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The customer is never right

Just when I was convinced that e-commerce finally had come of age, I was returned to the familiar world of consumer hell in buying a computer online. The problem: customer "service."

Some things never change.

In preparing for my first big-ticket e-commerce purchases, I did due diligence in product research and prices before venturing into the online malls. Surprisingly, the first transaction was a problem-free experience in thrift and convenience: I bought a digital camera through for $120 less than the going rate at brick-and-mortar stores, and it arrived in just a couple of days, ready to shoot.

Then there was the other experience. Just when I was convinced that e-commerce finally had come of age, I was returned to the familiar world of consumer hell in buying a computer online.

The difference in this tale of two sales, sadly, is that the second one involved people.

This is a tough thing to admit, because I'm one of those irritating types who rails against the overuse of computers at the expense of human contact. But the fact is that, in this day of salespeople oozing attitude and offering dubious communications skills, it seems consumers are better off not talking to a single person in the course of their business.

The actual purchasing process was not the problem. My hair began to stand on end only when I tried to change the delivery address of my order, which required the dreaded phone call. Or, more specifically, several calls to various representatives of the online store,

Buying the computer was the easy part. Again, no human interaction was involved (other than mine). The problems began when I requested, heaven forbid, that my shipping address be changed after my order was placed. What followed was the online equivalent of a visit to the California Department of Motor Vehicles: Every time I spoke with a representative, he or she sent me away to get more information.

I called's toll-free number and got a representative who said that the company would not change the shipping address but that I could contact Federal Express directly to change it. Fine.

When I called Federal Express, the representative there said I needed the package's tracking number. OK.

I called Insight again and was given the tracking number. But when I phoned FedEx this time, the rep said the call to change the destination address needed to be made by the shipper, in this case Still with me?

The third operator at told me she had never heard of this policy and sent me back to Federal Express, but not before making me feel like a complete idiot--the true sign of a telephone "support" veteran.

Finally, FedEx gave me a definitive answer: "It can't be done," the customer representative said plainly. "The box is clearly marked with instructions from the shipper saying this item cannot be redirected to a different address."

Arrrrgh. Back to

"Yes, that's true. It's company policy," the fourth Insight rep said. "Because many of our items are so costly, we don't want them going to the wrong places."

When I told him that three other people who answered the same 800 line in his department failed to mention any of this, he scoffed and said everyone knows this policy.

Enough already. I asked to speak with the supervisor. Explaining that I was now on the phone with a fifth Insight employee inside of an hour, I naively thought some sympathy was in order. Wrong again.

"Did you get the names of the other people you spoke with?" asked the supervisor, clearly impressed with the vast authority he wielded from his cubicle. When I replied in the negative, he said, "Well, you should have."

So much for service with a smile. He did everything but keep me after class for detention.

The worst part about this story is that it's undoubtedly just one of countless others, many of them far more tortuous than mine. Ironically, the weak link for many service-based companies is their people.

During the '80s, trickle-down theorists hailed the beginning of a new era of the "service-based economy." America no longer needed to sully its hands with making things, this thinking went, for we supposedly had evolved well beyond the smokestack stage of our young history. Instead of relying on heavy industries like steel and autos, the modern U.S. economy would thrive on services ranging from insurance and legal advice to sales and investment banking.

One catch: Outside the top tier of this new economic world order, the work can be unrewarding and the wages often less than inspiring. The result? A lot of people who are employed but not necessarily good at their jobs, and they don't particularly care because they're not getting paid enough. I suspect that many of these people act out their aggression behind the wheel or in the flames of email.

Whether such was the case in my telephone encounters matters not. All I know was that I was treated rudely, given erroneous directions, and left unable to do something as simple as getting a package delivered to my office instead of my home--even after it had been paid for.

None of this has soured me on the notion of buying things online. But for all their innovation, technologies, and gravity-defying IPOs, I worry that Internet companies may fail to learn a simple principle that makes my neighborhood grocery a booming success: The customer is always right.

What a concept.

In between rants over the decline of civilization, Mike Yamamoto is managing editor of