Web Informant #175, 8 November 1999:
Using email to effectively communicate with your customers


One of the biggest obstacles to eCommerce is how an storefront communicates with you, the customer. Do it well and you can get tremendous loyalty and lifetime appreciation. Do it poorly and a potential shopper leaves forever in frustration. Consider the following, taken from my own personal eShopping over the past few weeks.

My wife decided to order tickets to an upcoming Brooklyn Academy of Music event and thought of using their web site to place the order. Bad idea: BAM.org is a misleading morass. Weeks later we find out that because they post web site transactions once a week manually, we missed out on a popular show that sold out in the time between when we thought our order was placed and when it was actually executed. It would have been a better strategy, had we known that the web site was so broken, to just call the box office and read our credit card over the phone. That's the last time I use their web site when I want to see a show. And the ill will from this experience will be remembered long after we attend any other events, even though until now we were ardent supporters of BAM and enjoyed seeing various shows there.

BAM could have done something very simple: just put a single warning on their ordering pages, telling people that orders aren't posted in anywhere near real time and that for best seat selection, go to the box office or call them during business hours directly. Or they could have indicated which shows are close to selling out and thus should have blocked any web orders all together.

When I called BAM's box office and told them I was with the press, I got a very chagrined staffer who promised to make things up for me and apologized for the poor experience. It took months, but they have supposedly fixed these problems. See the comments below under follow up.

Now contrast that experience with another. Last week I get an email telling me that stamps.com is open for business and I can print our postage directly from my PC. Having heard about the idea for months, I was anxious to try it out. I like the concept of stamps.com: you don't need to purchase any hardware (unlike some of their competitors) and you can print out postage from a single account on multiple locations, such as from both home and work. The only catch is that you have to be connected to the net when you want to print your postage, which for me isn't usually a problem.

The only trouble was I couldn't get the thing to work on my Lexmark office printer: the stamps kept printing halfway down the envelopes. When I tried stamps.com at home, I got it to work just fine on my HP laser. Not really wanting to cart my mail and envelopes from work to home and print them out there, I sought out the site's technical support. This happened early one Sunday morning, and I sent email thinking that I would probably not hear from them for a while, if ever. Boy was I surprised when a reply came back within an hour, telling me to try to download a new driver from Lexmark's web site and even giving me a URL to find the right driver.

When I got back to my office the following day, I downloaded the driver and it worked like a charm. That one email from their support staff made all the difference between a positive and negative eCommerce experience. And while I have some minor issues with stamps.com, I'll probably continue to use their service.

Let's look at a third transaction last week. I had to make plane reservations for an upcoming trip. I tried to login to United Airline's web site, only to find that they have changed their site and require me to set up yet another new account. At least this time they have finally realized that I should use my frequent flyer account number as the account identifier. But when I tried to set it up it said my password wasn't any good. Sigh: I guess it takes some time to update its database, because days later I was able to get access just fine.

Meantime, I needed them tickets. So I thought I was clever and noticed that United sends me anyway over to the Internet Travel Network's site to make the reservations. Since I use ITN and like the site for its spare but quick look, I went there directly and got my ticket, even getting a great fare in the process. Only trouble, I get two identical emails confirming my reservation. Does this mean I have booked two seats? Again, I send them email and again I get a quick reply, telling me that no, just a single seat has been booked. That small response made all the difference in the world, and will have me coming back to ITN for future business, to be sure.

The best eCommerce is all about managing communication with your customers. The stamps.com and ITN sites understand this and have put the effort into prompt and helpful email support. BAM and others still don't understand this, and risk losing customers because of it.

Site keeping and self-promotions dep't

My latest review of three portable email devices is in Computerworld. I carried around a Blackberry two-way pager, a Touchpoint Sprint PCS cell phone, and the Palm VII to see which device works best at sending and receiving email when on the road.

Follow up (5/2000)

Things change in the eCommerce world, to be sure. Yes, I am still using Stamps.com, although their limitations in the type of envelope I can print to makes it less than satisfying. I wanted to use them to send out our holiday cards last December, but ended up going to the post office and buying stamps because I couldn't print electronic stamps on the large envelopes I was using to hold my cards. And ITN has been absorbed by American Express Travel, and gotten more cumbersome and less useful. Most of the time I go to the airline's own web sites when I need to buy tickets, or sometimes just pickup the phone and call them! And BAM has supposedly fixed their ticketing process, although I haven't been motivated enough to try it out yet. I heard from Jeff Levine, VP Marketing for BAM months later, in May. Here is their note to me. It is nice that they followed up, even if it took so long:

I wanted to let you know that BAM has recognized the problems with our website ordering system and several months ago made numerous changes to the process:

  1. Single ticket orders are now processed in real time via links to ticketmaster.com. This has solved 99% of the problems we experienced with our not being able to fulfill orders due to the reservation system previously in effect for all orders.
  2. Subscriptions and member internet ticket orders are submitted to and processed by BAM at the same priority as phone orders (which was also the case last fall, but due to the overwhelming volume of single ticket internet orders, we encountered serious problems fulfilling ticket requests).
  3. Subscribers and members are clearly informed when submitting ticket orders that "your order has been sent to BAM Ticket Services, but it has not yet been processed. You will receive an email confirming our receipt of your order and a follow-up email when your tickets have been processed. A BAM Ticket Services representative will contact you if we encounter a problem with your order. If you have any questions, please email tickets@bam.org or call BAM Ticket Services at 718.636.4100."
  4. Availability is closely monitored and shows/seating sections likely to sell out are taken off-sale via the website.
  5. We are currently looking into ticketing systems that will allow us to also take subscription and member internet orders in real time, and hope to find a suitable, affordable system within the next year. In the meantime, the fix via ticketmaster.com enables us to run our internet ticket sales in a much more effective manner.

Beyond the technological side of things, please accept my apologies for the lack of response you received from one of our ticket agents. That is inexcusable and should not have happened.

Best regards,

Jeff Levine

Vice President for Marketing & Promotion

Brooklyn Academy of Music

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David Strom
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