Why the e-commerce numbers seldom add up to customer satisfaction

Online retailers are set to enjoy another big increase in business this holiday season, but while the amount people spend online continues to surge the irritations for buyers show no sign of decreasing.

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Amazon would probably be cross with me if I revealed its customer help desk numbers. It does not publish them on its sites, so I suppose they are a secret. But if you search on Google you will find them, thanks to various more public-spirited citizens who have decided to publish and be damned. My experience is that having rung the magic number (you can find them for different countries), the service is exemplary – a function, presumably, of the relatively few people who make it that far.
According to a report publicised in the Financial Times this week, Amazon and other e-commerce sites can look forward to 24m UK consumers spending £5bn online this Christmas, up by 40 per cent from last year and an average of £208 ($358/ €304) each. Yet too often the same irritations for buyers remain as were there five or even 10 years ago. E-commerce has certainly progressed from the retailers’ point of view – online tracking has moved to a different planet, for example – but few merchants have decided that maybe the customer should be put first.

Intentional barriers and bizarre personalisation


Some of the hurdles are deliberate, such as Amazon’s refusal to put phone numbers on its sites. The company apparently feels that an initiative test – find the number yourself – is as a good a problem filter as any. But for those who find themselves batted continually back to Frequently Asked Questions pages, with e-mail options for the most persistent, Amazon is just plain annoying. Clearly, such a company must do its best to keep its call volumes down, but is there not a better solution than this? Live chat, maybe – that seems to give a good balance between customer satisfaction and cost, with one operator able to handle several conversations simultaneously (www.flightcatchers.com is an example). But I dare say Amazon has thought of that.
Similarly, Amazon must have wondered about its use of personalisation software – the device that watches what you are doing and theoretically serves you up exactly what you want. Except that it doesn’t. I, like most people, buy things for other people as well as for myself, with the result that my profile is that of a 10-year-old grandparent of both sexes who has just had a baby. And the system itself is bizarre – the early suggestions are straightforward enough (The Hobbit if you have bought Lord of the Rings), but going down the list I found I was being offered Cross Stitch Studio, a sewing program, because I had bought Family Tree Maker genealogy software, and the DVD of Finding Neverland because I had bought a cookery book called The Kitchen Diaries.
I suppose this is a way of promoting products I might not otherwise see, and is thus another shop window for Amazon. But a service to help me? I’m not convinced.

Irritations of inattention to detail


At least Amazon’s ‘mistakes’ are deliberate – its buying processes may have faults (why do I sometimes have to log in more than once?), but the ‘one click’ buying system – and, of course, its fulfilment – are in my experience excellent.
Other online retailers are irritating customers through a lack of care. I bought a keyboard from Ebuyer (www.ebuyer.co.uk), and fell into a series of traps. First, when I clicked on ‘Buy’, nothing happened – so I clicked again. Searching around the screen I found a small ‘Your cart’ box which showed I had ordered two keyboards. I corrected that, and headed for the checkout. I had two attempts at filling out the registration form – getting the spacing wrong on a phone number and failing to give a county as part of my address (like 7m other people I live in London, which is not in a county). Ebuyer did give a format for the phone number, but I instinctively put a space between the parts of my number – cannot modern software cope with such weakness (and also allow London to exist without a county)?
These are all small things, but I mention them because they are frustrations that have been around for as long as e-commerce has. I often come across others: failing to say when a field must be filled in, losing all previously supplied information if you press the back button, giving an entire list of countries of the world, rather than putting the main ones at the top (particularly tricky for us Brits – we do not know if we live in the UK, Great Britain or England).

Satisfaction of the simply perfect


Such nuisances are unnecessary, as is proved by the few sites that have worked on the problems. Interflora (www.interflora.co.uk) has a beautifully simple order form which has all sorts of interactive helpers, allows you to include special delivery instructions and, best of all, does not demand registration. Instead, it suggests you might like to register after you have made your purchase, pointing out benefits but not making a big deal of it – as you have already filled in most details in placing the order, there is little reason not to comply.
And all this without losing its commercial edge: Interflora cross-sells as aggressively as anyone and, do you know, I don’t resent that at all.
First published on ft.com 25.11.05

First published 30 November, 2005
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