Anals of Customer Service, Vol. II

Six years ago, I received a Barnes & Noble gift card as a Christmas present. When I duly presented myself at the Barnes & Noble website, however, it proved incapable of even comprehending the concept of my mysterious Earthican “gift card.” It transpired that the website and the stores were run as distinct entities, such that the gift card was usable only at the stores. My ordeal ended only when I convinced a customer “service” representative for the online store to let me read her the names of the books I wanted to order so that she could then herself ring up someone at the bricks and mortar operation, who would cancel the card, and then key the books I wanted into an in-store kiosk for ordering through the online store. I remarked at the time that this was no way to run a railroad.

Well, this Christmas, the wife and I received some Barnes & Noble gift cards as presents. (We got them from four different sets of friends and relatives, actually. We must have developed a reputation as readers or something.) I’m pleased to note that B&N has recognize the madness inherent in its previously bifurcated IT infrastructure, and now allows gift cards to be presented either in the physical or online stores. That said, I regret to inform you that B&N remains almost as unhelpful and incompetent as it was six years back.

The first warning sign should have been that we were given multiple gift cards as part of the same present. Even though the attractive Christmas-themed cards don’t indicate their denomination anywhere on the surface of the card, you can’t buy them for more than $100. If you, say, wanted to give a Dalmatian lover a $101 gift card, no dice. This limit is a sign of trouble; either strange bureaucratic rules or brain-damaged computer systems are lurking somewhere in the back office.

We got home, and after a few days of classic post-Christmas lounging-around and bargain-hunting, we tried to reassemble these scattered shards of gift-card value into one coherent book order. (Nothing terribly fascinating in it, I fear; the wife needs review books for the boards. They’re unofficially mandatory for med students, but that doesn’t mean she has to find them interesting.) And then, we ran across a rule cognate to the one against gift cards worth more than $100: you can’t use more than one gift card for the same online order.

Never mind that the competition allows unlimited gift card use. One gift card per online order. That’s a nice trick when you force gift-card givers to break up their gifts; it means that giftees have to top off the gift card with a few dollars of their own for every hundred dollars in gifted books. Even more gallingly, Barnes and Noble gives utterly no indication of this rule until well along in the ordering process —well after, say, it would have been easy to break the order into multiple smaller pieces manually.

Perhaps recognizing the sliminess of the combined effects of their rules, they do allow you to use multiple gift cards for phone orders. But when you dial their pay-by-phone 800 number, the phone tree doesn’t even have a menu option to use a gift card! It just reads you a list of different credit cards you might use, with no suggestion of a gift card option anywhere in the list!

Oho, I thought, this is where we use our Gethuman mojo. And yea, verily, the magic digits to speak to a human on the Barnes & Noble 800 number are “16.” Too bad that they only have humans working the phones between seven in the morning and eleven at night, and that our misadventures with the web site had run us eleven minutes past the latter time.

We rang them again in the morning, and this time the “16” trick worked right off the bat. The wife spoke to a person and placed our order. Well, to be more accurate, the wife spoke to people. Our order contained both used and new books, and wouldn’t you know it, you need to talk to separate people in the pay-by-phone department to handle used and new orders. Given that they were working off the same computer system, I don’t understand why it took two different reps, but it’s good to know that Barnes and Noble’s Byzantine administrative hierarchy is just as broken as it was six years back.

At this point, the wife asked to speak to a customer service rep who could take complaints, and once connected, proceeded to explain, politely and in some detail, why the above was broken. The rep, given the thankless task of defending Barnes and Noble’s consistently bad decisions, said some rather remarkable things: * We could have read in the “gift cards” section of the online help that only one gift card could be used per order. (Never mind that we’ve never had the misfortune of dealing with any other merchant with a similar rule.) * You can indeed buy gift cards with a value over $100; they just have to be “forwarded for approval,” whatever that means. (Never mind that that those who gave us the multiple cards were told that $100 was the limit.) * The one-card limit is no big deal, because we could always make payments by phone. (Never mind adding a phone step defeats the point of online shopping.)

Not getting the Internet in 2001 was understandable, if unfortunate. Not getting it in 2006 is inexcusable. Barnes & Noble, let me once again inform you that you suck.