In Depth: Customer Service and the Cone of Silence Staff

Updated · Apr 24, 2001

by Jane Irene Kelly

Bear with me. This is probably the longest story ever written about a sweatshirt, but to do it right, one must include great detail.

This writer is a big fan of e-commerce. I’m in California and all my family is back East. Until the advent of Internet shopping, buying them gifts for holidays, birthdays, and the like was a huge pain.

Never was my problem finding good gifts or the time to purchase them–in fact, I usually did that way in advance of the “due date.” The problem–the “pain”–has always been wrapping the presents, putting them in boxes with bubble wrap and Styrofoam peanuts, driving them to the post office, and mailing them in a timely manner.

I’m not sure why, but I have a heck of a time managing these little details in life. So, you can imagine my relief when the world changed and I could purchase things via the Internet and have them delivered where I wanted, when I wanted–and gift-wrapped, too.

I bought items such as wine, books, and CDs from the usual e-suspects, and for many months, everything was great. Then came Christmas 1999.

One sweatshirt–so much trouble

It was mid-December, and all the gifts had been ordered–in most cases, already delivered. The only person left was my hard-to-please dad. I decided to buy him a Notre Dame “Fightin’ Irish” sweatshirt. It seemed like an easy choice, and I knew my proud-to-be-Irish dad would love it.

I found the perfect sweatshirt from an online sports retailer I’d never dealt with before. I felt no trepidation as I ordered the item that this Pennsylvania-based dot-com (which was located a few hours’ drive from my parents’ home) claimed to have in stock. After all, I’d only ever experienced e-commerce satisfaction.

Everything seemed good to go–at first

I paid a bit extra in shipping costs to ensure the sweatshirt’s delivery by December 25, then told my mom to look out for the package. (Note: This dot-com has since moved its headquarters to Minneapolis, and now operates under a different “corporate identity.”)

But the initial three- to five-day delivery period passed, and the sweatshirt did not arrive. Figuring things were slow due to the holiday rush, I held out for a week. Then I got worried. So, I went back to the dot-com’s site, found the “Track Order Status” button, and discovered that the sweatshirt that had been in stock now suddenly was out of stock, but that the supplier was on the way and the item would be shipped by late December.

OK. So it wasn’t going to make it to Dad for Christmas. Fine. It was not the end of the world. I just had to inform my dad–who made sure, in his Irish way, to make it seem as if I’d denied him his Christmas gift on purpose–that it would arrive…for New Year’s.

However, the package didn’t arrive after Christmas. Sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day, an “elf” at the dot-com had changed my order status to say that it would take another three to four weeks to ship. (Remember, we’re talking about a sweatshirt here, not a rare, impossible-to-find item.)

So I decided that it was time to cancel my order. But when I tried to do so, I discovered that there was NO way to do it on the dot-com’s site, and there was NO customer service number or email to use. I was forced to wait and hope for the best.

I waited, and waited. Each time I checked my order status, I found that the cruel “elf” had pushed the delivery date further into the future, leaving a report that said that the supplier was expected to arrive “soon” (from Borneo, by snail, apparently.)

I kept apologizing to my dad, who kept sending me on a guilt trip and asking why I didn’t just cancel the order because it was “never going to arrive anyway.” This was going on around Valentine’s Day.

Screaming into the customer service cone of silence

Then, at the beginning of March, nearly three months after I had first ordered the damn sweatshirt, I discovered that the delivery date had been pushed back again by another month with the same vague excuses.

I’d had it. I tracked down the company’s headquarters and left an irate message at their corporate offices, which only had an impersonal voicemail service for recording customers’ calls. I also shot off an email to the corporate headquarters railing against the dot-com for ruining my dad’s Christmas and for having such shameful “customer service” practices.

Within hours, I received an email from the dot-com with this message: “This email is to inform you that the following items on your order have been shipped. Thanks again for shopping with us.”

The Irish eyes are now smiling–but remain wary

So, that was it. After three months of putting me on hold and through the wringer, this bloody dot-com machine offered NO apology and NO explanation. NO ONE cared enough about my business to return my call, or send me a letter, or do something to prove that I was important because I was an incredibly patient customer. I mean, I only spent 30-some dollars, but it’s still money I could have deposited at another dot-com, no?

Well, this story has a happy ending, because my dad did, in fact, receive his sweatshirt as promised–right on time for St. Patrick’s Day, which may have been more appropriate anyway. The downside is that each time I call home to say that something is to arrive from a dot-com, I hear from either of my parents the proverbial, “Well, you know you’ve never really had much luck with those things. Remember your dad’s sweatshirt.”

Therein, friends, lies the moral of this story: Only one painful e-commerce experience can taint the opinion–and otherwise great track record–of an online shopper.

If only someone had answered the call

What’s worse is that just one awful e-commerce experience can thoroughly poison those (such as my parents) who don’t yet have a computer and have never personally executed an e-commerce transaction, but who had wanted to do so. They are a perfect example of future customers bitten viciously by the e-serpent before tasting the tempting Internet apple.

All this could have been avoided if someone at the offending dot-com had paid attention to my order and offered me a refund or an alternate choice of products (before Christmas) or sent a gift certificate to me or to my dad, or paid the shipping costs, or who had, at the very least, expressed some remorse months later.

An extreme case–perhaps

Now, I admit that the case of the Notre Dame sweatshirt may be extreme, and my friends in the dot-com world tell me so. In truth, I’ve never had another serious e-commerce problem before or since.

However, I also know that I am not the only person who has suffered a bad e-commerce experience., in particular, let a lot of people down at Christmas by soundly running out of stock. On Mother’s Day, failed to deliver gifts and then sent an email to all affected customers–thus, exposing their email addresses.

Sure, nothing’s perfect, and e-commerce is still a new world in evolution. But the point is that e-tailers serious about doing business on the Internet need to avoid half-baked customer service, and must not hide from their customers when problems arise. E-tailers must be ready to listen, respond, and provide real solutions or equitable alternatives. The customer service cone of silence only serves to make customers feel alone and very much offended.

No shortage of data on this subject

When I sat down to do research for what was going to be an article about the hot topic of “online customer service,” I found numerous studies by firms such as, Jupiter Communications, Forrester Research, Greenfield Online, Computer Economics, Modem Media, and Ernst & Young that all said the same thing: The future of e-commerce rests on customer service–really outstanding customer service.

There also are plenty of books serving up advice to e-tailers from customer service experts. I found a lot of simple but sound advice in a book called Customer Service on the Internet by consultant Jim Sterne of Target Marketing, Santa Barbara, Calif. Check out the section called “Eight Ways to Great Customer Service on the Internet”–it’s on his company’s site at

You see, you don’t need me–another journalist–to regurgitate a bunch of statistics or point to the latest study about online customer service in yet another article on the subject. I believe that the serious e-tailers reading this already know what must be done.

That’s why I picked a personal story to share, and not another compilation of impersonal data, for those who just don’t have a clue yet. My Dad didn’t get his Christmas gift, and I didn’t get an apology, and to this day, six months later, I still don’t have answers as to why.

In the so-called “Information Age,” this just shouldn’t be.

Reprinted from NewMedia

  • Call Centers
  • News
  • More Posts By Staff