Sunday 7 September 2008

Would you do it in real life?

Caution: may contain traces of rant.

Guess what, the internet world is just like real world.  The dotcom bust was a harsh teacher, before then we believed anything would make money if it was done on the web; and we learned that this was not so.  We learned that even when you run a business online you still needed a solid business plan, you still needed to understand your market, know your customers and control your costs.  In other words, we learned that you still needed to run a proper business.

I am starting to wonder if that lesson stuck.  We received the message from an investment point of view, but how has that translated operationally?

Additional customer-facing channels for traditional operations is a high growth area of the web.  Banks, utilities, transport, retail, and a whole bunch more - all these things started almost exclusively face to face, some had a postal 'interface' with their customers, they added call centers as telephony matured, and now the web is the next way in.  Most companies did pretty well when adding call centers to their repertoire (heavily accented outsourced operators you can barely understand excluded), but in the jump online, a lot of them are much less successful in my experience.

My reasoning is as so; it looks to me like many organization decided, for some (presumably well-researched) reason, that their web booking/ordering/support/purchasing process should be different to their stores and call centers.  Why?  I'm the same guy, I've been to your branches for years, called you contact center, filled in your forms and met your staff.  I like the internet, it's the most convenient channel for me, but why can't I do the same things the same way?  Why isn't my experience of your operation consistent?

An example from yesterday.

I booked an overnight ferry trip through the web.  As part of said booking process, I was offered the option of booking dinner at one of the onboard restaurants, and receiving a small discount when paying for both ticket and meal together online.  The Scotsman in me was totally sucked in by this and I went for it, but alas, it was not to be.  I was offered a choice of 4 restaurants on the boat, and each time I selected one, I was informed by the site that it was fully booked.  Not being fed?  Yikes!  Nonetheless I girded up my loins and prepared myself for a hungry crossing.  As I wandered around the ship that evening (no wifi at sea...) I was greeted by the welcome sight of many empty restaurants.  I was pretty happy about that at the time so off I went for a meal.  Saved from the brink of starvation [OK people that know me, I admit this would have taken years], I began to wonder why I couldn't book online and lay rightful claim to my 10% off.  A brief investigation was in order and I swiftly conducted one...

Anyone who works in the industry knows that failures happen; mistakes, technical faults and data errors - these things I am much more than averagely forgiving about, in the hope that the great circle of BGP karma will ensure my users are with me.  But this was not the case; what I found was quite simply 2 easily-avoidable counts of a process that works well in real life but wasn't translated to the web particularly well.

Count 1 (the root cause); apparently it is not possible to make advance restaurant bookings less than 24 hours before the ferry departure time, as they cannot get the message to the boat in time, and I was booking for that very evening.  Cool - but why make me go through each individual restaurant one by one?  Why mislead me that they're fully booked, when the real reason is simply not enough notice?  In fact, why offer that step at all?  If I was being talked through my booking by contact center staff, would they offer to book a restaurant, then just tell me it's not possible when I accept?  No, so why do it online?

Count 2; when I called up, the helpful lady in the contact center said I should have called them during the online booking process and they could have clarified the reason (less than 24 hours notice) at the time.  Hang on, use the call center to check up on the truth of the website?  When I'm booking over the phone, should I be expected to use the website to check up on the validity of what I'm being told by the operator?  It sounds a little absurd when put that way around, so why engineer the system so that it's necessary this way?

OK machines are dumb, I'm cool with that, but you can do better than this.  It's not difficult to teach your system simple rules about these restrictions (if departure time < 24 hours from current time then do not show restaurant options page) or at least set the right expectations (display a 'not enough notice, please book in person on the ferry' message instead of a 'restaurant fully booked' message).  It's just good customer service.

So if you're considering taking a traditional process online and you're thinking about modifying it slightly for the web, first ask yourself if you'd do it in that way real life.  If it wouldn't make sense when done face to face or over the phone, then it probably isn't a smashing idea online either - don't put your customers through it!

Remember, if it's a dumb idea in real life, it's a dumb idea online.

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