I had a frustrating small business experience this week that I thought might be a great opportunity for discussion here--or at the very least a reminder to us all to pay a little closer to attention to our customers during this busy season. I'd love to hear back from the group if you have opinions about how this scenario played out.

The Setup

While attempting to purchase gift certificates online through a small business website, I ran into a bit of trouble. I noted that this small business had a contact page, though. So I sent an email to request clarification.

Basically, the gift certificates they offered were for workshops or classes. In order to complete the purchase online, I had to select a specific workshop time from a drop-down menu, effectively registering my recipients for one of the offered classes. Now, if I was actually going to the classes myself, this would probably be the perfect online shopping experience.

The Problem

But I didn't know the recipient's schedule, and I didn't want to make assumptions about when they would be available to attend. So I sent an email through the contact page asking if there were another way to purchase gift certificates for my recipients without being forced to select the day and time they had to show up. I wanted to give them the certificates, then have them call or sign up online when it was convenient for them to attend one of the workshops.

Two days later I received an email from the owner of the business essentially saying, "Yes we do offer gift cards. The link is here. Let me know if you have any questions."

The Facepalm

I thought: Wait a minute, I already knew about the link. (Duh!)  And of course I have questions! Why didn't you answer them?

I was frustrated. Did she even read my email, or did some robot service pick up the words "gift certificate" and spit out an auto-response? Did she just skim the email, not realizing I had more complicated problems that required her input? Either way, my inquiry didn't feel like much of a priority

My Response

Even if I had to select a specific workshop for my gift recipients, I might've done some investigative work to find the best time for them. But I was already turned off and ultimately decided on another gift, dropping the workshop gift certificate idea entirely.

Your Turn

  1. As a customer, would you have called or written the owner again to get clarification?
  2. Do you feel as a small business owner that you are held to higher customer service standards than bigger, more impersonal companies?

Photo Credit: pirshulet 

Views: 392

Comment by Alyssa Gregory on December 7, 2011 at 8:46am
From a consumer perspective, especially during the holidays when time is at a premium, I probably wouldn't have even gotten as far as contacting them for help. Online shopping is all about saving time for me -- if it's not quick and painless, I move on. They would have lost my business immediately.

From a business owner's perspective, customers may expect more personal service, but I think that's what gives small businesses a huge advantage. We can actually provide exceptional customer service and form relationships with customers in ways the big guys could never even dream of doing.
Comment by JudyAnn Lorenz on December 7, 2011 at 12:02pm

I agree with Alyssa -- I would have gone somewhere else or sent the recipient another funding source and said sign yourself up.  

I've had some superb customer service experiences recently and I am building a list!  When delivering CS for a local Chamber last year, I thought for awhile I was corresponding with a real 'kook', but kept answering his questions and asking more for clarification.  The end result was a wonderful 'aquaintance' with a friendly dinner with this gentleman and my husband, plus spending time with him touring client businesses in the community.  It was all part of the deal.  Please note that I asked him some questions along the way too because I knew what should make sense and we weren't there.  "Not my prob." is not part of the customer service person's vocabulary.

Comment by Emily Suess on December 7, 2011 at 12:09pm

If the location of the business and the gift itself didn't seem like such a wonderful idea, I probably would've given up after my first attempt with the online transaction.

I'm a little enamored with stats, so it makes me wonder how frequently something like this happens and how often small businesses miss out without having any idea why potential clients simply walk away.

What we don't know can hurt us.

Thanks for your feedback, Alyssa and JudyAnn.

Comment by Dina Eisenberg on December 7, 2011 at 12:56pm

I get those types of questions from my customers all the time.  Because my products are digital the purchaser will often have an issue, even though things are pretty thoroughly explained.

I found that just responding isn't enough.  You have to go one step further and actually provide relief from the problem.  What a concept! 

That means I provide the link, attach what's needed, look stuff up if that what will delight the purchaser.  Coz when Im delighted with customer service I tell everyone about the problem (gotta be honest) and how it got fixed (kudos for owner).

Even when I can't fix it I look for a way to delight.  It's not hard, and certainly less expensive in terms of time and money than acquiring a new client.

Would you ever tell the website that it's losing customers by not providing more flexibility with the gift cards?  That's where the real benefit of following up with dissatisfied clients is.  Sure, you can get that one sale, but the chance to make improvements that yield more sales is huge!

Great discussion, Emily.

Comment by John Bondon on December 7, 2011 at 1:01pm

Sadly, Emily, your experience is not limited to business situations.  Over the past decade I have operated a local hiking website (hobby - not a business) and ran tennis leagues and tournaments as well and have had the exact same experience from some of my members.  It is not uncommon for someone to reply to one of my emails and ask a question that is actually answered in the very email they are responding to!  They simply haven't bothered to scroll down and read the rest of my initial email!! I've lost count how many times that has happened.   I even wrote a post about a similar experience while dirivng, if yo... 

Had I received a response like that from a business owner I definately would not have bothered to follow up.  And I believe most consumers would have done the same.  I don't think that response is because we are business owners ourselves, I think it has more to do with the fact that everyone doesn't have the time (or the patience probably either!) to deal with a continual back and forth on something like this when there are so many other shopping options.  Why waste one's time when the sales person isn't even bothering to take the time to read about your concerns?

The other factor here is that you were dealing with a smaller business.  If you had been emailing a larger corporation, we kinda expect that type of response.  But when you are dealing with a small business, you expect better personal service and more attention to detail.  So that's two strikes against that business! 

Maybe after the holidays if you care to clue this person in on what happened you might send a link to this thread! 

Comment by Emily Suess on December 7, 2011 at 1:12pm

"Would you ever tell the website that it's losing customers by not providing more flexibility with the gift cards?"

That's an excellent question, Dina. 

I even thought about it, and then didn't take the time because I wasn't sure it would do anyone any good.

Because my original email wasn't read in its entirety, I didn't have any faith that subsequent attempts would fare any better.

And honestly, I shouldn't have to write her and tell her how she could be more customer friendly and make shopping more appealing for those wanting gift certificates. She had all the clues right there in front of her and simply opted not to read an email from a potential client.

Comment by Emily Suess on December 7, 2011 at 1:22pm

You're so right, John. This kind of skimming happens all the time in most aspects of our lives. And I've been on the other end too, like you mention--giving out information to others that would tell them everything they need.

If only they actually read it.

It's frustrating, for sure. And it could very well be a contributing factor in my scenario. The website was a little clunky to navigate in the first place. The text was, well, "meh." And I can image the owner being constantly assaulted with questions as a result of the troubling design. All the while, she may be thinking, "But it's right there on the website!"

...But I could rant all day about web design and content probelms!

Thanks for your input, John. Much appreciated.

Comment by Charlotte Bumstead on December 7, 2011 at 1:27pm

I share your frustrations just from reading your post. I think most of us can relate. Personally, I've had a few experiences lately where I've been trying to communicate by email with a business and have felt let down by the response. Many of us depend on this form of communication on a daily basis. I think we SHOULD be able to rely on receiving a prompt and adequate reply. It's not difficult to read an email and reply to the questions asked on the screen in front of you. Emailing is supposed to be an efficient form of communication. But in some cases it just isn't. And if I was in your position here and I still did want to do business with this company (although I'd probably want to change my mind, as you did), I think making a call is unfortunately the only way you know you could get the answers you were looking for.

Comment by Bill Simmel on December 7, 2011 at 1:27pm


Your "experience" has become much too common when buying from many "click" stores.

Many of these "stores" lack the customer service protocols that are absolutely necessary in retail  business environments. Many provide toll free numbers which drop into automated voice mail, they have auto-responders for email response, and simply a "non-existent management complaint department". Consider how many do not even provide a physical mailing address, which should make a buyer even more skeptical. (How would you return product?) 

The "problem" as I see it - the "stores" have automated not only the buying process but also the customer service process. You cannot "automate" customer service to the point of being so impersonal that it is does the opposite - providing customers a disservice.

The business model for these "stores" is to "click, bill, and fulfill", while keeping all operational costs at a bare minimum. Many are operated by inexperienced site owners ( I refuse to call them business owners) - running a site is quite a different task/skill set  then undertaking and running a business. It would be a disservice to true small business owners and entrepreneurs to call many of these site proprietors business owners - sorry, sad but true in my opinion. 

These sites have grown significantly in the last few years for many reasons. The primaries being, a very "cheap" start-up cost with a extremely low overhead factor. Back engine software is available, inexpensive and fully automates the selling process.. Add  the proliferation of affiliate programs for merchandise you are creating the "perfect storm" for many online shoppers. 

Those of "us" in this business know what to look for in an online store and shopping experience. But many new people who now access stores through social media and "trust" the rave reviews will fall prey to very poorly run businesses with little or no customer relationship concerns. 

I for one if not certain with the "store" I wish to purchase from - I call the 800# to determine are they "alive",  next I look for a physical address, finally is the site "secure" - then, I make my "calculated" decision.

One last point, I am also amazed at the number of REALLY GREAT online businesses (and their business owners) I have found, it gives us all hope and a reason to continue to shop online. 

Comment by Emily Suess on December 7, 2011 at 1:37pm

I'm with you, Charlotte. Email should be a viable method for customer service--particularly if it's offered on the website as a way to get in touch and get help. I think it might be wise for owners to use their websites to channel customer inquiries the way they can handle them best. In other words, don't offer email, phone, and chat support if phone support unless you can handle all three well.


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