This is a short story of a recent personal experience – but I believe it carries some important observations for business, customer service and the new paradigm of consumption from the cloud.
Once upon a time there were ‘real’ books, rather heavy tomes made of flattened tree bits, embossed with ink derived from carbon and oil. In those distant past times many small booksellers stocked and sold these volumes, often with great knowledge, enthusiasm and insight into their customers’ needs and desires – for both knowledge and entertainment. But… the little pesky electron came along… and after some developement eventually inhabited bits of silicon and glass, and before you could recite “Little Red Riding Hood” we had IBMs, Apples, Microsofts and other new life forms…
Eventually almost all real things became translucent blobs of bits that originated in the Cloud of Everything, and with the correct credit gods these bits of life would rain down the pipes and wires and pour into your pads and pods and phones to stimulate the eyes in almost the same way as the books of old would do. Funny how certain nostalgic actions are required to make the process of reading enjoyable – many many hours of psychological testing finally showed the wizards of C++ that a complicated animation was required – the page turn – for a user to move from one screen of text to the next. A simple snap actually took one out of the reading experience.
All of this took, unfortunately, a toll on the small independent booksellers – another form of disintermediation – and with the drive of the consumer to save a penny no matter what, and the awful silence of empty stores – and tills – the coalescence of book-clouds eventually focused on a border, a noble barn and a river. The challenge of making a buck in the cloud is quite awesome – talk about emporer’s new clothes: most of the top twenty ‘places to go in the cloud’ are STILL losing money – lots and lots and lots of money. When GM lost this much, the planet quaked and the almighty Congress had to dip in our coffers… when the cloudsellers lose this much, Wall Street just prints more stock and it sells as fast as it’s available…
Perception is EVERYTHING!
Back to our tale… eventually the Borders of one fine business came crashing down, leaving only the ‘little’ guy
Now back when there were three… I preferred to shop at Borders – (guess I rented from Avis as well…) – I liked their bookshops better – and even during the ‘transformative years’ – when I still liked to browse a real bookshop, even if I then bought the book online since I preferred to read on my tablet I found their treatment of the customer better.
I had initially tried out the Big River, but was turned off by two things: I still preferred to browse in a real space where I could wander and see things that I was not searching for – no one, and I mean no one, has figured out how to do this in the cloud. And that’s a really big deal. But we’ll save that story for another day… My other issue with the amazing Amazon was an overly busy interface. For someone that started out selling books – which if done correctly can be graphic masterpieces – their web site is just plain offensive. It reminds me of shopping at the clearance sale at Ross or Filene’s Basement – overcrowded, disorganized and chaotic.
So I ended up at the Noble Barne – and I liked their reader app for the iPad a bit better than the Kindle one anyway. After all, I was there to buy and read books, nothing else. I liked the focus of BN on being (mostly) a bookseller, even in the cumulo-nimbus white puffy arena. The Big River now was selling everything from washing machines to recording studios… books had become almost a sideline. I, more or less, endured this for about a year. I remember reading in the news shortly after Borders sunk into the tarpit of bankruptcy and legal fees that Barnes & Noble CEO was worrying that Amazon could ‘spend them into the ground’ in terms of technology and infrastructure – but his hope and plan was to stay tightly focused on their book-reading customers – and offer them a superior experience – along with good enough technical prowess to compete with the monster. BN made noise about the huge investment they were making in technology, etc. to continue to pile more angels into their cloud, and make the experience as close to the bookshops of olden days as possible.
Well… just like waking up from the last page of a good Grimm’s Fairy Tale… little cracks in the plaster got wider… I first started having trouble with the BN site last year – it would often become unresponsive. E-mails to the guardian angels were ignored or took days to hear back – maybe, just like hailstones, my mail went up and down and up and down and… ?? Then – and to be fair this was an external wrench in the works – Apple kicked everyone out of their ‘in-app’ purchase nest… after all, if you are the most capitalized company on earth, then obviously you need even higher profits – no matter if your users are hit with more cumbersome purchasing process. So now we all had to go out to Safari or whatever to purchase our e-books, then return to the reader app to read them.
Now this did give both the Nook and Kindle hardware a bit of a leg up – since this issue only arose on the iDevice… but, with about an 80% market share it was a complete non-starter for BN to suggest to me that I should go buy a Nook for reading – they basically were saying “Apple doesn’t matter” – that’s a bit like looking at a tsunami coming in and sticking your head in the sand saying “it’s only a wave…”
From late fall last year into winter (ok, northern hemisphere – and I should know better as I make my home in one of the southernmost bits of land on the planet – but I work in the North so tend to write from that point of view) this experience only got worse and worse. Basically it has been impossible to buy a book on BN.com on any Apple iOS device for months now. I have to go to a PC/Mac and make the purchase, then I can download and read on the pad. The e-mails to angels, then the archangels, then to Gabriel himself – all basically went nowhere. The replies were scripted, with no attention to the facts presented. The ‘solutions’ (buy a Nook), etc. were insulting.
I still wanted to give the little guy another chance before falling in the River with most everyone else… so I actually tried an abnormal procedure – to call a person (at least I had hoped to find a carbon life form, and not Siri’s sister) that could maybe shed some light on what had now become a travesty of an experience. I won’t bore you with details, but once upon a time I could sign into my account on BN.com and then make my purchases with a single click. Yes, I did get a nice little dialog that said “Are you sure?” – that’s cool, one more click and I’m done. But now… even though I am signed in, EVERY time that I make a purchase, I get redirected to another page where I have to sign in again, then redirected to a 3rd page where I have to accept the purchase, then… I get back to the original page and see the purchase is confirmed. Only that experience, as clumsy as it is, only works on a computer, not a mobile device. The whole process just hangs on anything but a laptop/desktop.
So… I eventually talk to a human or two… after a number of really horrible phone-menu-from-hell trips – and I’m sorry here, I am not being (too) politically incorrect, but please Mr. Noble – I’m not stupid. When someone who is completely obvious as having English as his 3rd or 4th language introduces himself as “John” and proceeds to attempt to speak with a cadence and lexicon that is totally unauthentic – it’s insulting to his native culture and my intelligence. Reading every response off a computer screen sounds just like what it is – and therefore the customer is never really heard. I don’t mind that you want to save costs and source your helpdesk in Mumbai or Delhi, but speaking on the phone IS a skill – hire and train staff to be good at it – but natural. If we are all going to be living in the cloud together, let’s at least celebrate our diversity but work towards a common understanding.
Sadly, the fork in the road was reached – I ran out of my last patience pill, and have thrown down David and gone to Goliath… with the same restrictions from Apple (no in-app purchasing) I was able to go from the Kindle reader to Safari on iPad, purchase my book, and return to find it already loading, with a total of 4 taps. No extra sign in. Just about as simple a process as could be, given Apple’s current policy.
I still don’t like the look of the website. I’m getting used to the little differences in the Kindle app reader – but my blood pressure is down from the cloud and I can now spend my time reading instead of fighting poorly implemented technology, ignorant and uncaring staff, and a general feeling of inferiority in not being able to make something work that’s supposedly simple.
I hope that this is seen as not just another flame on the internet – but rather an example of how ‘that which matters’ is your customer. Always. Forever and ever and ever. Nothing else matters. In spite of the miracles of technology, only real carbon-based organisms eventually consume your products. Even though the largest portion of communication on the web today is M2M (Machine to Machine) – all of this is only to facilitate some human’s consumption of either a product or a service somewhere. So please Mr./Mrs. Merchant… take care of the ONLY resource that matters: your people. That means your customers (first) and your employees. Train them. Support them. Critique them. CARE enough to CARE. Your future really absolutely does depend on it. I just voted with my wallet. If enough others make the same decision, another Border will fall…