Kevin Cheng  

After the Online Purchase

June 11th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

We’ve talked about catch phrases like Life Experience and designing for more than just the user experience but let’s step back now and talk about what the user experience means in the online shopping world. When we design an e-commerce website, we often look at factors such as stickiness, drop out rates, conversion to sale ratios and many other factors. Designing a solid online experience is no small feat and designing an enjoyable one is even more challenging.As we move towards more standardized interfaces in online shopping, users are having an easier time navigating and purchasing across different stores. Gradually, the experience has been improving but something got lost along the way. Maybe it’s because online development and design happened in a black box, maybe so much money got siphoned towards the online experience that other areas were neglected or maybe it’s always been poor but we’re noticing it more now that the online experience has gotten better.

Whatever the reason, we’re seeing stores focus so much on the usability of their sites but a seeming lack of focus on the same customers after orders are placed. Not all companies are neglecting the post purchase experience, of course. Two great examples of good off-line customer experiences come from Netflix and Bluefly.

Netflix is an online DVD rental store. Netflix incorporates two key areas of convenience for their customers. Firstly, when you receive a video, it also comes with a return envelope, postage paid. Thus, to return the video, you simply put it into the envelope and drop it in a mailbox. Secondly, when a video is returned, Netflix automatically sends you the next video you have in a queue that you created on their site. Seamless integration.

Bluefly’s convenience is similar to Netflix. Bluefly sells brand name clothing online. When it comes to online shopping, clothing is one of the more difficult areas to penetrate. While it’s fairly obvious what you’re going to get with a DVD movie, the fitting, exact colour and cut of clothing is difficult to convey on a screen. The solution Bluefly employed involves giving as much help online as possible in choosing your size but also a painless return policy. If an item you purchased does not fit, simply place the sticker provided on the box the shipment came in and send it back - postage paid again. The security of knowing how easy it is to return purchases improves the overall experience but also increases the likelihood of sales.

Of course, the crux of offline experiences is solid customer service and communication. I certainly don’t like being told if a shipment is going to be postponed but I’d rather be told than have to call in to find out weeks later. Because it’s always educational to see the good with the bad, I’ll leave you with a great example of poor post online customer service. The following is an anecdote from a friend of mine. A resident of the US, he was purchasing a laptop from a major laptop manufacturer and having it shipped to another city in the US:

I get a call from the Web verification team (apparently a team of one) to tell me that I need to register my shipping address with my credit card company (in addition to my billing address). At this point I’m a bit frustrated since my laptop is definitely not going to be arriving when I wanted it to. I ask Trisha (we’ve become such close friends that I feel justified calling her by her first name) why Company X has a policy of verifying both the shipping address and the billing address. None of their competitors are requiring this level of verification, it adds frustration for their customers not to mention the huge amount of time (and hence cost) it adds to the fulfilment process. She explains that Company X is losing millions of dollars every month because of fraudulent shipping addresses (! now I’m really worried this company is in trouble) and that it is a company wide policy that she is following. I ask her if there is anything I can do one the phone so that I don’t have to call my credit card company, wait on hold, then call Company X back so they can retry my order (another several hours of dealing with this and waiting for my shipment). She says no, that she doesn’t trust me and has to assume I am trying to fraud Company X. Now I’m very concerned that Trisha has called me a thief but I tell her I’ll call her back as quickly as possible.

A couple of hours later I call Company X back and tell them I’ve added the shipping address and that I’d like them to retry the order. The rep (not Trisha) says everything should be fine now.

The next day Trisha calls me again and informs me that the shipping address is OK now but that the business telephone number on my order isn’t registered with my credit card company (although all other phones numbers went through OK) and that I will need to call my credit card company again to have them add it. Once I’ve done that I should call Company X back to have them try to process the order again. At this point I am very frustrated, my order is 2 days late and I’ve had a horrible experience with the primary person I’ve talked to at Company X. I ask her why she didn’t explain this yesterday. She said that she did. I’m willing to assume I may not have heard her but then she dives into this rant about how I am mistaken and that she calls over 200 people every day (Trisha is clearly not a happy employee and a lot of other people are getting similar phone calls to mine — oh boy) and how could she even possibly not tell me that information. I’m not sure I see the connection she is trying to make and she is clearly upset so I ask to talk to her manager. She says NO … and I lose it. I ask her, “Why?!” She says she doesn’t understand why I need to talk to anyone else. I tell her because I don’t appreciate being called a thief, a liar, and having every attempt to spend money with Company X be meet with intense resistance - - what happened to the customer is always right? She finally tells me that her manager and supervisor are not there and I’ll have to talk to customer service (I do manage to get their number form her.. .thanks Trisha). I finish up with a parting jab by asking Trisha if there is anything else I could possibly need to do to get this order to go through. During another 3 minute rant (at least this time I partially deserve it ;-) , she tells me that I am mistaken about the Company X ordering process and that she has told me everything I need to know. If I hadn’t been so difficult (by needing to ship to an address different from my billing address?) than everything would have worked out OK and she wouldn’t have to talk to me. She concludes with “I see no need to keep talking to you” and hangs up on me!

I call my credit card company and they tell me that all of this information I’m setting up gets automatically reset every 3 months (for security reasons). Hence I should plan on calling back If I ever have to order from Company X again. I explain that there is very little chance of that and thank them for their time.

8 Responses to “After the Online Purchase”
Paul Reinheimer wrote:

I might have had a hard time beleiving that story if it hadn’t happened to me. Conflicting information from multiple sources is always a huge problem.

The solution unfortunatly is better paid and better trained employees, along with integrated systems, which results in increased costs. Better customer service doesn’t show up on the website, or in the quarterly report to stock holders, so it is difficult to justify in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

A story of my own:
I log into my Canadian banking website from here in New York, upon logging in I am greeted with a message informing me that because I haven’t been using them to their fullest they will be re-setting my ATM and Direct Purchase limits down to the very low default values. My two options at this point are not “Okay” or “No Thanks” but are instead “Okay, Remind me later” and “Thanks Take me to my account”.

So I call the 1-800 number provided, and wait for a representative. The phone is answered ‘hello’, I assume I have the wrong number, and apologize, at which point I get the normal ‘Thank you for calling TD Canada Trust, My name is xxxx etc’. I explain that I do not want my limits reset, they say okay, I read out my access card number, they can’t find it, we try a couple more times, no luck. She offers to transfer me to someone else in the right department, I accept, and am transferred *1. We follow exactly the same script, with exactly the same lack of success this time, this time however it is suggested that I just go into my local branch. I reply that I am out of the country, so that isnt an option. I ask if they can look up based on my account number, nope, has to be the access card #. This time however, the transfer doesn’t go as planned, and they just hang up on me.

On another small note, Everytime I call Virgin Mobile I need to enter my password via the keypard. Then, as soon as I get a real person, I need to tell them what it is verbally. Never really understood that.

*1 - I have always liked the systems where the person you are talking to waits on hold with you, and takes care of the introduction, then does the pass off. It seems to avoid some problems, and it doesn’t make me feel like I have been abandoned or just shuffled around.

Julian wrote:

Ugh. I have lots of problems with shipping addresses, especially since I’m at college. In fact, my college just got a new zip code *just* for student mailboxes/packages. The problem is that this new zip code is, well, new, so a *lot* of automated shipping systems tell me my zip code is incorrect! Now, I’ve gone to the US Postal Service’s web site and looked it up, and the zip code is there and fine. Companies just don’t bother to update their zip code database often enough, apparently.

I’ve also had fedex tell me they won’t ship to 15289-3135 (my specific zip code), nor will they ship to 15289. 15289-0001, however, is within their database of zip codes to ship to, so they’ll gladly do that if I’ll say that’s my zip code! (This, of course, makes it annoying for the people sorting my packages at college, since 3135 identifies my mailbox specifically…)

jmalm wrote:

An important difference in Kevin’s comparisons is that the “protagonists” sell high-margin, low-cost items and the “antagonists” sell low-margin, high-cost items. I can understand why a company would be cautious to ship based only upon a credit card. This implicit trust involved is potentially ill-founded, especially after one loses $50K worth of inventory to fraud. If a company is defrauded too much the credit card companies will almost always have them foot the bill.

Companies can afford to be defrauded for small-ticket items, as they only lose a relatively small amount in shipping and manufacture (scary that clothing has such a massive markup!) and the vast majority of consumers are honest.

What needs to change is the process for ensuring non-fraudulent transactions. Do other companies selling big-ticket items provide better user experiences whilst keeping their frauds to a minimum, or do they put on a happy face whilst taking it up the %^& every time they ship without receiving payment?

Bob Salmon wrote:

I’ve had experience of an OK web site but then excellent customer service from Hotel Chocolat, formerly known as ChocExpress. I’ve found the searching not so good, although the products are scrummy - I shan’t bore you with my recommendations but I’m happy to discuss them at length via email!

I placed a large order with them one winter (to turn into many Christmas presents, honest). When the order arrived it had some of the wrong things, some things missing and some extra things - our order and someone else’s order had been switched. I phoned them up and they apologised and sent out my correct order, which turned up OK.

I asked them what I should do with the order I’d been sent by mistake and they told me to keep it (free of charge). Wahey!

Kevin Cheng wrote:

jmalm’s point about the differences in the examples is very accurate and one I hadn’t taken into consideration. The margins and cost per item are definitely factors in whether companies can do things like Bob’s free chocolate (so was the second batch used as Christmas presents and the first batch entirely consumed by you?).

What needs to change is the process for ensuring non-fraudulent transactions. Do other companies selling big-ticket items provide better user experiences whilst keeping their frauds to a minimum, or do they put on a happy face whilst taking it up the %^& every time they ship without receiving payment?

Improving non-fraudulent transactions with minimal inconvenience to the customer is obviously the most desirable outcome. In reality, if you look at the experience of my friend, he suffered much more than the inconvenience. He was scolded, presumed guilty, and given insufficnet information.

Some minimal changes they could have made without overhauling their security measures:

  • Get more polite staff than Trisha.
  • Inform him on the order confirmation that his shipping address and phone number should be registered on the credit card and general assistance on how to do so.
  • If he had to call, give him all the information he needs and give him a means of directly contacting the rep to inform him/her that the necessary updates have been made.
Bob Salmon wrote:

Some minimal changes they could have made without overhauling their security measures: …

… I find that give away free chocolate’s favourite. (Yes, the first shipment was filed under Stomach, and the second filed under Presents.)

Bronwyn Boltwood wrote:

Obviously the laptop company in question needs to work on their ordering and fulfillment process, but I’d like to make a small defense of Trisha.

I’ve worked in a call center. It’s hard to be consistently polite and helpful to an endless stream of people. The 200 calls must be an exaggeration, because (7.5 hours * 60) / 5 min per call including notes = 96. I came home half-dead after 30something calls a day.

Factor in that some of the customers are difficult to deal with. The difficult ones take more time and energy, whether they are justified or not, and drag down your statistics, and might get you a reprimand or lose you a bonus.

Remember that you’re utterly powerless. You’re literally chained to your phone by the cord. When one of those justifiably difficult customers like our laptop guy calls in, you’re hogtied by idiotic policies. Nobody who could change them will ever listen to you — if you could find out who’s responsible in the first place. Even if you did want to help, you have to roadblock the customer, because the really important policies may be backed up by threats of reprimand or outright termination.

We haven’t even added in the difficulties caused by outsourcing the callcenter yet.

People will get better service when we start treating our customer service staff better. Customer service needs to be empowered to help the customers instead of just placating them. Give them policies that help instead of hinder, and a fast, working escalation path for problems and suggestions. Give them a future, instead of an outsourced dead-end.

Dan wrote:

Bronwyn makes an excellent point. I work in an environment where I, as a customer service rep, have a huge (and I do mean huge) degree of freedom. It allows me to do things like take a half hour to help a customer, up to and including calling half a dozen places to get the needed info. This job has taught me that it’s all about employee self-esteem and loyalty. The job may be high-pressure, and it’s definitely not that high-paying, but it’s one of the more popular, hard to get positions on campus. This is something that so few websites without a live person on the other end have achieved — a system that goes the extra step just to help the customer. (Frankly, I can’t think of one right now; Amazon is good, but only as long as you’re about to give them money)

Has anyone done cost estimates of building a very comprehensive, easy to navigate website as compared to a well-trained employee and all the employee perks to keep one?


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?