AS AUTUMN SETS IN and the dot-coms turn color and fall from the trees, a great many e-commerce sites are eagerly awaiting Santa Claus—either this holiday season will save their red-inked hides, or they'll be looking to close up shop and get back to their non-VC-financed burger-flipping. Central to the success or failure of online holiday shopping: public perception that shopping sites have fixed the customer-service problems that bedeviled thousands of 1999 shoppers and left Santa stuck in the figurative chimney. For those of you hiding under a rock or in the mall, deliveries were delayed or never received, wrong merchandise was shipped, credit cards were double-charged, showers of frogs and locusts plagued the land, and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse rode through NASDAQ.
Just in time for the preholidays, before the mall parking lots fill up and Amazon ships its editors to North Dakota, a number of online concerns are rolling out strategies for making sure online purchases that go wrong can be made right. Three significant "seal-of-approval" outfits have been mobilized to build consumer confidence (and a path for resolving disputes).
Mistakes happen in retail—prices are mismarked, deliveries get lost, sales clerks are uninformed, help desks don't. Offline, most problems are resolved as they happen in the store, or perhaps with a het up letter to the manager or his boss or his boss' boss. But a lot of consumer complaints in the offline world never occur, simply because the consumer evaluates the business as it stands on the sidewalk in front of them. Does it look like a real store and not someone's garage? Is the store so crowded there's no hope of getting a clerk's attention? What does the merchandise look like in one's hands? Offline, impressions and proximity go a long way. Online, though, good site design can disguise a bad business, and even a good business can go bad when returns or exchanges are needed: The Better Business Bureau reports that 62 percent of online shoppers have had at least one failed transaction online, mainly due to problems with checkout or delivery.
Just because an online business has a reputable offline component doesn't mean that customer service can be handled by a simple trip to the courtesy counter, as Ballard-based writer Rebecca Rohan found out the hard way. Going online to OfficeDepot.com to purchase a replacement printer cartridge, Rohan selected the cartridge recommended by the site's database, only to find out well after the order (the cartridge was a backup; Rohan is a very organized writer, which works to her benefit as you'll see) that the information was entered incorrectly in that database. Wrong data, wrong cartridge.
THE FIRST STEP in resolving an online dispute like Rohan's, according to most e-shopping experts, is to contact customer service on the Web site. A reputable e-business will make their contact info prominent—not only e-mail but also a phone number and a street address. (Check before you buy.) A letter to customer service documenting the problem is a step in the right direction, though a phone call (Rohan's choice) is fine, too. Your paper trail, by the way, starts here: Keep copies of everything. Rohan kept copies of her order and took shots of the incorrect data on the screen.
In Rohan's case, the OfficeDepot Web site and the customer-service folk at the end of the toll-free line said Rohan was out of luck: 30 days for any returns, no exceptions, too bad about the database. (And, says Rohan, the customer-service representative took a "snotty" tone.)
Rohan chose to write letters to the Western Washington Better Business Bureau and to the Washington state attorney general. (It's better if possible to write directly to those entities in the state in which the business is based—Florida in this case.) She also posted her complaint on UGetHeard.com, a site dedicated to helping consumers get what they deserve from businesses online and off. In her case, the UGetHeard complaint got results first; an Office Depot customer-relations assistant sent e-mail to Rohan asking for her order number and arranged to have the offending cartridge picked up—and two complimentary (and printer-proper) ones delivered free for her trouble.
If Office Depot hadn't responded, UGetHeard would have escalated the situation—in fact, they contacted Rohan to see if the problem had been resolved. If it hadn't been, UGetHeard would have followed up with Office Depot after eight to nine days, increasing pressure as necessary. After situations are resolved, UGetHeard updates their "report card," rating companies on how well the situation was resolved and how responsive they were. Office Depot, which took care of matters quickly and well, has a sparkling 4.9 out of a possible 5 (best) rating—though they still haven't, to Rohan's dismay, fixed that database.
CONSIDER LOOKING FOR an on-site seal of approval from one of the bodies that certifies online businesses for customer-friendly service. The three big names are WebAssured, WebTrust, and BBBOnline, the Net arm of the august Better Business Bureau. Check under "customer service" or "legal" to find the seals. (Note that TRUSTe is not on the roster, since that entity focuses primarily on privacy—an increasingly important issue and one addressed by these three organizations, but another article altogether.)
BBBOnline doesn't hand out its Reliability Seal to just anyone; their 8,000-plus sites must have been in business for at least one year (less if they're part of a BBB-certified offline business) and must conform to strict standards for dispute resolution and arbitration. If e-businesses don't behave, they'll take their seal away—Priceline copped an attitude about their somewhat confusing charge-first, tell-later structure and lost their certification. BBBOnline's new Code of Online Business Practices provides guidelines for businesses wrestling with consumer protection issues. The guidelines are intended to raise the level of consumer confidence (and, not incidentally, to get the industry to effectively self-regulate before the Feds have to come in and start doing it for them). BBBOnline has an advantage over its offline counterpart in that it handles complaints regardless of the state in which the problematic site is based. BBBOnline-sealed sites include eToys, BabyCenter.com, and Mercata.
WebAssured doesn't require member sites to be online for a whole year, but with Lloyd's of London backing up their guarantees of full refunds on irresolvable customer disputes, they offer security of another kind. They certify approximately 250,000 sites and claim that 80 percent of the complaints they receive are resolved by automated e-mailings to the offending company in less than 48 hours, without need for human intervention. (That comes later if necessary.) WebAssured lists such sites as American Pearl, Gourmet Mushrooms, and DiamondEarrings.com.
WebTrust relies on the centuries of experience that certified public accountants have in independently verifying a business' processes and integrity. WebTrust has been training CPAs to evaluate and consult with businesses to design good disclosure, arbitration, and customer-service systems. Businesses have to run major changes past a WebTrust rep, and the site is rigorously evaluated at least every six months to ensure continued compliance. WebTrust is international, with over 100 certified sites in the US and more around the world. Rather than work with sites directly, WebTrust refers complaints to the CPA handling a particular site. WebTrust represents the likes of E-Trade, Bell Canada, and Cameraworld.
All three bodies follow roughly the same path to resolution: letters to customer service contacts are followed up by human intervention. If the problem proves intractable (not many do), the sites have agreed to submit to arbitration. (So did you—didn't you read the agreement you made when you clicked on the "Buy" button?) Remarkably few cases go as far as arbitration.
Overall, online customer complaints are rising (especially on such high-ticket transactions as travel and electronics), but that may be mainly due to the swelling tide of e-commerce. As consumers become more Net-savvy and fear of online shopping recedes, complaints will increase; e-businesses that don't want a lump of coal and a Chapter 11 filing in their Christmas stocking will be compelled to resolve customer complaints fairly and fast.
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