"You guys picked [Company] as a top ten online store. You have to be joking...
Where is their privacy statement? There isn't one. Where is their returns policy?
There isn't one. Where is their online Help? Ooops. You mean the thing up in one
corner that says 'help'? Have you tried it? Did anyone ever try to get help
from [Company]? I got yelled at once and was told they did not support [Product] any
more. And I got an e-mail answered once after six daysóbut hey, I got an answer. And
now for the second time they've lost my password. And they'd like me to pay
them another $29.95 [to renew an annual subscription service], but I only subscribed
in November 1999."
Because we sponsor awards for Web support sites, the ASP has lately become a magnet for
complaint letters from cranky customers.
Almost always, the complainers feel so betrayed that they can't wait to share their
experiences with strangers. And almost always, their complaints reflect genuinely irritating
treatment from companies that seem clueless about how angry their customers have become.
Is there really an epidemic of customer abuse? More likely, we're seeing what happens
when software companies (and others) interact in new and more open ways with their customers.
In pre-Internet days, resellers and other intermediaries handled most day-to-day customer
touchpoints. When customers did interact directly with the parent company, it was largely
through formal channels like tech support and the sales organization, staffed by professional
Then along came the Web, and suddenly the number of customer touchpoints spun out of control.
Like the author of our complaint letter, customers started to experience glitches--things
like insensitivity about privacy, poor online support, billing snafus, the returns policy--that
never before had much impact on the customer's total experience. In fact, by traditional
measures, our complaint author looks like a reasonably loyal customer, someone who buys
products and services and occasionally contacts tech support. Clearly, traditional measures no
longer tell a complete (or sometimes even remotely accurate) story about the interactions that
now shape customer attitudes.
Of course, there's no way to go back to the old days of tightly controlled customer
interaction. It's inevitable that companies will continue to interact with customers
in dozens of ways, and that many of those touchpoints will be a source of bitter unhappiness.
Still, there are a few ways to make sure the unhappiness is minimized:
- Speak with a single voice: If there's one thing that really ticks
off customers, it's capricious rules and Jekyll-and-Hyde inconsistencies. Customers
don't want to see marketing copy that's warm and inviting--and then run into
customer-be-damned policies from shipping and accounting. They don't want to get into
turf wars between customer service and tech support over who "owns" their problem.
And they get really irked when they see promises on the Web about response time on shipping,
e-mail queries, and credit card refunds that employees routinely ignore.
- Fix processes, not problems: Resolving complaints with an apology and a
refund isn't enough: Every complaint letter is also a potential red flag about a process
that probably should be redesigned. In effect, customers are continuously beta testing a
company's business practices, and the glitches they find are often symptoms of seriously
broken systems and outdated cost assumptions that may affect hundreds of other people.
- Don't hide contact information: We continue to be amazed at the
number of Web sites that bury the company's address and phone number and the names of
senior management. Of course, publishing the CEO's e-mail address may generate a lot
of unwelcome complaint mail. But it's also a way to make sure top management really
knows what problems need to be fixed.
- Be careful about setting expectations: Surprisingly, we rarely get
complaints about bureaucracies like Microsoft and IBM, which have a reputation (deserved or
not) for stonewalling their customers. Rather, most people seem to write us about companies
that have set high standards for service and responsiveness. It may be unfair, but customers
tend to be the least forgiving about companies that almost get it right.