How to do online service really badly

sad smiley faces
We live in an online economy where keeping customers is tough – so why do so many online stores do customer service so very badly?

How Do I? covers the basics, because we’ve all got to start somewhere.

These days, you can buy just about anything online. It’s rapidly become the buying experience for a huge quantity of Australian and global shoppers.

Many businesses manage not only the sales experience well – and frankly that’s table stakes given the number of software platforms that exist to make that a mostly-idiot-proof matter to set up – but also the after-sales experience. That’s a bigger step than I think many consider, because getting one sale is good – but keeping a customer in an online environment is even better.

Again, all of this feels patently obvious, but it also makes it stand out so very much more when businesses get it alarmingly wrong.

I’m going to illustrate this with a recent example of my own – and, no, before you ask, it’s not to do with Optus and its apocalyptic outage, although that’s also a good example of how not to communicate with your customers when something goes awry.

This one, however, needs a little bit of backstory…

His name is Prince. And he is funky.

(Image via WorldsDirection, public domain licence)

I’m a fan of the late, great musician Prince. Have been for decades, loved his music (the man himself was, shall we say, a tad more controversial).

Before his passing, he re-signed with Warner Bros, the label that he infamously had a huge spat with in the 1990s that led to the whole “artist formerly known as” period.

There were big plans to re-release the back catalogue, remaster albums, new content, the whole big shiny funky spinning ball of goodness. Then he passed away, but the contract with Warners remained, which has meant that posthumous releases have been through them ever since.

As noted, I’m a fan, so I’ve picked up physical versions of the “new” albums – Originals and Welcome 2 America – as well as the remasters of 1999, Purple Rain and Sign O’ The Times.

Look, here’s me unboxing the Welcome 2 America very fancy Super Deluxe Edition:

This year’s offering is a Super Deluxe version of his 1991 album, Diamonds & Pearls.

I’ve had a copy of that album since (checks notes) 1991, but the hook here for long-time fans is all the extra material, including 33 tracks from the legendary “vault” of unreleased recordings. It’s effectively digital crack for a long-time Prince fan.

Also, like crack, once they’ve got you hooked, it gets expensive. Here in Australia, the CD version of the Super Deluxe set runs for $315 outright.

No, that wasn’t a typo. If you want it on LP, it’s even more pricey at $950.

I don’t do the vinyl thing, but I saved my pennies and put off other indulgences in order to be able to justify the asking price, especially as these tend to be one-time print matters.

I pre-ordered the CD, listening to my credit card wailing as I did so back on the 9th of September, aware that it wasn’t due to be out until the 27th of October.

Come the 27th, I had a shipping confirmation but no actual set for my money – but there I’ll put at least some of the blame on Australia Post, because their delivery schedules are often a touch… optimistic. Disappointing in a way, but again, I’d waited, so I could wait a little more.

And then, on the 30th of October a package arrived. I decided on a whim to do an unboxing video, well aware that it wasn’t quite as “fresh” as it might have been on the 27th.

In hindsight, I’m very glad I did so. Here we go:

If you don’t want to sit through all of that, the relevant part is around the 5:40 mark, where it becomes apparent that an entire disc is missing.

Which sucks, especially for a premium-priced product, but I can at one level accept that mistakes happen in production. Wherever these were pressed, there’s probably a Diamonds & Pearls Singles CD sitting on a factory floor somewhere, having been accidentally jostled out from position.

Where this gets far more annoying and difficult is in how Warner Music Australia actually handles this kind of thing – and this is why I’m using it as an example of how to do customer service really, really badly.

How to drop the ball on after-sales service: A guidebook

Angry person.

So, I got onto the phone to Warners Australia, using the number provided in my original order.

While Warners takes the money (through a Shopify shopfront – remember how I said this kind of thing was quite easy because there are stock tools?) it’s actually run through an outfit called “Merch Fan”, though given the way it’s integrated into the Warners Australia shopfront, it’s not clear at all if it’s an owned subsidiary or a sub-business. This should not be my problem, however.

Either way, after nearly three weeks and counting, I’m not a fan of Merch Fan. Quite far from it.

To keep this as brief as possible, I’m going to timeline my interactions with the company.

October 30th: This is the day it arrived, right after shooting that video.  Called, eventually got through to someone who said that “the person responsible for returns isn’t in, you’ll have to call back tomorrow”. Left my details for them to call me, was told they would.

October 31st: No call back by the afternoon, so I called and left another message and sent an email message as well with a link to the video above – it’s rather obvious proof that something’s gone badly wrong. Already not impressed – isn’t Warner Bros (now Warner Bros Discovery) one of the world’s biggest entertainment firms? Oh yeah, they are. This is not particularly entertaining.

November 1st: Called again AND sent an email. Actually got through to the returns person, who said that I’d have to ship the whole set back and they’d send out a new one. Bear in mind that they’re still advertising it as for sale with stock available to ship right away.

This seems daft to me – it’s big and heavy and they’ll end up with one set with a disc missing anyway, so shipping one disc would be way cheaper and simpler – but as it’s their process, I say OK.

I’m told they’ll email me a returns label. Label arrives via email, I print it and get the whole thing ready to drop into a post office.

20 minutes later I get an email reply… stating that I’d need to provide proof of damage.

Yeah… that’s not good for my mood, because it’s so clearly automated and they haven’t bothered to actually read what I’d sent them or take note of the phone call that has just happened. Do they even have systems that track this kind of thing? I’m starting to have my doubts.

I sent a curt reply re-stating the problem, linking the video, and I did get a reply to that noting that I was going to send it back. I did so, and emailed them a copy of the Australia Post shipping receipt as proof from my end.

November 7th: I gave them some time – more than a week, and it only had to go from Sydney to Sydney, something Australia Post can usually manage, but I’ve heard nothing. So I called, and eventually got bounced… to a voicemail inbox. Left a message, and sent another email as well. No reply.

November 8th: I got a reply… but not really. It was an automated reply in the afternoon of the Optus outage, stating that “We are currently impacted by the Optus national outage and currently our phones, emails and mobile networks are down. We will respond to your query when services resume.”, so it was basically just a stock auto-mailout.

Interesting to note also that it arrived around the same time I was getting responses from other businesses in the afternoon stating that they were now back online.

But still, Optus’ outage isn’t Merch Fan/Warners fault, so I left it for then.

November 10th: Called, left message. Nothing.

November 12th: Called, left message. Again, nothing, and it’s been a while since I’ve had any actual feedback from them AT ALL.

November 15th: Called, left message, sent another email as well. Total radio silence.

Which brings us to today… and as you might imagine, I’ve just tried calling them again.

And finally… I actually was able to get somebody to answer a phone call!

I’m told (and you’ll have to forgive me, my expectations at this point are NOT high) that it will be shipped out to me via Express Post today.

Spoiler: That one’s going to get another unboxing video, because you’ll have to forgive me if I have less than complete faith in the process by now.

I’m also told — and this is the kicker — that they don’t have any way to call out to customers at all, and so email is preferable for contacting them.

Not only is that kind of daft given they have a message bank set up, but it also flies in the face of the fact that outside the 1st of November (which was more than two weeks ago) I’ve had ZERO responses to my emails.

Which is why I’m using it as an illustration of how to do customer service badly in the online age, because one primary matter has gone wrong here.

It isn’t that the disc was missing in the first place. Yes, that’s the problem I’m trying to solve, but accidents do happen.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had something turn up incorrectly in some way, but it’s by far the worst experience I’ve had chasing up some kind of restitution. Also, I 100% acknowledge that this is a total first world problem; I’m not going to expire from lack of Prince music.

No, the primary matter that Warners Australia/Merch Fan has screwed up is customer communications.

It’s appallingly bad.

Not once has anyone actually contacted me; all communications have had to be led by me, and most of them have apparently bounced off a brick wall that is a brick wall by design.

Communications these days are incredibly cheap; it takes very little effort to keep a customer informed of the progress of any issue at all.

But somehow, Warner Music, a company that in 2022 took in nearly $US6 billion dollars just by itself as part of a much larger entertainment conglomerate, can’t be bothered to spend much at all on customer service.

This is basic stuff.

I don’t know whether to be cranky with the staff that are there for poor communication practices, or sorry for them if they’re simply overwhelmed by being short-staffed due to incompetent management. It’s got to be one or the other.

Either way, this is how to do customer service in 2023 for online purchases badly.

It’s not hard to do it competently, mind you – a few emails to indicate progress, or a call back and I’d at least know what’s going on.

Right now all that’s going on is that I’m hundreds of dollars out of pocket for defective merchandise and dealing with a defective customer service process.

That’s simply not good enough.

Update: OK, now this has dipped into the comically absurd.

I mentioned Optus above as another recent example of poor customer communications. Turns out, they’re also a useful whipping boy if (for example) you wanted to deflect responsibility. After the phone call today (and pointing out that my emails had not been responded to), I got the following response:

“Hello Alex,

Thanks for your email, our sincerest apologies for the delay here.

Unfortunately, your email was caught in a different folder, this was due to the national Optus outage which impacted our business last week.”

Umm… yeah. And by yeah, I mean NO.

I could believe that a single email might have bounced back due to the Optus outage, or maybe that it could have been lost due to routing issues.

But not multiple emails on different non-outage days, and in any case, outages do not cause emails to “go into different folders”.

Email processing rules maybe… but again, that’s on your side, Warner Music Australia.

Maybe try spinning that lie at someone with less technical nous next time?

Update: A box arrived on 17th of November… but what was inside it?

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