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Service still stinks!

CNET's Mike Yamamoto notes that while bad service is not unique to online companies, the transaction side of e-tailing is rife with more than enough incompetence. Go figure.

If you think this is going to be one of those whiny rants about lousy customer service on the Web, you're right.

Everyone's got a favorite e-commerce horror story, and I'm no different--in fact, I have dozens. But this one, involving Webvan, stood apart from even the worst of experiences.

Sold on its TV commercials that mock crowded supermarkets, my wife and I recently went to the online grocer's Web site to place our first order. It was a Thursday, but the earliest time we could schedule a delivery was Saturday morning.

A few hours after we made the reservation, Webvan called to say our Saturday morning slot wasn't available after all, so we rescheduled for the afternoon. Then, on the morning of our delivery day, another Webvan representative called to say the new time wouldn't be possible either. And we couldn't reschedule because the computers were down.

The next morning (now Sunday), a third Webvan employee called. This time, the rep simply dictated what our new window for delivery would be, without input from us. Exasperated, we agreed to be at home at the designated times, even though it meant rearranging our schedules at the last minute.

A half-hour later, Webvan called again, saying the window wouldn't work. We were told to wait for another call to reschedule for a fourth time.

No one ever called back.

The reason for writing all this is not just to get some cheap cathartic therapy (well, not entirely). I offer this anecdote as an example of everything that is wrong with customer service on the Web.

Poor service is clearly not unique to online companies, but there seems to be a preponderance of incompetence on the transaction side of e-tailing. In fact, things are so bad that an online purchase is often more notable when nothing goes wrong.

But I'm not here just to complain. I actually have a suggestion for the e-tailers of the world: Treat customer service reps as if they were the most important part of the operation, next to the product itself.

That means paying them well--as opposed to the lowest end of the scale, which is often the case. For some reason, companies seem to regard customer reps as interchangeable and disposable parts. I suspect that, just because their work is done on the phone, they are thought of as cold-calling telemarketers who deserve only minimum wage.

No wonder that talk of organizing the first true high-tech labor unions has taken hold on that side of the industry.

It's far easier said than done, of course. Given the size of customer service staffs, typically among the largest at any retail company, a lot of money would be required to improve performance across the board. Granted, the timing couldn't be worse right now as many e-tailers are struggling simply to survive.

Still, many dot-coms seem to be headed in precisely the opposite direction, going as far as not answering calls in a misguided effort to cut costs.

Call me old school, but I honestly do believe that companies should operate as if the customer is always right. The concept, after all, is largely responsible for the success of Old Economy catalog retailers, such as Lands' End.

Let's face it: The only thing that differentiates most online retailers from their brick-and-mortar counterparts is the Web site vs. physical stores as the primary point of sale.

So it only makes good sense to follow the best practices of retailers that did successful business for years before the Internet went mainstream. Nordstrom, for example, revolutionized the retail world--and the modern notion of customer service--by compensating its sales force far better than its competitors compensated their workers, largely through higher commissions. The department store chain's prices weren't the cheapest, but its exceptional service bred loyalty among patrons who were willing to pay more for the quality of personal treatment, as well as for products.

Unfortunately, Nordstrom remains an anomaly despite its proven track record. In fact, the malady of retail rudeness has reached epidemic proportions in recent years, particularly as cavalier workers have become increasingly emboldened by the wealth of jobs reflected in the nation's low unemployment rate.

On a universal scale, poor service can have dire consequences that go well beyond the occasional offended patron. Taken to its logical extreme, the bad attitude responsible for shoddy customer treatment could theoretically help stifle the direction of the national economy.

As the United States has evolved from its smokestack roots, trickle-down theorists have evangelized the dawning of a "service economy." Mirroring the progress of the immigrant generations who arrived at the height of the Industrial Revolution, this theory goes, America had grown beyond its working-class beginnings and could rely on businesses that offer white-collar services.

There's just one problem: The hypothesis falls apart when people don't want to do the job. That puts the burden on employers to give workers sufficient incentive to perform well.

None of this is rocket science, but these concepts have repeatedly eluded companies in all corners of the service business. The dot-coms have simply exacerbated the problem, often losing sight of the basics in the rush to go public or peddle a bad business idea.

That, at least, is the only explanation I can imagine for our Webvan debacle. Fittingly, though, the episode ended not with another phone call but with a decidedly digital communication.

Weary of dealing with unreliable service reps, my wife logged back into Webvan's site in search of any clue about the status of our ill-fated groceries. There, in black and white pixels, she at least found closure.

Our order was marked "canceled."