Some Thoughts on Customer Service

I had an interesting customer service experience yesterday, which has continued to niggle at me, so I’m going to share it with you.

First, let me say that I’ve worked in some form of customer service for most of my working life, and generally at the sharp end: complaint handling. It probably makes me a nightmare customer when things go wrong because I’m harder to fob off, but it also means that I do understand the kind of pressure customer service reps are under.

Second, let me give you some context. An author I follow on Twitter had provided a link to buy their recipe book. They’re someone I admire, and whose recipes, posted for free on their blog, I regularly bookmark, so I felt that I wanted to support them by buying the actual book. The link took me directly to the paperback listing on a site called Hive. I spotted the ebook edition at the bottom of the page and added it to my cart. There was a warning at check out that the ebook was not kindle compatible, which didn’t worry me because I use iBooks and have never had a problem downloading ePub files when buying direct from authors or through Storybundle. 

Yesterday, I remembered that I still needed to download the book. I tried on both phone and laptop with no luck, so I looked at the ebook help pages on their website, where I discovered that the only way to download the book was with Adobe Digital Editions – news to me.

I had a play around on the website and discovered that, while the ADE-only aspect is covered in the small print on the page listing the ebook I had bought, the checkout message only warns kindle owners. I, of course, never saw the ebook listing because I was able to add it directly to my basket from the paperback page.

Since there was technically a warning on the site, and they don’t refund ebooks in any case, I wasn’t about to start demanding my money back. But I was angry that the information had been communicated poorly, leaving me without the option to back out of the purchase. Yes, I can set up an ADE account and download the Hive Reader app for my phone, but I don’t want to. I like to keep a minimal number of apps on my phone, and if I’d known iBooks wasn’t supported I would have looked for another way to buy the book.

With that in mind, I wrote to Hive via their ebooks help email, explaining what had happened and suggesting that a clear warning that the ebooks can only be used via ADE should appear at check out. Based on experience, I expected either to be told that my complaint would need to be dealt with by a different department, or the “Thank you for raising this; we’ll look into it. Let us know if there’s anything else we can do.” brush off.

Instead I got a reply which ignored what I’d said, and explained a number of things I hadn’t asked about. So I replied suggesting that they actually read my email. To their credit, another email came through which assured me that they had read the email, that the response sent to me was a generic response covering frequently asked questions, and apologising profusely. 

There were many things that I might have replied to this, but I opted to be gracious, not least because my correspondent’s job title was Technical Support, and I suspect they don’t get much training in handling complaints. I sent thanks for the apology, and that ends my interaction with Hive.

I’m not annoyed that their books are protected by DRM – Hive are well within their rights to sell under those conditions – but I am annoyed that I didn’t get to opt out due to their poor information. Hive’s website seems to be positioning them as an alternative to Amazon (supporting independent bookshops; no kindles), and I’m all for finding alternatives that support small, and local businesses. To my mind, part of that positioning as an alternative should be providing good service, and that is not something I’ve experienced from them.

Good customer service is not about the customer always being right, or about throwing compensation at a problem. Rather it is about listening to the customer’s thoughts on their experience, and responding in a way that acknowledges the validity of their feelings, even if the outcome is that you can’t offer what they’re asking. 

I agree that there are times when a generic response is all that’s required, and I understand that it’s a good way to respond to a volume of similar complaints. Sending a generic reply that fails to respond the customer’s concerns, while waffling on about things they never asked about, is poor customer service. 

I don’t blame the Technical Services person; I genuinely feel they simply didn’t have the training to best handle what I’d said, and perhaps lacked the confidence to tell me to take my query elsewhere. They could also have specific targets around replying to customers – their response time was certainly excellent. The problem is that, despite the assurance that my email had been read, there was never any actual reference to the issue I raised. My experience of Hive is that they did not listen to me.

I was once told that it takes 5 positive interactions to outweigh 1 negative; sadly I don’t think Hive will get the chance to turn this around. I certainly won’t be purchasing ebooks from them, and there are plenty of other options for physical items. Such is the power of a bad customer service experience.