say, splendidly. The order was taken, packages were shipped quickly and returns were a snap. also got its shipments out quickly and correctly. It's a pity the company has yet to turn a profit — I hope it does soon and doesn't become yet another dot-gone.
      Now, if only I could get my computer, when I go to the site, to give me those food samples that brick-and-mortar Costco offers.

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