Customer Service: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

A friend of mine — who is very good at finding the dark side of every bright picture — firmly believes that in the midst of the United States’ longest run of peacetime prosperity, we are faced with the sad truth that customer service is dead.

In their haste to meet rapidly increasing customer demand, companies are producing lower quality stuff. And the decline of the customer service that ought to ease the pain of a disappointing purchase makes things worse.

By any measure, my friend is a cynic who searches for storm clouds in the clearest of skies. But he makes a good point: Companies who make customer service a high priority now — when customers are queued up with money to burn like teenagers waiting for tickets to the Backstreet Boys — will continue to thrive when times get a bit harder.

The past week has provided some excellent examples of customer service trials and tribulations in the e-commerce world. The results? Some good, some bad and some downright ugly.

Bear in mind that customer service is an ongoing process that fills every minute of a typical e-tail day — every time an order is placed or a question is asked. Examples are not always a good basis for generalizations. Still, every online retailer can learn lessons from watching what others do well — and not so well.

Not Good, But Great

First, the good. Amazon took the spotlight when it promised to deliver the new Harry Potter book on the very day that store sales were authorized to begin — a Saturday no less — to everyone who had pre-ordered it by a specified deadline. It was a tall order — over 250,000 volumes — and Amazon and its partner, Federal Express, came very close to pulling it off.

Close, but no cigar. According to news reports, about 3,800 people did not get their books on time due to a software snafu that misread mailing addresses on some orders. Amazon said that 1.5 percent of the books did not make it into the hungry hands of Potter’s fans on the big day. In other words, the company only scored 98.5 percent on keeping its promise.

That’s not bad, but something even better happened next. Amazon admitted its mistake — first to its customers and then to reporters who wanted to know how the much-publicized delivery went. Then the company offered to make it up to the customers who received late shipment by giving them full refunds of the purchase price — plus shipping and handling — and they got to keep their books.

The total cost for Amazon’s nice apology could reach as much as $75,000 (US$), but such a sum is hardly noticeable to a company like Amazon, and won’t even force Jeff Bezos to break that $1 billion bill he’s been waving about.

But it is a good gesture, and moreover, it’s what good customer service boils down to in the end. It is about doing the obviously right thing at the right time, without hesitation and regardless of short-term costs. It’s not brain surgery.

The Very Bad

Which brings us to Alta Vista. After going to great lengths to beef up its e-commerce offerings during the past year, the portal found itself in a slippery situation. And it responded in true snaky fashion — by trying to slither its way out.

What happened was this: Instead of notifying the usual 20 prize-winners per day, AltaVista’s shopping area went wild and crazy for awhile, distributing announcements to thousands of visitors saying they had each won $500 worth of shopping credit.

Well, not really.

AltaVista said that many of the alleged winners were actually people who learned — the word had spread via message boards — that by hitting the refresh button on their browsers multiple times, they could magically become winners. Alta Vista’s response was to just say no — basically throwing out all those who qualified for the $500 prize during its spell of over-generosity, giving everyone except 20 “real winners” a booby prize of $1.

Included in the group of un-winners, however, were some site visitors who did not tamper with their refresh buttons, and many of them wasted no time flaming AltaVista in every venue they could find. An AltaVista spokesman defended the company, comparing the situation to what happens when a bank falsely credits an account.

Ample Blame To Go Around

I am not defending the people who used technological trickery to become winners. But the customers raising a stink are making a good point: Alta Vista made a mistake, and when it was discovered, the company had a choice.

As always, one of the options was to do the right thing. It would have been expensive, to be sure, but it would have been right. Alta Vista should have ponied up the $500 for each winner and made the most of it by grabbing a heap of consumer satisfaction along with some great PR.

Instead, AltaVista’s bad move was highlighted because other similar glitches that occurred around the same time were handled differently. For instance, was the last to find out that customers could use its $20 coupon over and over again — yet when the flaw was discovered, eZiba did nothing to stop it, and red-faced, deemed the promotional ploy a success.

The Really, Really Ugly

Now for the ugliest example yet — this one amounts to customer abuse. By trying to auction off its customer list in bankruptcy court, the defunct went so far out of bounds that the Federal Trade Commission sued them. (Not that the FTC is laid back, but you have to misbehave pretty badly to get them that fired up.)

The reason that the FTC got involved is that Toysmart promised that it would never do exactly what it tried to do — disclose its customers’ personal information.

At a minimum, customer service demands that promises be kept, both those stated outright — such as Toysmart’s policy and AltaVista’s “Congratulations” messages — and those implied in the buy-and-sell contract. And it means doing it even when it is difficult, unpleasant and costly.

It was a busy week on the customer service front, and on balance, e-commerce scored low. There are millions of customer service success stories out there, of course, and many representatives are providing above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty service every day, even while taking a lot of guff from rude consumers. But those cases aren’t usually what the public hears — or even cares about.

They say you find out a lot about people when their backs are against the wall. How we act in a crisis tells others a lot about us. That is true of companies, too. Unfortunately, a few highly publicized bad actions are often taken as indications of general behavior, whether or not such conclusions are warranted. E-commerce might be sending the message that when the chips are down, the customers must take the fall.

If so — when they get up and brush themselves off, you can bet they’ll turn around and walk the other way.


  • I found one error in this story: The assumption that can just eat a $75,000 error. This couldn’t be farther from the truth! is still trying to become profitable! A $75,000 error drags them that much further away from that goal. Just because they’re a large company with large revenue, does NOT mean they can afford a $75,000 error.

  • The day of customer service is long dead. What will have to happen for us to return to the quality of products and services we once knew? A REAL-LIFE DEPRESSION. Frankly, I tend to believe that when people REALLY need a job, they are so delighted to have one they actually DO IT! I have only one company I deal with regularly which I can honestly say has delivered FAR above and beyond on their customer service….my little old waste collection service owned and operated locally. That’s the only company I deal with on a regular basis that honestly delivers quality services and with a smile – you know what that is, right? That’s where you ask a question, a knowledgeable person responds intelligently and with the two corners of their lips turned UP. Isn’t that a sad, sad day? When the only company you can turn to as an example of excellent modern customer service is your garbage pickup company! I say, let the recession continue – feed it, nurture it, let there be a few runs on some banks! We might just be AM azed at how friendly the cashier at McDonald’s becomes in those times!

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