Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Grinding my Axe on

It's sad. Very sad.

When something that has worked well for so long is utterly and inexplicably ruined, one can't help but feel a sense of loss. We feel this when an old friendship disintegrates or we watch a storied brand eaten by a corporate titan (does anyone remember AMC cars? The Rambler was a classic and the Javelin and Pacer at least interesting.) Unfortunately this has happened to Sigh... started life as in the late-90's. At a time when it was not certain that would dominate online books sales, a number of Internet book sellers popped up. was one of them. What set them apart was consistently good prices, a web site that gave accurate information, and great customer service. It's a damn shame that this is no longer the case. My experience last week is a case study in how to annoy long-term, loyal customers. After ten years of being just that, I find it sad, terribly sad, to see what they have become.

My son's birthday was coming up. Now that he is a teenager, his toys are looking more like my toys. Since he kept asking about borrowing my MP3 player, I thought it would make a great present for him. As has been my practice when I wanted an electronic gadget, I went up to, looked for the item I wanted, checked to see if it was in stock, then ordered it. I carefully figured out how long it would take (worst case) to get here. More than enough time, I said to myself. What I wanted was pretty specific too. The new SanDisk Sansa players allow you to add in SD memory cards. That makes them expandable. Since it is likely that his future music collection will be mostly electronic, the ability to store music on cards and swap them in and out seemed sensible. Think of it as futureproofing. I was definitely pleased with myself.

Ah! The sin of hubris. I should have known that disaster was lurking. As the day approached when I would present this neat little gadget to my first born, I became anxious. The present had not arrived. I check the website and - HORRORS - it was listed as "On Order". It had not even shipped! What now? I quickly looked up "On Order" and discovered that it was a euphemism for "we don't have it and don't know when we will have it". Panic time.

I next did what one does in this situation. I went to call customer service. One hitch though. The phone number for customer service is nowhere to be found on the site. I'm not some Internet neophyte. I know where they hide these numbers. It simply wasn't there. Well, they can run but they can't hide. I had an old invoice that had the number on it. I double checked the Internet forums (there is a forum for everything) and found the same number. I called the number. I wish I hadn't.

Back in my days in the call center industry, I helped the company I worked for establish an early overseas call center service. Talk about your past coming back to bite you. The call center was, shall we say, culturally insensitive. I explained to them that this was a birthday present and I needed it right away. I was treated with indifference and silence. Incredible. Not even "I'm so sorry sir. We apologize for the mix up." Nope. They did not even acknowledge that this was a problem. Their attitude was completely cavalier.

You might be wondering why could not ship something that was in stock. Turns out, even though the website says something is in stock, it doesn't mean that it actually is in stock. They only update inventory on the site once a day. I thought they were kidding. Live inventory lookup has been around since started business! They even admitted that they had no way of knowing when an out-of-stock item was due in. Once again, I wondered if they were joking. No ETA on popular items? Not even an estimate? No way. How 1970's.

Now, typically when you have an upset customer, especially when they are upset over your screw up, you offer to make them whole. Fix the problem in some concrete way. Sorry. Not happening here. I told them what I wanted since they didn't offer it. I asked for a different unit that was in stock, and which cost the same as the original, with free overnight shipping. Instead they offered me a gift certificate for $10 off my next purchase. Like that will happen before the next ice age. I hung up.

Okay, I can't leave it at that. Not me. So I called back. I figured that if I talked to a manager I might get some satisfaction. What was I thinking? The manager was only slightly less rude. I once again said what I wanted and she claimed she couldn't. Here's where she slipped. She said she had to follow certain cost guidelines. That blew the top off my head. I asked her if she was really willing to lose the entire sale and a long-term customer for the sake of a few bucks. She corrected herself and said it was just guidelines not cost guidelines. Too late! The genie is out of the bottle. is willing to nickel and dime their customers. I got that now. Thanks for the moment of honesty.

She offered me the same gift certificate which she said could be used to cover overnight shipping. So I had to order another product and cancel the current one. "Okay", said I, "let's do that". Now, here comes the kicker. Wait for it.... She couldn't do that either! I had to go to the website and do it myself. I was almost speechless, which is unique for me. Customer service can't take an order or cancel a product? That's not right. It's almost unbelievable. I hung up again.

I ran out to a local Circuit City and bought the same thing for ten bucks more. That's ten bucks well worth spending. The clerk was nice. When I couldn't' find what I was looking for on the shelf she went out of her way to find one in the back. Whereas had my blood pressure in the stratosphere, this simple act of service made me feel good to be shopping.The clerk even wished my son a happy birthday. I'll go back there. continued to add insult to injury. I canceled my order on the website. Fine. Done with that. Not so. It turns out that they are refusing to cancel the order since it has already "entered the shipping phase". It's shipping... Except that it still hasn't arrived at their warehouse and they can't tell me when it will. It's like a twisted version of a Buddhist koan "How can something be shipping when it is not there to ship?" The email said I could return it, refuse it, or keep it (and presumably pay for it). The chances of me catching the UPS guy to refuse it is negligible and I don't want to keep it. So it's more work on my part just to get my money back from them. I will probably have to wrangle with them for months to come, all the while my money is locked in their vaults.

So what is the point of this lengthy rant? To begin with, it's quite therapeutic. But I don't post stuff like that. I don't want to waste my readers time. Instead, it is here as a warning to companies that hope to shave a few points off their expense lines. Customer service is a bad place to do it. You will lose your most loyal customers and everyone they know. What is gained this quarter in expense reductions will be paid for time and time again in lost revenue. I see so many businesses doing this. They short change customers to make a few pennies float down to the bottom line. They then wonder where all those customers have gone. As Clint Eastwood says in High Plains Drifter, "Out." Recently, someone told me they would never buy anything from Dell again because of similar lousy (outsourced) service. I won't either now that I've heard that.

So, sales and marketing people, when the accountants tell you cut back on service or outsource to someplace overseas, think about what you've read here. Say to yourself "Okay they get the expenses down but how do I make my numbers?" Customer service is that ounce of prevention that keeps customers from flying toward the competition. wins while loses. That's what happens to cheapskates.


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