Saturday, November 1, 2014

Customer Service: Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble

Amazon has long been known for their great customer service, so I’ve generally been happy to shop there. But recently, they’ve been putting the customer second in their battle with Hachette by, among other things, refusing to list pre-release books from that publisher on their website (they are available eventually, but they arrive slowly and aren’t discounted). This has been a bit disconcerting because Amazon has always been my go-to place for book information as well as purchasing, and now they’re pretending that certain books just don’t exist.

The result is that I’ve had to turn to instead. I do shop at physical Barnes & Noble locations and have a membership there, but I’ve generally restricted my online book purchases to Amazon. This time was different: I was looking for Paolo Bacigalupi’s new book, The Doubt Factory, and Amazon was pretending that it didn’t exist, so I couldn’t even add it to my wishlist. Instead, I pre-ordered from B&N, thinking all the while that this would backfire against Amazon. Why would they deliberately drive their customers to other bookstores? Once I’d become accustomed to ordering from, I might well keep doing it in the future.

Fast forward to October 14, the book’s release date. I got an email from Barnes & Noble saying that the book had been shipped and would arrive soon. A week later, I wondered what had become of it, and when I looked at the tracking information it claimed to have been delivered on October 16.

Of course, it’s not necessarily Barnes & Noble’s fault that the package went missing. I’m perfectly willing to believe that it was just bad luck that I had an issue with my very first order from them, while I generally receive at least a couple of packages from Amazon every week without problem. What really matters is how issues are resolved.

I contacted Barnes & Noble, and was initially very satisfied with the response. They got back to me almost immediately via email, offering to either refund my money or send a new copy of the book. However, they didn’t make it very clear how I should express my preference. The final line of the email read as follows:

If you want to be immediately assisted with your inquiry, we suggest that you contact us by phone or by chat, please call 1-800-THE-BOOK (1-800-843-2665). If you prefer to chat with us, please click on this link:”.

Did I need immediate assistance? I didn’t think the situation was particularly urgent, so I just responded to the email, saying that I’d like to receive a new copy of the book. This was on October 23.

Well, apparently “immediately assisted” meant “assisted at all”. After five days with no further response from them, no notification of a shipment, and no book, I responded again to the email and asked what the status of the replacement was. Their reply was a bit passive-aggressive, pointing out that they had sent an email asking for my preference, though they did apologize for the failed communication while refusing to take responsibility for it:

We would like to apologize if we had trouble receiving your response however, we sent an email to you asking for your preference with regard to this matter. Nevertheless, moving forward, we are more than happy to help you with your concern.

They went on to explain the situation with the previous shipment (they had checked, and it had claimed to be delivered on October 16)—which I had already gone over in my initial communication, embedded in the current email thread. They did go on to say that they were replacing the item and were requesting that the shipment be expedited so that I would receive it as soon as possible. They also said that they would update me about it by email.

This was three days ago, and I’ve received no further communication, much less a book. Meanwhile, the book is in stock at my local Barnes & Noble, and at four other B&N locations within a 5-mile radius. Their website also states that it’s available for same-day delivery in Manhattan, where I live. Supply and shipping speed are not the problems here. So I emailed them again today, asking them to escalate the situation to someone higher up, though I’m starting to despair of ever seeing the book.

Meanwhile, I can’t help contrasting this situation with the customer service that I’ve received at Amazon. I don’t think I’ve ever had an Amazon shipment go missing (though again, I attribute this to the luck of the post office more than anything else), but I’ve had occasional minor issues. Expensive books have come damaged on two or three occasions, and in one case a book didn’t arrive on the guaranteed two-day delivery date.

In the case of the damaged books, Amazon offered generous discounts, and processed them promptly, without hassle. In the case of the book that didn’t arrive on its scheduled delivery date, they sent out another copy overnight, so I ended up with two copies when the late shipment eventually arrived as well. Basically, everything has always been resolved not only satisfactorily, but with a maximum of speed and convenience.

Meanwhile, I’m still sitting in limbo with my one Barnes & Noble order, hoping I’ll eventually receive this readily-available book that was supposed to arrive on October 16.

I was so sure that Amazon would lose out by forcing us to shop for certain books somewhere else. I thought I’d see that Barnes & Noble was just as effective, and end up comparison shopping with every purchase. Needless to say, that hasn’t been the case. When Amazon drove me to shop at B&N, it just reinforced my intention to shop at Amazon as much as possible.

1 comment:

  1. B&N could be taking advantage of the missteps of Amazon, the failure of Borders, etc, but they just keep falling behind. So frustrating, as you vividly describe.