Web Self-Service Strikes Out

A popular theme in e-commerce these days is that companies can leverage their Web sites to improve overall performance. Within this philosophy, self-service — using an Internet presence to help customers find answers to their questions — is a hot topic.

But this concept is still coming into its own, and already there’s a problem: Customers expect many more answers than Web sites are prepared to provide. The result? Self-service is coming to mean, in effect, no service.

I got a good laugh the other day when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) nominated General Electric (GE) (NYSE: GE) for one of its annual e-commerce awards.

GE has leveraged the Web to great effect on the business-to-business side of its business, but for consumers, it’s about as bad as it gets.

Tunnels and Lights

I spent an age at the GE Web site one night, trying to find out where I could get a replacement light bulb for the supposed high-efficiency fixtures that GE and my electric utility sold me a while ago.

Already, I had searched the home improvement, hardware and department stores, so I knew where they weren’t. I went to the site to find out where they were.

It should be noted that GE won’t sell you anything through their Web site if you’re not an airline looking for an engine or a steel plant in need of a new turbine. The consumer does get directed to an online catalog, though.

Just Browsing

Now, my experience has been that catalogs almost always provide some means of buying the things displayed therein. This is one of the most salient facts about catalogs in my mind.

Not so Their catalog is just a nice listing of what they make, almost as if they’re bragging about the array of products they’ve managed to dump into the market. Ah, but there’s some self-service light at the end of the tunnel: a “Where to Buy” link. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Well, not really. The link provides a list of national chain stores and — isn’t this helpful? — their Web sites and phone numbers. Some of those sites have links to “locate stores” that often lead to regional distribution companies, not stores.

Self-service? Try anti-service. Is calling Wal-Mart headquarters in Benton, Arkansas, or the RetailRight distribution company in Portland, Maine, really the best way for me to find a light bulb in suburban Boston?

Forget it. This odyssey started about a month ago. To this day, a corner of my family room sits in gloomy darkness, a perfect metaphor for how far the Web still has to go.

Messy, Messy, Messy

But this isn’t just about GE or my family room. No way. Come into my garage, and I’ll tell you another story of how the great self-service revolution on the Internet has driven me to distraction.

Before Christmas, Rubbermaid began airing television commercials for its long-handled tool organizer. It’s nothing revolutionary, just a box with slots that hold shovels, rakes and other tools neatly in place. Do I need such a thing? Since I average one long-handled tool crushed by car tires every month or so, I believe I do.

Rubbermaid had me hooked like a flopping fish. So, would it reel me in? I took the bait and jumped into the fisherman’s lap, metaphorically speaking, by clicking to the site.

There it was, under “garage organization,” the key to my salvation: photographs, dimensions and descriptions of the long-handled tool organizer. I was mesmerized. I would have laid down 500 hard-earned bucks right then and there for that stupid piece of molded plastic.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

“Would have” being the operative phrase. Rubbermaid doesn’t sell this item through its site, either. But, hey, it’s okay, there’s a “Where to Buy” link. Sound familiar?

Yes, there’s a list of national home improvement and hardware stores. No phone numbers or links, though. I’ve checked two stores on the list and called a third — I told you I want this thing — but so far, I’ve been met with blank stares and awkward silences.

Bottom line: Rubbermaid should give up fishing and take up curling, or maybe something dangerous like bobsledding. They dangled the bait, and not only did I take it, I hooked myself real good, jumped into the boat, and offered to filet and bread myself. Rubbermaid politely declined that offer by not providing me with the most basic information, let alone — here’s a thought — the ability to buy the item online.

Self-Service Strikeout

From this customer’s point of view, the only way GE and Rubbermaid could make their Web sites more self-service is if they offered information on how to make their products myself. And right now, I’m fresh out of molded plastic parts and energy-saving lightbulbs.

Hey, I’m realistic. I don’t expect a customer service rep to come to my house with the product in tow. I don’t even expect the company to take my hand and lead me to the product on a shelf.

But I don’t expect to waste my time on a company’s site, either. That isn’t self-service; it’s self-destruction.

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.


  • I agree.

    I called the 800 number to order a replacement part from GE for my broken Microwave handle and paid $30 for the part.

    At an ecommerce seminar, the lecturer told me I’d have paid $15 on the site. I felt embarrassed because I do tech support and hound the Microsoft, Novell and HP support sites for a living. I knew in my heart the GE site was a waste of time. I wish you were in that class with me for moral support.

    I believe the tide is set though. Just like people used to say (in 1995), Windows crashed my system and I’m uninstalling it, and now it’s like water in an ocean. GE will one day refer you to the local distributer and allow you to buy from them online. If GE sold the part online, it would put their sales channel out of business. Give GE and their sales channel ten years and they will have the web service figured out.

    In the meantime, I’d like to slap the e-evangelists silly, ’cause IT AIN’T HERE NOW.


    resistence is futile

  • It’s always refreshing to hear about large corporations making a mess of their online presence – it means that the space for the small guy (if he/she gets their act together) can be a success.

  • Self-service does not exist in a vacuum. Until humanoid robots take over customer service departments, Call Centers and Help Desks should always be an out to Web-based frustrations. Self-service is more about incorporating automation tools into a Web site that make it easier to find frequently requested information. They are not the end-all-be-all to answering every question. They should, however, be able to respond quite efficiently to frequently asked questions. It would be beneficial to learn whether GE or Rubbermaid have incorporated such tools on their Web sites.

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