Is there anything more indefensible—both technically and morally—than poor customer service on e-commerce Web sites? I dont think so.
An e-commerce site can have the best interfaces, great underlying technology and complete interactivity, but if it doesnt treat customers well and isnt forthcoming with information and support, nothing else will matter.
Conversely, a site can have a primitive interface, but if it provides excellent support and treats its customers in an honest and straightforward manner, those customers will probably come back, even though the site isnt the flashiest.
Like any person who regularly shops on the Internet, I have had both types of experience. I regularly return to the sites that treat me right while blacklisting those that dont have the time to deal with me.
Few companies can get away with providing customers with almost no support or updated information. One of the only ones that can is Amazon.com, which regularly fares poorly on consumer rating sites such as www.planetfeedback.com but somehow still manages to remain among the top Media Metrix e-commerce sites.
Heres an example of Amazon.coms idea of customer service: I decided to use an Amazon gift certificate to buy a big-ticket item from Amazon in March. I wasnt in any hurry for delivery, so I decided to choose the free delivery.
A month went by. I received a notice that the delivery would be delayed. The item was marked on the notice as in stock, but there was no information on why the shipment would be delayed.
Another month went by. I received another notice saying the product would be delayed, again without any reason provided. This time, I decided some customer support was in order.
How to find customer support on Amazon.com? Clicking on the Help link brought me to a page full of marginally useful FAQ items. So I then clicked on the link labeled “Still Need Help? Contact Customer Service.”
But again, no customer service was apparent, simply more information directing me to past FAQs. I then clicked on a link for General Questions. This brought me to yet another page with FAQ information. Buried at the bottom was a button labeled “E-mail us.”
So here I am, four links deep in the Web site, and all I get is a 1995-style HTML e-mail form. A day after filling this out, I got a very polite e-mail response with apologies for the delay and a $5 gift certificate. But I still received no reasons for the delay of an item still listed as in stock.
Compare this with another experience at about the same time. Sick of buying new batteries for her Panasonic portable CD player, my wife asked if I could get her rechargeable batteries and a power adapter for it.
Heading to Panasonics Web site, I was happy to find both support and part-ordering links right on the home page. From these pages, there were a number of useful links for calling, e-mailing or finding information on my own.
Heading into the part-ordering area, I was stunned by the primitive interface. It wasnt altogether easy finding things, but I was able to locate both the batteries and the charger for my wifes player.
A couple of days after placing the order, I received an e-mail, clearly produced by an automated system, informing me that one of the items was unavailable. But the notice did state the item was out of stock and listed the date it was expected to be back in stock. It also gave me the option to cancel the purchase.
Not needing the item immediately, I did not cancel; it was delivered on the day it was supposed to be back in stock.
Now, there was no magic here, just straightforward information. If Amazon provided the same, I would feel a lot more comfortable about ever getting my purchase. And dont tell me Amazon cant implement similar automated technology to make its customer support more friendly. Postponement must be a cornerstone of Amazon.coms business strategy: in profitability, order shipments and customer satisfaction.
The bottom line: Its not good business to keep your customers in the dark. Before implementing flashy technology, give your customers the information they need.
More from Jim Rapoza: