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I recently ordered a digital camera from a large, high profile vendor. According to their website, when I placed my order, they had three of the cameras in stock. Yet I was still waiting for my new toy two weeks later.
I emailed the company, only to be told that they were awaiting delivery and my camera should be dispatched within the next two weeks. Not much use to me since I had wanted it for a trip I was taking three days later.
I challenged them, asking why they were advertising the item as "in stock" when they clearly weren't, I also reminded them that they had debited my credit card a week earlier. Their answer: our website isn't real-time, it's updated in a batch job every Friday...
I was simply stunned. I found it difficult to believe that a high-street name was running systems so archaic they couldn't maintain real-time stock level displays on their website. Naturally, I cancelled the order there and then. Amazon had the camera in stock: a few clicks later and my order was complete - my camera arrived the following day, just in time for my little excursion.
I buy frequently from Amazon. I had chosen the other vendor simply because their price was a little cheaper. It's unlikely now that I would ever even return to their website, let alone make a purchase - regardless of price.
E-commerce is big, very big. In Europe alone, ecommerce sales are expected to be worth almost £800 billion in 2004 (source: eMarketer, Inc.) That's a lot of money but, in an Internet-enabled global marketplace, one needs to be reliable, trustworthy, competitive and, above all, customer-focused in order to take even a small slice from that cake. Suppliers who can't offer a half-decent buying experience will fail. It's that simple.
Of course, there are many companies that get it right. Arguably the best, and certainly the most recognisable, is Amazon. The definitive e-tailer has perfected almost every step of the buying process. They offer a sublime catalogue, rapid delivery, extremely competitive pricing and some great user-tools. How good is Amazon's customer service? Personally, I've never needed to find out. But a quick Google revealed nothing incriminating (a very good sign), although several sites referred to elusive customer service telephone numbers (UK: +44 (0) 2086 369200). Amazon also keep customers informed with periodic email pertaining to their order.
Which brings me neatly to the reason I write this entry...
I recently bought Paragon's "Drive Backup" software from their website. The transaction itself (conducted by element 5) was perfectly satisfactory: uncomplicated, quick and efficient. The software was available for immediate download on completion of purchase as you'd expect. What surprised me was the following email (abridged) which I have just received, a couple of weeks after the purchase:
This e-mail is not a new bill - it is meant to help you to identify the charge
that will appear on your credit card statement shortly.
element 5 handles order and payment processing on behalf of Paragon.
On 14-FEB-2004 you bought the following product from Paragon and paid by credit card:
Paragon Drive Backup 6.x Personal Version
The order stored in our system under the order no. XXXXXXX was paid with your MasterCard / Eurocard card. The total amount of the order is GBP 35.55.
Please note that "WWW.ELEMENT5INFO.C0M" will appear on your credit card statement, and not the name of the publisher (Paragon).
This is a fantastic example of customer service. The email is very clear and served as a timely reminder for a transaction I had all but forgotten about. It is concise, yet tells me everything I need to know. It contains no extraneous information and no marketing blurb. Significantly, I find myself inclined to trust a company that gives the impression that they care about me as a customer - that they haven't forgotten about me simply because the transaction is complete.
I am very impressed with element 5 and, by association, Paragon Software. So impressed, that I have taken the time to promote them here and that is the return that an investment in good customer service brings: word-of-mouth advertising - the very best kind.