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With the increasingly homogenous offer of online retailers, it is generally agreed that high levels of customer service are more vital than ever.

With this in mind, I'm constantly astounded by the shockingly poor levels of service British consumers are exposed to.

While we've become accustomed to the demeanour of the staff in certain High Street stores, generally a feeling that they would rather you were not there taking up valuable space in their shop, there's no excuse for online retailers dragging their heels in this area too.

I'm not saying that all online retailers are making mistakes here; far from it. The service I've received in online transactions with Apple, Play, John Lewis and ASOS has been exemplary, to name a few.

The vast majority of items I've ordered online have arrived on time, and without incident. But take a look at the following experiences and consider how your company would have handled them:

HMV

What sounded like a great offer soon became a headache when I preordered a CD from HMV. I received a confirmation email, and noticed straight away that the delivery address was incorrect; I had moved since I signed up to the site. I hadn't ordered for many months and didn't notice that my address was incorrect when I placed the order.

This shouldn't have been a problem. I have made a preorder well in advance of the product’s release date, and the item probably wasn't even in stock with HMV yet.

More importantly, I re-read HMV's delivery terms and they clearly stated that a customer's delivery address could be changed "at any time prior to despatch". So I changed my address online and expected to see the album dropping through my letterbox.

When it didn't arrive, I contacted their customer service team, only to receive an email of astonishing bluntness: "The order was sent to the wrong address. This might explain why you didn't receive it".

Furthermore, they stated that "all the details submitted for the order are as directly input by you at the time you placed your order. We can't accept liability for incorrect information provided by our customers."

Now granted, I should have double checked the address when I made the order. However, it was a preorder and their site clearly explained that I could change my details prior to despatch. If this statement isn’t true, they shouldn't advertise it.

Secondly, their email to me absolves them of all responsibility, makes no attempt at recompense, and is supercilious and arrogant in tone. The company isn't going to attempt to chase up the item for me, and would rather abscond me for making an error.

Suffice to say, for the sake of a £7.99 album, HMV have ensured that I will never purchase online with them again.

ExpressPro

I wanted to buy a tripod for my digital camera, and opted for one through ExpressPro. On receiving the goods, I opened the box, fitted the tripod together, and quickly realised that it would be too heavy for me to regularly carry around.

I was surprised to read ExpressPro's returns policy, which was in clear breach of the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations: "If you are returning any item as 'Not Required'...you will need to return the goods as supplied, sealed and unused."

The word "sealed" here is in breach of the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) regulations for the type of items I had bought, which specify that within seven days of receiving goods ordered online, customers are able to cancel and return their order providing they have taken "reasonable care of the goods while in their possession".

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) states that "The DSRs allow consumers to examine goods they have ordered as they would in a shop. If that requires opening the packaging and trying out the goods then they have not breached their duty to take reasonable care of the goods. You cannot insist that consumers return the goods in their original packaging".

And if that wasn't clear enough, the OFT go on to say "The DSRs do not link cancellation rights with a supplier's ability to resell items as new".

To reasonably test out the item I would have to unseal and open the box, take the various parts out of their plastic packaging and fit the tripod together, otherwise it would be impossible to establish its size, weight and portability.

It's exactly what you would do in a shop; if there wasn't a display model available, you would want to fit one together to take a look.

I completed the online returns form, quoting the text above and making my legal position clear. In time I received a full refund, but the company's Terms and Conditions remain the same. I suspect that many customers are sufficiently fooled by ExpressPro's rewrite of the law that they choose not to return goods that, in fact, they are perfectly entitled to.

How to get it right

It's not hard to get customer service right, but unfortunately the British are legendary for getting it wrong. Whether this is a reaction against the concept of servitude, a throwback to the class system, ignorance or pure laziness is debateable. Certainly the lack of knowledge of the DSRs amongst retailers is shocking.

I'd suggest that if online retailers followed these rules, the nation's online shoppers would be a happier bunch:

The customer is always right

Here's your starting point as a retailer. Retail is a service industry, and part of what customers are paying for is your ability to provide them with a high quality service. Just because their item is low price, in a sale or ordered online, doesn't mean they don't deserve to be treated like any other customer.

Of course, retailers know that customers aren't always right. Sometimes they make mistakes. They can be rude, abrasive, or just plain wrong, but that's not the point. You have to approach service from the perspective that the customer is correct.

Don't try to win an argument with a customer. In their mind, you've already made a mistake of some sort, so you're starting from a losing position. Consider the impact of, say, providing a refund, against the possibility of losing all future revenue from that customer.

Make your returns proposition clear up front

Not only is this best practice, there is also a legal requirement (again as part of the DSRs) to ensure that your delivery and returns proposition is clearly explained before the customer makes a purchase.

Make sure your returns policy is up to date, and don't do an HMV; make sure you know exactly how the policy works in every circumstance.

Respond quickly and positively

Let the customer know you're looking into the issue, even if you haven't got an answer straight away. Don't leave an issue hanging, as the customer will increasingly feel like they are being ignored.

Know the DSRs inside out

It is your responsibility as a retailer to understand and apply these regulations. Essentially, they break down to the following:

  • Your payment, delivery and cancellation proposition should be clearly explained to the customer prior to purchase.
  • You must provide clear details about the goods or services you are selling, and who you are as a business (name, address, contact details).
  • This information must be provided in a "durable medium" - for example, in an email to the customer, or on paper (e.g. a delivery note with the order). Note that a web site is not considered a durable medium.
  • Consumers have seven days after the contract is concluded in which to cancel. In the case of goods bought by home delivery, the contract is considered concluded at the point where the customer receives their goods.
  • The consumer is entitled to examine the goods before cancellation. You cannot insist that items are returned in their original packaging. However you may ask that the items are returned with the original packaging material.
  • The consumer must give notice of cancellation using a durable medium (email, fax, letter). You then have 30 days to refund the customer.
  • There are a small number of exclusions to the seven day "cooling off period": goods manufacturer to order, perishable goods, audio/visual/software that is unsealed, newspapers and magazines, and gaming/betting/lottery services.

In summary, make customer service a priority throughout your business and take pride in offering superior service to your competitors, and you won't go far wrong.

Chris Moffatt

Published 15 February, 2011 by Chris Moffatt

Chris is Online Director for Kidcount and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect via LinkedIn or Twitter

7 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

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Steve Myers, Head of Digital at Vanquis Bank

Very interesting post! Pleased to see companies like eNONYMOUS emerging that make it their business to monitor online customer service.

almost 6 years ago

Sharon O'Dea

Sharon O'Dea, Head of Online Communications at Standard Chartered

I can't help but think this seems like 'customer service 101' - putting customers first isn't an online thing particularly...

almost 6 years ago

Chris Moffatt

Chris Moffatt, Online Strategist and Project Manager at The Other Media

@Marged Lloyd The main thrust of my blog was to discuss the DSRs. These are specific to distance selling, therefore highly relevant to online retail. However you're right that the other elements of the customer service mix apply equally to offline business.

almost 6 years ago

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Quito Hotel

It feels good to see an emerging online market in our world.
Hope this growth will always goes on and on.

almost 6 years ago

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Jon Leon

This is an important article, especially the point about not arguing with the customer. Regardless of whether the customer is right or not, retailers should take extreme care to understand how the issue arose and to look after the customer.

If they don't it can quickly escalate onto social media where it can blow out of all proportion.

Apease them quickly!

over 4 years ago

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