Good News: More E-tail Complaints

The e-commerce world got some good news in recent days when the Better Business Bureau (BBB) reported that it received nearly 4,000 complaints about e-tail sites last year, more than double the number from 1999.

Good news? This might sound like the ultimate in spin control or a sarcastic slam. But think about it: The fact that people are bothering to take the time to complain at all means that e-commerce has come a long way.

In fact, the BBB has even more good news — the kind that’s good right on the surface. The number of complaints that are getting resolved is also up, a sign that e-tailers are starting to understand the “customer service matters” message being driven home by every shopper, analyst and expert in the free world.

In the early days of e-commerce, complaints to the BBB were few and far between. But was that a sign that everything was fine in e-tail land? Hardly.

Criticism Wanted

Given that five years out, the e-commerce industry is still wrestling daily with shipping issues and customer service snafus, it’s more likely that complaints were being absorbed by frustrated customers in the early days.

The low number of formal complaints in the past is a sign that people didn’t think the sites they shopped at then were worth complaining about. They probably didn’t believe anything would get done even if they did complain. So why bother?

Bark and Bite

Now people do bother, and in ever-growing numbers. E-commerce has risen to the level where people think that their e-tail experiences merit the attention of an organization like the BBB.

The BBB’s strength comes only from the black eye it can give a company that isn’t in good standing. The BBB doesn’t have jurisdiction to order the companies to do anything or the power to levy fines. But it has the best interest of the customer in mind, at least in theory, and so by complaining to the BBB, customers have given it even more power.

In short, the complaint tally is a badge of honor of sorts the e-commerce should wear with pride. After all, the BBB says that among the sectors that draw the most complaints are car dealers and telephone companies. And last I checked, cars were selling pretty well and nearly everyone had a phone.

Wall of Shame

Now, obviously, e-tailers shouldn’t go out seeking more complaints. Priceline (Nasdaq: PCLN) didn’t do itself any favors when it got booted from the bureau’s membership in Connecticut for failing to satisfy a boatload of complaints.

But Priceline is back in the Connecticut BBB, a small but noteworthy sign that the name-your-own-price e-tailer is successfully adhering to its pledge to improve customer service.

The BBB says businesses online have even more incentive to get it right with the competition a click away. That argument misses the point, however.

The reason for getting it right is the pain and suffering and cash so many dot-coms went through to get those customers in the first place. With customers so hard to get, why not do everything possible to keep them?

Black Eyes

Some complaints do no one any good, of course. The CyberRebate fiasco had the BBB phones ringing off the hook. The best thing e-commerce can do to address a mess like that is to wall it off — to prove to customers that CyberRebate, and other sites that leave people high and dry, are aberrations.

E-commerce customers know that the power has shifted to them. They know who to call when they don’t get satisfaction.

That is the best news yet. E-commerce wants good customers, because they can help distinguish between the weak and the strong, between those businesses that care about customers and those that are only out to make a quick buck.

The best thing e-commerce can do is to take customer complaints seriously. Treat the complaints as a way to prove that someone cares, that people are paying attention. And then fix the problems that online customers have reported.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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