A Tale of Two Customer Service Departments

I'm a reasonable guy.

I start with this because I like to think that I'm not an unreasonable person. Do right by me and I'll be satisfied. But make me jump through hoops and I'll be very disappointed.

This is the tale of two completely different customer service experiences.

Experience the first

Recently I picked up a copy of a book from Barnes and Noble's Nook store. It was Artificial Intelligence for Games and is a book that I've been looking at for quite some time. So before the Christmas holiday I pulled the trigger on the book and purchased it. I felt a little twinge of guilt after purchasing it because it's an expensive book ($77.95. Remember that number, as there will be a test later on) but I convinced myself that it was worth it because it's supposed to be a very good book on Artificial Intelligence.

The download of the book finished way too quickly, but I didn't think much of it. I opened the book.

I realized that I'd downloaded a book that was 30 pages long.

OK, so maybe they have some funky page numbering scheme. It happens. eBooks are weird right?

Nope. 30 pages with one single introductory paragraph on each page.

I tried archiving the book and re-downloading it. Each time I was greeted with the same number of pages and the same content. So now I'm really upset. I just paid "instant-guilt" money for a book that is defective (or more likely one that the publisher intended to be the sample). I quickly looked up Barnes and Noble's contact information and posted a request. They sent back a note that asked for 10-15 business days to check with their content team. That's fine. At least I'd be able to get some relief from this.

Time passes.

I send a note on January 8th: "It appears the book is still in an unreadable state. Would it be possible instead to get a refund or credit for the book?"

Instead of the "We're sorry, here's your money back. No harm no foul" mail that I was expecting I got a note thanking me for my patience. They also asked "Based on the situation you described, we feel that the difficulties you
are experiencing would be resolved best by contacting us by phone and you will be forwarding to the next level of our support."

Those who know me know that I'm really against using the phone if I can avoid it. This seemed like one of those situations where an email should be all of the contact required. After all: what are my sonorous and dulcet tones on the phone going to provide other than the ability for someone to tell me "something went pear-shaped and we're really sorry - here's your money back"? Unless that wasn't the case and I was going to keep both pieces.

I protested:

I fail to understand how calling you would get me to the next level of support? Wouldn't forwarding the ticket to the next level of support suffice? I'm not a fan of using the phone in situations where an email would suffice. This appears to be one of those situations.

I'm pretty sure the issue is that CRC Press didn't give you the right file for distribution and you're having trouble getting the right file from them. That's completely understandable. I also understand you might need some more time to sort this out. In the mean time I'm out $77.95 while you and CRC Press sort this out. Meanwhile I feel like a chump for purchasing an unusable book (one that I might add is available in physical for cheaper from your competitor).

I want to believe this can be resolved simply, over email, without me making a phone call (which again: I do not like to use the phone). Please advise how this can be rectified so that we're both happy and I'm no longer feeling like a chump who should never have purchased this Nook book.

Looking forward to an amicable resolution.


Surely that should rouse someone to action! The customer is unhappy and has a solution for us to pursue! To arms! Tally ho and all that nonsense.

Nope. They doubled down. They insisted I call, even after I sent the following:

Again, I would rather not call, but yet you insist I need to call to make this right. Rather than give me the customer service I would like and treat me as a guest you are instead forcing me to conform to your system.

Tread carefully. I'm rethinking my future purchases with your company.

Please advise if this is still the course you would have me take.

The didn't relent. I was livid.

Fine. I'll call.

After navigating the rapids of Phone Menu River I managed to get the robotic voice to assure me that someone would be with me shortly. 15 minutes later it was still telling me someone would be with me shortly. Pithy Smooth Jazz music tried to cheer me up, but there's only so much of the same loop one can take (especially over the phone).

Finally "not-really-her-name" answers the phone. She verifies that it is me who is calling by asking me account information. My mood is "asshole-factor-5". Your system is the reason I'm here and now you've made me mad in the process. You could have had Mr. Pleasant on the other end of the phone but instead you stuck your hand in the nest and shook vigorously.

After about 5 minutes of re-iterating the email that I sent (with a brief pause while she replicated the problem) she says "It looks like the book is only 30 pages long".

"Look" I fumed "let me ask you something. Would you spend $77.95 on a book that was thirty pages long with one paragraph each? Person to person here."

Apparently I got through to her because she agreed with me. Unfortunately there was one problem, and likely the problem that started the whole reason for our phone conversation in the first place. She needed to get a manager to approve a refund larger than $50.

So, could she notify the appropriate people via the ticket and have things taken care of without me hanging on the phone? Of course not. Apparently there is a gulf between first-level and second-level support in Nook-ville that prevents all forms of communication other than by phone. Perhaps they live in the Nook monastery high atop Nook mountain where they do nothing but meditate on each new application and book that shall be blessed to come into the Nookiverse. Whatever. I berated her for what should have been a transparent process that had now taken 20 minutes of my time and likely could have been resolved by email, and then sighed as she transferred me to the next level.

Different Smooth Jazz this time. "Asshole-factor-9" engaged.

"Not-really-his-name" answered the phone and let me know that "not-really-her-name" let him know about the problem. I berated him for exposing me to what should have been a transparent process, and chastised him that I had to call to get this sorted out. Undeterred he let me know that they would issue me a "one-time" refund on this item. One-time? So if I make the mistake to order this item again before it's ready then I'm stuck with it forever? Whatever. I agreed and the refund was processed. He asked if they got this sorted out if I would like to be notified. Sure, though I'm not likely to wait for it.

I also asked that if he had any empowerment with this process to please see that it gets fixed. He agreed though in the way that sounded more like "anything to get you off this phone" way of agreeing.

I made a mental note never to buy anything on the Nook more than $50.

Experience the better

Later that evening I was at Coffee House Coders and noticed Les Orchard had a pretty neat path-finding algorithm running in the game that he was developing. I asked him where he got the algorithm. He mentioned the O'Reilly book "AI for Game Developers" which I had looked at briefly before but wasn't sure if it was all that great. I took another look on O'Reilly's site and decided to purchase it. O'Reilly has a user-group program where their books are 50% off if you use a code so I tried the code and found that it didn't work on that book. I tried several times, and noticed that it worked on other books but not that one.


I decided to put it on hold for the interim (the whole "no new books" thing that I'm sort-of-following for January) but thought I'd let O'Reilly know.

One email of "Hey the code isn't working" and a quick exchange of "you're buying just the eBook right?" "Yup" and the representative from O'Reilly did something awesome:

They added the book to my account.

No muss. No fuss. No wailing and gnashing of teeth. No needless phone calls.

Minutes later I'm an ecstatic customer.

Now this isn't the first time that O'Reilly has been awesome and I usually look through their books first for any topic that interests me. Their quality is usually great and the no DRM policy is a huge win. I usually want to throw money at O'Reilly whenever I can.

After that exchange I'm not sure I have enough money to throw at them.

Experience the difference

Two similar customer experiences with two completely different results.

Barnes and Noble had me jumping through hoops because I couldn't receive satisfaction for something I purchased. O'Reilly jumped through hoops to ensure I was a happy customer because I couldn't use a discount coupon.

Barnes and Noble treated me as though I was pulling a fast one and did so with under-empowered staff. O'Reilly treated me as though it was their fault they couldn't serve me the way I wanted to be served with staff who were empowered to make things right.

Barnes and Noble will be lucky to see any purchases over $50 from me, ever. O'Reilly will likely see many purchases from me.

Thank you O'Reilly for being awesome. If Barnes and Noble were serious about their platform they'd be wise to take notice.