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A recent article by Tom Koziol mentioned that as many as 95% of Internet sites fail to perform even the most cursory of customer service. He was astonished at that number. I would have been, if not for my recent online shopping experiences. There is little reason to doubt this figure. The Internet is only putting a new spin on an old idea, whose drawbacks have been demonstrated. When someone shops by price alone, he had better be prepared for disappointment.
Back when personal computers were $5,000 specialty items sold only in computer stores, salespeople were knowledgeable, quality control was fairly high, and service was generally excellent. Then a vendor decided to increase sales by going directly to the customer and cutting out the middle man. Other vendors followed this approach. Customers began to shop by price alone and vendors cut costs to comply. A new urban legend was born - that computers should be purchased at the lowest price; service and support should not enter the equation. The dust is still settling and many former "big names" have gone bankrupt, while others are still in the process. Thousands received machines that never worked properly and many received nothing because the vendors closed their doors without delivering.
Online shopping only makes it easier for the customer to find the vendor with the lowest price. Naturally, such amenities as customer service would raise prices. Maintaining an inventory is expensive, so vendors offer items online they don't even carry and place their orders only when orders come in. I have orders going back to September that have still not been filled. When I email the vendors, I get a reply that states "We hope to fill your order soon." I have had orders shipped to completely different states and when I email the vendor, they send me proof of misdelivery, as if this absolves them from any further action. There was a time when I would only allow a vendor to do this to me once and I would take my business elsewhere. Now this happens with such regularity, I would have to boycott online vendors completely.
But every cloud has its silver lining and this is why the little guy can still compete. I have my website, my auctions on numerous sites, and my monthly newsletter. I keep playing my company theme song: "Yes, you might find it a few dollars cheaper on some big, impersonal site. But will you get it and who do you talk to if you don't?" I have made it a point to fill orders, even taking an occasional loss when my regular vendor can't fill the order and I have to go elsewhere. I keep my customers informed. If their order is delayed, I add in an extra item to compensate. If I see the same customer win a few of my auctions, I combine the items to save shipping and send the customer a gift. The big sites don't do that. They can't afford to.
I also believe that a customer should not be a one-shot deal. I offer incentives for repeat business and referrals. I find it strange that many companies reward new customers and penalize the loyal ones. My local paper charges $2 a week for home delivery to new customers for the first 13 weeks. After that, it's $4 a week. I signed up as a new customer and then cancelled after 13 weeks. They called repeatedly and offered me a new subscription at $2. When that expired, I cancelled again. Eventually, this became annoying and I told them to stop calling. The companies that print checks give a great deal for first-time customers and then double the price for re-orders. Good thing there are many of them because I go to a different one each time I need checks.
There will always be companies who never get the message that there is more to keeping customers than just low prices. There will always be customers who equate value with the cheapest price and are willing to take the risks that accompany that decision. But these are not the customers that I seek. My customers feel that timely delivery, service, support, and a person they can talk to are also an integral part of value.