Don’t Use Technology as an Excuse for Bad Customer Service

First published April 11, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

We all have our horror stories about online customer service. Just in the past two weeks, I added two more to my collection.

After placing an online order with Costco, I’ve had to wait (at this point) a week after the promised delivery date to get the stuff I bought and paid for. Three separate attempts to contact the shipper have been unsuccessful – the first two were simply ignored and the last one resulted in the shifting of blame to the local agent, who was supposed to call me to resolve the issue. That was 48 hours ago, and still no call. I suppose I could invest more of my time to harass them until they actually respond, but frankly, at this point, I just want to wash my hands of the whole transaction.

With the other example, the damage was done before I ever made the purchase, thank heavens. I was planning a trip using Kayak and sorted my booking options according to price. There, in the same format as the search results, was an ad from a well-known travel brand. I assumed the ad would offer me a rate that was comparable to the other results above and below it. After all, I had sorted by rate, so position should equate to price.  In fact, the ad offered a lower rate than the search result immediately above it. The ad worked – kind of. I did click it, only to find the promised offer evaporated and my actual rate was four times the price of the competitor. I quickly clicked back to Kayak to book with one of the competitors, having learned to ignore any further ads from this particular company.

Here’s the troubling thing. Most of you will say, “So what?” These two stories are not that unusual. We’ve come to accept this level of service online as the norm. The online market place is SNAFU – in it ‘s most literal sense. My question is, why? Why do sellers feel they can get away with this, and, what’s more important, why do we, the customer, accept it as the new normal?

Here’s my hypothesis. We accept it because we can’t look the offending party in the eye. They do it because they don’t have to answer for it face to face. Anonymity and arm’s length transactions prevent crappy business-people and their practices from being held accountable.

We humans have a long list of subtle and not so subtle things we can do to ensure fairness in transactions – but they all evolved to work face to face. Over our history, we have evolved many social “governors” that play on our emotions. In general, they work pretty well, as long as we’re all in the same room, tent, hut, tribal circle or canoe. But these governors, 10 thousand generations in the making, are being rendered ineffective by technology in the space of just one generation. We’re hiding behind a computer screen because we can.

I’m sure the customer service agent at the courier company would think twice about promising me a shipment on a certain day – a promise she had no intention of keeping – if she was making that promise to my face and she knew I’d be back the day after the parcel failed to show up.

And I find it hard to imagine that a hotel, airline or car rental firm would offer me a rate that was totally fictitious if they knew the actual cost was going to be three or four times what they offered. At least, I find it hard to imagine they’d do that if I was standing across the counter from them at the time.

So why, I ask again, do we settle for less in our arm’s length transactions? I believe every online company should use the BIP rule of thumb – do business as if you’re doing Business In Person. Assume you’re looking at the person you’re dealing with in the eye. Treat them as if they’re your next-door neighbor. Before you screw them over, assume you’ll have to say “Good morning” every day as you hop in your car and go to work.

You have a conscience for a reason – use it for what it was intended for.

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