Barnes & Noble’s digital stumbling block: customer service

In the past few years that I’ve been writing about digital publishing, I’ve always been able to count on the blog An American Editor to be pro-Sony or pro-Nook — or at the very least to always present a non-Kindle point of view. So I was surprised last week to read his post “And Then There Was One”, although not surprised by the story he shares in it.

The one paragraph summary is that Barnes & Noble hasn’t been delivering his daily digital issue of The New York Times early each morning — you know, the time period when most people who traditionally subscribe to a daily paper expect to get it. On good days it arrives at an acceptable if not ideal time, while on other days it arrives around noon or even later. Despite selling the subscription to their own customers and accepting their money, Barnes & Noble won’t take responsibility for the problem or provide any refunds; B&N’s customer service reps say it’s the newspaper’s fault.

From Barnes & Noble’s perspective, this should be both a huge problem and a simple one to address: huge because the company is failing to provide the bare minimum level of service expected for a daily subscription, and simple because it should be ridiculously easy to give the customer refunds for undelivered or late issues. A refund won’t solve the bigger mystery of why a digital copy isn’t making it to the customer’s Nook at least as early as the print copy made it to his doorstep, but it would help make the customer feel better. It would also be the right thing to do ethically, since Barnes & Noble is failing to uphold its side of the subscription agreement.

An American Editor has what I think are very good reasons to want a company besides Amazon to succeed in the digital publishing space, so his frustrations with this issue are made even worse by the fact that he’s witnessing first hand B&N’s failure to provide the bare minimum value required to compete effectively.

I have made no secret of my dislike of Barnes & Noble for their lack of decent customer service for ebook buyers. I think their customer service is terrible, and their no-refunds policy should be a deal breaker for anyone who takes consumer rights seriously. But like An American Publisher, I want B&N to succeed at ebooks. Amazon needs the competition, and the company’s Nook product line has forced Amazon and even Kobo to raise the bar on hardware quality and pricing.

But to succeed, the company has to rethink its position on customer service. Its executive team seems stuck on the idea that customer service is a cost center that must be controlled, but as any retailer that feels steamrolled by Amazon should understand by now, it can also provide a competitive edge and — believe it or not — help lead to that most elusive of marketplace creatures, customer loyalty.

The cringeworthy coda to An American Editor’s post is in the comments following it, where a reader tweeted about the story and attracted the attention of a B&N social media person who offered to help. Never mind that it has by now become a sad trick of big companies to ignore private customer service issues but pounce on the ones made public; what really made it comical was that An American Editor went ahead and emailed the B&N rep as instructed, and got this reply:

Your feedback is very important to us at Barnes & Noble and we appreciate your taking the time to send us your opinion/request. We assure you that we have reviewed the issues you have raised with the appropriate department. We truly value your patronage; your online shopping experience is extremely important to us.

And Amazon’s power grows.

Update

After I wrote this post but before I published it, An American Editor posted an update to the story this morning. A day after receiving that pointless auto-response, a human at B&N did contact the blogger to apologize. She told him that they were investigating the call logs and looking into retraining their CSRs, and she offered him a $50 gift card which he declined.

An American Editor says B&N deserves acknowledgment, perhaps kudos, for finally trying to solve the problem. But the truth is, it’s not good behavior when a company publicly apologizes to only the most vocal customers and then attempts to bribe them. It’s merely another example of a company taking the laziest, least innovative path to customer service: wait for a public exception to occur, then make a great show of stomping it out.

Yes, I know I’m a cynical bastard. I have reason to be. I blogged at The Consumerist for a few years, and I saw this game played out repeatedly. Someone would write to us with a complaint about a company — typically a retailer, bank, cable or phone service provider, or restaurant — and we’d post it. Then the company, which up to that point had privately stonewalled the customer and left the issue to die in CSR purgatory, would reach out to us to offer help. Meanwhile, we’d get three other customers emailing us with “me too!” stories that we didn’t publicize and who weren’t helped; or we’d get a nearly identical complaint six months later, which indicated that the problem hadn’t truly been resolved. In other words, publicly performed customer service is almost always really a PR move, not a sincere attempt to improve service. (The only company I can think of right now that acted with full sincerity was Domino’s Pizza, because it actually tried to address its entire customer base instead of just cooing at the individuals who were directly affected by some bad employee behavior.)

Okay, I apologize for straying so far off of pure ebook coverage. It’s just that for nearly a decade I’ve repeatedly seen technology companies — which B&N has now become, to a certain extent — release innovative hardware and services, then drop the ball when it comes to follow through at the customer level. Amazon and Apple have figured out that this is important; if B&N wants to stay alive in the ebook space, it had better do the same.

(Photo: Keoni Cabral)

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