Service that sucks

Forget the whole idea of sharing information and ideas, accessing the wisdom of the ages or communicating with far-flung colleagues and friends. The Internet these days is a bazaar and you can buy or sell anything your heart desires. Well, maybe.

Of all the things you can do online buying stuff is generating the most excitement at the moment. Forget the whole idea of sharing information and ideas, accessing the wisdom of the ages or communicating with far-flung colleagues and friends. The Internet these days is a bazaar — the world’s largest bazaar — and you can buy or sell anything your heart desires.

Yeah, right.

Let me give you an example — let’s say you want to go on holiday to Fiji since you didn’t get a break over Y2K. You search online, looking at a variety of Web sites and you find a place that looks lovely. You’re curious as to just how much it will cost to spend a week in this paradise, but the site doesn’t have anything so crass as prices — instead it has pictures of beautiful white-sand beaches, gorgeous sunsets, azure waters and multicoloured drinks with little umbrellas in them. There is, however, an email address from where you can ask such unpleasant questions as how much does it cost, when is cyclone season and do you cater for small children. With a deft clattering of the keyboard you can send off a missive, assured that they have received it (“Thank you for your enquiry — we shall contact you shortly by your preferred method of communication”) and that an answer will be winging its way to you at the speed of e-commerce.

I am not exaggerating when I say weeks pass. Finally, fed up waiting, you troop off to the nearest travel agent and book your tickets the old-fashioned way — in fact, the agent is so old-fashioned that when you try to pay with your credit card they look at you appalled and take it off you in the manner of someone handling a dead mouse, but that’s another story.

Still, your enthusiasm for online shopping isn’t diminished, just tarnished. You’re looking for a house to buy and although your wife is a tad sceptical, you hunt online for something in your price range. Apparently, you can afford to live in either a: a one-bedroom garage or two: Roxborough. But with those criteria in mind, you press on and log on to the Net. Here you find plenty of houses — nearly 2000 just in Auckland alone. Great. Fantastic. It takes you a while to sort through the list because the search engine only lets you select suburb or price, and it counts from the one-million-five houses down, but finally you print off a list of a dozen or so — having learned your lesson from the holiday you’re not going to wait for busy agents to read your email, you’re going to phone them all up instead.

One hour later you’ve learned two things: real estate people think it’s cute you’re looking for a house online and the houses you’ve printed off are all gone. They sold days, if not weeks ago. Sorry about that, but would you consider a town house on an “easy-care section” in Ponty

pridd?

The moral of the story is this: e-commerce is simply commerce and the same rules apply. In a previous life I was a restaurant manager and that’s not an environment where you can fob customers off too easily — believe me, I tried. There is only one rule in commerce — deliver what you promise or lose your customer. All other rules are derivatives of this one golden rule. If you promise to answer a customer enquiry speedily then do so. If you offer products then make sure you have them in stock. If they’re not in stock, don’t offer them — it’s that simple. The same rule applies to commerce conducted online (you can add a little “e” to the rule if it will make you feel more comfortable). If anything you have to be even more strict about adhering to this rule in the new economy — if you think customers vote with their feet quickly, you should see how fast they move that mouse. Online customers will be more demanding because the choices are almost immeasurable — if you can’t fulfil their shopping needs they’ll move on in a heartbeat and not look back. Customer loyalty can be measured in nanoseconds and you’d better be prepared to move at that speed or all your expensive Web presence will do for you is teach your customers you don’t care about them or their money. Look at the havoc this Christmas wreaked on e-commerce — US giants like eToys and Amazon have struggled to keep up with demand. It seems not having millions of customers is no excuse either — Flying Pig was swamped and delivery times stretched customer patience to breaking point. Commerce isn’t difficult but it is exacting —

e-commerce is no different.

Paul Brislen is a regular columnist and reporter for Computerworld. He’s not bitter — no, not at all.

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