Sustainable Retail Distribution on the Internet

clicktobookpanel2When  internet-shopping, you can’t look your retailer in the eye. You lose a deeply intuitive (and largely effective) indicator of whether you and your seller are a good match. So how do you know the ‘personality’ of your seller?

It’s an important question, because customers who are too demanding may break the business model, and businesses that don’t provide the service level we expect can have large hidden costs to their customers. There should be a place for absolute price-dumpers with no follow-on service levels, as well as for real premium sellers with outstanding after-sales service. As long as people flying Ryanair know upfront they’ll get abused if the tiniest thing goes wrong, and as long as the customers of customers of de Beers know they pay for an ‘experience’, and a sentimental value the thing never had before they bought it, and never will have on re-sale either, everyone is happy.

I admit upfront, this is a post with no real answers. Some web-sites are designed to reflect a business’ personality. Many are not. The best I could come up with is “read the small print”. But reading the small print is a cerebral exercise. It’s difficult, time-consuming, and most of us still can’t make a mental image of the business, never mind its ‘personaility’. Reading the small print to find out what the business is really like is like having Asperger syndrome, trying to guess if a person is friendly by scanning each facial muscle one-by-one: It’s hard work, and even after spending lots of time, it doesn’t work well.(1) What makes it worse, the small print is written by lawyers who may not even care to reflect the spirit of the business. We are then like Asperger cases reading the mood of someone who isn’t even in control of half their facial muscles.

The problem is real. I think of myself as relatively web-aware, and yet I have had two cases recently of ‘service levels’ falling well below what should be expected, and in both cases I was in principle able to tell in advance, but not in practice.

Because they both have amusing endings, I shall bore you with the details of both stories.

The first case was a fraudster on eBay. A check of the user’s rating showed 97% positive feedback, which seems ok. I won the auction, the guy took the money, refused to deliver, and said “sue me”(2). The funny end: I did what I thought was the socially responsible thing of leaving negative feedback, knowing it would unavoidably lead to retaliatory feedback. I thought I must take this hit for the good of the eBay community. The predictable reaction occurred, but the guy pressed the “positive feedback” button! Now I still have a 100% positive feedback statistic to my name, but if you go and read it, one item of feedback is an expletive-laden attack on my character. Incompetence amongst crooks can be oddly charming.

The thing is, though, that the signs were all there. The seller’s feedback history consisted of more than 30 transactions which, taken together, were not even worth one Great British pound. That very feedback record originated from eBay users who mostly had similarly meaningless feedback history. A total give-away, but honestly, who cares to check feedback that deeply in advance? And in any case, who thinks in advance about the fact that crooks can game a system where feedback isn’t dollar-weighted?

The other case was a recent flight booking with Opodo.de. The booking was made two days before the flight, and me being home for the weekend depended on the booking. Seats were getting very limited. Confirmation of a successful booking was duly received. The next morning an e-mail informs me that they require lots of additional information by fax, and that I had three hours to provide it or they’ll do me the favor of cancelling the booking “at no cost to me”. I provided the information as best I could, (cancelling other meetings to find a fax and download the info while travelling), called them because I had not received confirmation that they are happy now, and the telefonist confirmed all was in order. The next day (the day of travel), they informed me that they could not maintain the booking with the airline after all, and they “thank me for my understanding”. No “cancelling for free”: They had never finalized my booking in the first place!

Having lost my flight, I filed a complaint (via e-mail), and two weeks later they confirmed receiving it (also via e-mail). They are passing the buck to the airline and they have so much work right now that it will take an unusually long time to deal with things. I’m now spectator in a slow-motion fight between them and the airline, instead of between me and them.

To watch this spectacle unfold is actually amusing, but the really funny twist is this: While I was wondering where I will book my flights in future, opodo sent me a questionnaire about my customer experience. Thoughtfully, they included a question about which competitors I use, providing a list of 24 named competitors to chose from! All I needed to do was copy that list into my notebook, and I am now fully equipped with the entire competitive landscape, supplied by Opodo to me.

What do you think Opodo will say in the end? “We are allowed to do this, it’s in the small print”, surely. Dear readers, don’t say that just because it’s in the small print it doesn’t mean they are allowed to do it. You’d be right but missing my point, which is: If I had read the small-print I would have known what kind of company I am dealing with. It was all there, and that’s what they’ll be telling me. And, most annoyingly, they’ll be right.

So how do any of you handle this problem? Surely you don’t run statistical analysis on the small-print. Surely also, no-one reads this stuff. We can’t get on the Asperger simulator every time we buy something.

We are so used to the ease with which we scan people’s faces and body language (or even just a voice down the phone-line), that sometimes we forget that the absence of this information means customers and retailers get matched wrongly more often on the internet. An unhappy customer is expensive, whichever way you look at it. If you are Ryanair, you want people to know how you will treat them, or your business becomes unviable. Companies have to devise cheap and effective ‘signalling’ of their true philosophy without over-stating their case. It’s a lesson which many businesses on the web still have to learn. And as for the aggregators like eBay, Amazon marketplace, and the like, it really is “buyer beware”.

(1) For amazing case studies, I recommend Oliver Sacks’ The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.

(2) Just for completeness, both eBay and PayPal protect you against loss in this case. It’s just a hassle.

One response to “Sustainable Retail Distribution on the Internet

  1. Good to have you back on the blog and interesting reading as always. You must be super-busy w other stuff. When are you in London next? Johan 😉

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