Monday 28 February 2005

Presence without essence - Internet

Snail mail, no call

I just received mail in the post from a renowned retail and catalogue services concern in the Netherlands with an Internet presence [1]. The contents suggested that I call to arrange when I would be available to receive my order.

Such communication should not be strange; it does have an element of customer service which until quite recently was not to be expected in the Netherlands.

It can only mean that organisations are implicitly working on some other aspect of their business model and fabric that allows for their employees in the customer-facing departments to feel a little more involved as representatives of their organisation and a very interesting touch of shared responsibilities.

However, this mail came about when I was shopping around for some exercise equipment, this time, an exercise bicycle having already acquired the Total Gym XL and the Ab Burner which is usually advertised as the Ab King Pro.

The history of my desires for a perfect body over the laid-back approach of easy-living without the complications and vain-glorious hedonism is not too well documented, but work is apace at getting fitter and looking better. Suffice it to say, the gym on the second floor of my apartment block has been visited thrice, however, not in any attempt to break any sweat, even though aerobics presents an interesting spectacle.

Left in the pre-history of e-Commerce

The issue on view here is the number of companies that have an Internet presence but have not fully inculcated the essence of being on the Internet, having a web present and offering opportunities to transact business with them.

The first observation was months ago when having observed what the Ab King Pro does for working on the abdominal muscles on one of those ubiquitous and at times utterly loathsome shopping channels [2], I went to their web site and placed an order.

Having been an Internet user since 1994, I have been rather confident of Internet transactions since 1996 when I could book flights on the British Midland site then called - it was awfully nice to be able to eliminate completely the middleman and enjoy the convenience of seeing all the options and making your own choices to your particular convenience. The foray into e-commerce in its infancy encouraged my subsequent activities of conveniently preferring the Internet ordering system to the calling the customer service or sales desk.

I had inadvertently mistyped my credit card details, which eventually turned out to be convenient, because having placed the order, it offered no record of the transaction on screen or by email, even though that transaction had successfully registered an email message to their sales department. Basically, on the tip-off of a friend the gym kit was obtained for about a quarter of the price at a retail outlet [3] having done the requisite research on the Internet.

Premium call deterrent

In fact, the charges for calling the premium rate number are outrageous; where the possibility of keeping you connected for over 30 minutes is likely, with 20 of those minutes being on a waiting queue because all sales people are engaged. When you finally get connected to the "friendly" sales person, just hope that you can both agree on a language for your dialogue and that what you are ordering is what is being offered. Once before after waiting over two and a half hours, I was put back in the queue because he spoke Dutch, I spoke English - How is that for communication breakdown?

Unreasonable form options

Anyway, I made this order on the company's web site, only to find out that there was no means of payment, rather someone was going to call me to arrange delivery. There was a restriction of only allowing fixed line phone numbers rather than mobile numbers which offer a sense of contactable ubiquity. Eventually, a letter arrived rather than the call a good seven working days after.

What is most irksome about this is I now take the cost of the phone call they were supposed to make and probably for all their Internet presence; I would have to pay at the doorstep when the goods are delivered. In arranging a window for delivery which at times is based of a 4-hour morning or afternoon, I am prepared to be surprised if they offer evening deliveries at no additional cost.

Aspiring but despairing

The most amusing of these Internet presences without essence firms was a personal computer firm; it took the best part of 2 weeks to adequately shop around for a laptop. What was quite striking about it was the fact that it was nigh on impossible to walk out of over 8 PC shops with a ready-built computer, everything required a waiting period of days in some instances.

I then decided on the convenience of Internet-shopping for a laptop and did get one of the best specifications I could find. As I placed the order I suddenly realised the order had been confirmed without a means of payment. Then I called the firm only to be told I could pay at the door. That was plainly and utterly inconvenient for the risks and circumstances.

With much persuasion we agreed on making a bank transfer, and then the parcel arrived through the regular parcel delivery service. Having gotten the impression that a company courier would deliver the laptop and collect the payment at the doorstep, they used the regular post.

Ideas should fit in your strategy

In conclusion, it is evident that those who have jumped on the e-commerce bandwagon, did so without securing a think-through of what they intend to achieve by having a web presence. The concept of basic web presence is now Internet pre-history, the Ice Age of thawing of innovation just before the dawn of the DotComs.

If a company is interested in engaging customers in an interactive choice-driven environment that allows them to make quality decisions on products of interest, then they should complete the process by offering the full experience of convincingly ordering, knowingly paying and confidently expecting service of those orders or requests.

Just being a supermarket style trolley which never gets to the check-out till is no fun to either the buyer or the seller. The start-up of an e-commerce business could incur large initial costs, but once the audience and marketplace is established, it is still no operation for the faint hearted.


[1] Wehkamp [2] Telsell [3] Perry Sport [4] Computerland 

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