Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What Do You Mean There's No Phone Number?

In the online world, you'll find many businesses that don't publish contact information. Instead, they route any customer service and support issues through a fixed path of web-based submission forms, online chat, or simply a support email address. Sales and orders are handled entirely through their web application.

From a business standpoint, this enables them to streamline their staffing requirements. By managing the pipeline of incoming issues, these businesses attempt to eliminate or eliminate their customer-facing staff. It seems like a perfect system if the transaction works correctly, but when things don't work right, not providing a human-customer interface has the potential be really bad. Here's an example:

Lulu.com: We Don't Publish Direct Contact Information
If you're not familiar with the site, Lulu.com offers a web interface that enables you to publish your own book and print just one copy (or more). Basically, you can upload a book (following their templates) and self-publish your book in a variety of sizes. Leveraging digital output, Lulu.com can print books at about half the price you can get it done most other places. You can find lots of publishing options on the site, including an entire ecosystem devoted to helping you publish. What you won't find on Lulu.com is direct contact information -- no sales contacts, no support contacts, and no phone numbers. You're only options for contacting Lulu are a web-based contact form and web-based chat with a customer service person.

If you've ever spent any extended time at Kinkos, you probably have an understanding of Lulu might not want to talk to people:
Reason Possibility #1: A significant percentage of people trying to print things are idiots that have no idea what they are doing and why it won't work. They need help making their giant Word graphic print as 1000 business cards, they need to get Mr. Biggle's face to be on Page 30, not page 31, and the greatest American novel needs to be printed, but they can only pay in traveler's checks. (full disclosure: these examples are not intended to represent specific individuals. If you feel like one of these examples might be you, I swear it wasn't. Oh, and please try to avoid being in front of me in line at the store. Thanks)
    So if you're Lulu.com, a certain amount of customer service screening and filtering makes sense. But what happens when you know what you're doing, you follow the transaction process correctly, and the end result isn't what you expected. In my case, I set up a book for print, ordered it, paid for expedited handling, watched as it tracked through their online order tracking process and then I received... a nicely printed Lulu.com box that contained an entirely different, completely unrelated book.

    Here's a list of things that I didn't receive: 
    • a packing list, order confirmation, or any other documentation that might normally indicate what the people who were shipping thought was happening inside the box
    • a customer support phone number, an email address, or other method of communicating directly with Lulu to resolve the issue
    Sitting in front of my computer, I was finally able to to contact their customer service using their online chat interface. At that point, their customer service insisted that I email him photos of the incorrect product in order to prove that I had, in fact, received the wrong product. Once I sent those to him, he then referred the issue to their customer support department. Two days later, their customer support department contacted my by email. My options?
    We can place either a reorder or refund for the defective book...
    So, after paying for expedited shipping on my original order and waiting two days for a response, their customer service group wanted to know if I want to reorder.

    Is Poor Customer Service Your Business Strategy?
    About a decade ago, Iomega found themselves in a class action lawsuit over their poor customer service practices surrounding issues with their Zip drives. The lawsuit essentially forced Iomega to provide better customer support. So another possible explanation for not providing contact info?
    Reason Possibility #2: You know that your standard business processes are going to produce a substantial percentage of dissatisfied customers and by making it more difficult for them to resolve their issues, a significant percentage will simply give up in frustration.
    This is similar to many of the online models that add a recurring monthly charge to your credit card, then make it difficult to cancel or unsubscribe. To me, businesses that use approaches like this suffer from being one or two steps above a scam. And that's exactly why I find this strategy of limited customer support communication channels to be such a risky path for a business to take: at what point do you move from a "limited overhead customer relationship" to a caveat emptor business selling herbal supplements for weight loss or erectile dysfunction where the threshold for quality is "not proven to cause harm"?

    In the end, Lulu.com refunded the charge to my credit card and I printed the books through a local vendor -- they are not a scam. If I were to guess, I suspect that their distributed production model needs some additional transaction system oversight. In the case of my transaction, it appears that even if I had been able to speak with a human, he couldn't have told me anything about what went wrong with my transaction. However, a live person might have been sensitive my tone or my frustration and provided a more aggressive remedy.

    The Take-Away
    When you are in charge of a customer-facing process, whether you are designing it, managing it, or restructuring it, never underestimate the cost of not offering a human interface to your process. While email support and online chat may seem like a reasonable strategy, these tools are not equivalent to providing a direct interface with a person -- of course, that presumes that you are interested in building your brand and positive Word of Mouth.

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