Anals of Customer Service

My parents got me a Barnes and Noble gift card as a present. Gift cards are a fairly neat idea: they use the credit-card form factor, complete with magnetic stripe. It's easier to carry and redeem these "credit cards" than a traditional hand-written cardstock gift certificate: the card fits in your wallet and there's less confused fumbling with pens and stamps at the register. Of course, companies love these "stored value" cards for all the same reasons they love gift certificates, since they're front-loaded, so that every lost card and unspent dollar is pure profit, not to mention the advertising value of convincing you to carry around their logo in your pocket. This particular card was issued by American Express and presented itself as "good towards anything at Barnes and Noble."

And here my troubles began.

I don't usually shop at Barnes and Noble. On ethical grounds, I try to maintain a policy of buying books only from Amazon or from independent booksellers. You've gotta love the indies, like Bailey/Coy with its high-quality paperback front table and Elliott Bay, whose reading series is second to none. And Amazon? They were first to really get the e-commerce model, and in many ways, no one else has gotten it so well. I've got friends who work there. Their web site is a wonder of good design and helpful features. And they pride themselves on customer service.

Remember well that last point.

With this gift card, though, I went shopping today at I was pretty happy with the results: some discounted recent publications and some obscurer items I was having trouble finding in stores. Plus, once I added in shipping, I hit the gift card total to within a dollar, which made me happy. I clicked through the iffily-designed checkout screens, reached the payment screen, and punched in my gift card number.

Bring on the hurt.

Hmm. Maybe that wasn't it. It's a credit card, no? In the store, they'd scan it with the American Express reader, so maybe I should type in the number as an AmEx number. No expiration date, but maybe they don't check the date for stored value cards. That didn't work, either. Following the advice on the screen, I tried substituting 'O's for '0's. Then I tried typing in the number with no spaces. No spaces and 'O's for '0's. Nada. Maybe the card was a "coupon"and not a "gift certificate" and I needed to click back several screens and type it into the "coupon" field. Except that the coupon field had space for six digits, and my card had a fifteen digit number.

I bet you can guess what happened when I tried the first six digits of that number.

I called up the toll-free number on the card. Punching through to a balance inquiry revealed that the card definitely had its full value available. Note, please, that the card number alone sufficed for Barnes and Noble to verify the stored value I keypadded my way back to the main menu and over to the "speak to a real live human being" option. The real live human being said that a "gift card," which I had, wasn't the same as a "gift certificate," which is what the web site accepted. He suggested I call the toll-free number for and check with them about redeeming my gift card.

I was only following orders.

The woman at the second 1-800 number explained to me that cards and certificates were not freely interconvertible. Perhaps I could redeem my gift card and use it to purchase a gift certificate? No dice, even with human intervention. The computers will not recognize a gift card. She went off to check with a supervisor and came back with another possibility: I could mail the card to Secaucus, New Jersey, to the attention of "Lynn," and include my email address and other identifying information, and the accounting department could perform the exchange. In order to use the web site, I'd need to physically mail the card.

I don't make the rules; why should I be expected to understand them?

It was early, yet, so I drove over to the nearest Barnes and Noble store. The person in front of me in line turned out to be my manager from work, also having gift card troubles. In his case, trying to use two gift cards as part of the same purchase verged on the impossible, so the clerk was already a little punchy when I got to the front of the line. I motored through my explanations, and he cut me off, shaking his head sadly. The stores and the web site are two separate operations, with different computer systems, different sets of balance books, different policies, different gift systems.

At that instant, I understood why some e-commerce companies used to brag about their lack of history.

By this point, I was prepared for the bureaucratic jungle, so I started offering him all sorts of possibilities. Could I buy the books from the store? No, since the store didn't stock most of them. Could I order the books through him? Not at the online prices, thanks to the corporate severing. Could he give me a refund on my gift card? Not without a receipt (damn gifts). Could he sell me a gift certificate? No, since he had no access to the computer systems? Could he use his card scanner to authenticate me to the online people? No, it only works as a credit-card reader: charge this purchase to that card.

Now all you have to do is hold the chicken salad.

We basically confirmed that Barnes and Noble has all of the downside of being a large chain with none of the upside: the individually-run stores have to knuckle under to their corporate parent's marketing, stocking, and pricing policies, but benefit from none of the organizational accountability that's supposed to come with being part of a large institution. There was no "further up the chain" for him to refer me to, no way for him to fix my problem without making it his personal problem, rather than his company's problem. This having been established, his boss pointedly reminded him of the "customers," among whom, in her eyes, I did not number.

Every tub on its own bottom.

I drove home and plotted strategy. When I got back, I rang up the second number -- the people -- and told the fellow who answered that he ought to put me on the line with a supervisor, since it was going to get complicated. He asked me to explain the situation, which I did, step by step, after which he burbled for a moment, and then asked me to hold. On came the supervisor. It was simple, I explained. I understood that their computer systems might be incompatible. But systems have interfaces, and I had a problem, and customer service is in the business of fixing problems. If he could get on the line with a counterpart over at the B&N/AmEx gift card program over in the bricks-and-mortar half of the company, I'm sure this could all be worked out.

There's no need to get snippy about it.

I got the same explanation I'd gotten from the first person on that line, repeated over and over again. Separate companies. Working to integrate systems. Not ready yet. Accounting department would need to handle it. To which I explained that this was not a systems problem, it was a customer service problem -- and there was nothing in my situation that should fall outside the realm of what a good customer service organization could handle. The gift-card person could verify that my card was legit -- in fact, I'd already proven that a gift-card computer could do that much -- and then cancel it. Customer service needs to cancel cards all the time, after all, in cases of theft. Then, the representative could issue to me a gift certificate in the same amount. What would happen if my order were lost in transit? Any meaningful customer service organization needs to have the authority to make reasonable unilateral restitutions to customers when the company's interests in having satisfied customers are at stake. This particular instance was even more justifiable, since the debit was being matched by an equal credit over in the bricks-and-mortar end of the company. Customer wins, company-as-a-whole wins, where's the problem? Or is there no one in your whole customer service organization with the authority to credit me, in which case, why should I ever trust your customer service to guarantee any other transactions with your company?

Did you order the code red?

This is when I got transferred to my second supervisor, who went back to the original suggestion, that I mail the card to Lynn in New Jersey, and wanted to know why I was dissatisfied with this option? After all, their company policy was that cards and certificates were not interchangeable, and the mail-in option was a special exception created for those without access to a retail store, an exception being generously offered to me even though I didn't technically qualify. Well, I said, leaving aside the false advertising issue, if I was going to mail my card cross-country, I might as well mail it back to my parents so they could get a refund, and then I could go and buy my books at Amazon and have them mail me a check. All of which would get me my books sooner, and with less hassle, than waiting for Barnes and Noble corporate accounting to take some unknown quantity of time to to figure out which internal cost center to charge in issuing me my gift certificate. Which would cost Barnes and Noble not only my future business, but also all of the past business represented the gift card.

It's not my fault your company couldn't get a clue during the clue mating season in a field full of horny clues if it smeared itself with clue musk and did the clue mating dance.

She thought for a while, and then pointed out that there were some Barnes and Noble locations that had online kiosks, at which one could place web site orders. And those kiosks might just take gift cards. Could I go to the nearest kisok-enabled retail store and place my order there? Sure, I said. Where is the nearest such store to me? I'm in Seattle. She went off for a bit and came back with an answer: Elizabeth, New Jersey.

I think Douglas Adams wrote a game about this once.

This was the point at which human ingenuity reared its ugly head. She had the idea of calling up the New Jersey store and having someone in the store place the order for me at the kiosk. I dictated to her the list of books, supplied mailing address and gift card number, and she promised to have them call me tomorrow to let me know if it'll work. Just to repeat, I dictated my order to one person, who will then dictate it to someone else who will physically type it in at a kiosk. Also to repeat, I had to go through seven customer service representatives in order to find one who was willing to actually look for a solution rather than quoting policy at me.

It's pretty clear that the people at Barnes and Noble, no matter how good their intentions, are pretty seriously hamstrung by moronic institutional structure. That computer systems and accounting policies trump customer service. And B&N doesn't get e-commerce, on a fairly fundamental level.

I may yet get my books. But I'm definitely not going back to Barnes and Noble.

Aztecs, Clendinnen Database Nation, Garfinkel Local Code, Sorkin Lost Pages, Filippo The Last Samurai, DeWitt The Next Deal, Cherney The Writings on an Ethical Life, Singer Widescreen Cinema, Belton Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, Minow Inventing Money, Dunbar

Usually, one has a book already and reads between its lines, rather than the other way around. Perhaps there is some value in the old paradigms. 04'01'01