Online Customer Service: Do This — Not That

Even the best customer service organizations in the world make common online and call center mistakes. Public- and private-sector organizations cannot rest on past successes to ensure future client satisfaction. Here’s a simple case study that shows what to do, and not do, regarding people, process and technology.

by / September 18, 2016

It was Saturday morning, and I was looking for a good deal on a new laptop computer. After searching multiple websites and thinking through various configuration options, I found (what I thought) was a very good deal on a laptop at Walmart.com. The item was a "best seller" and highlighted on the front of their laptop page.

The HP-15ba043wm offered a 1 TB hard drive, touchscreen display, Windows 10 Home, 8 GB RAM and much more. Best of all, it was on sale for $379 — down from the normal $499. I was excited about my decision to buy this piece, with Walmart offering free shipping.

But when I added the laptop to my shopping cart, something unexpected happened. The price was $499 (plus tax). Over the next 15 minutes, I attempted to fix this problem in a variety of ways. Did I forget to activate the sale somehow? Did I need to click on a different link from some special website to get the lower price?

I read the fine print, and looked for solutions. But no matter what I did, I kept getting the price of $499 in the shopping cart.

So I looked up Walmart.com customer service and called their 800 number for help with the purchase. After traversing an easy-to-navigate list of options, I was pleasantly surprised to speak with a live person in less than a minute. I remember thinking: We’ll get this resolved fairly quickly.

A man with a kind and professional voice answered the phone and listened to my problem. However, he could not confirm my problem.

“I am not seeing what you’re seeing,” he said. “The price is $379, and it is showing up in my shopping cart that way. There is something wrong with your PC.”

“Sir, I’ve been in the technology business for a long time, there is nothing wrong with my PC. I even get this result with multiple different browsers,” I said.

Over the next few minutes, the gentleman kindly asked for my name and account information. He looked up my account and purchase history. He recommended that I call or visit my local store to see if they have the item at the same price. He also suggested that I could go ahead and buy the laptop, and “if a higher price is charged than $379 (plus tax), we will refund you the difference later.”

I decide to hold off and do some more checking around before paying an extra $120. I didn’t want to deal with customer service again later to get the refund.

Call #2

A few hours later, while I was looking at unrelated online news headlines, I saw the same Walmart.com sale offered over at the drudgereport.com. However, when I clicked on the ad (see on screen shot below), I got the same price of $499 when I put the item in my shopping cart.

I called the 800 customer service line again, and a new representative was still seeing the $379 price. Although he was also polite and well-mannered, he could not see my shopping cart problem either.

I asked if he could just take the laptop order over the phone, and he said that option was no longer available — for security reasons. One difference this time, was this person did believe me — and did not suggest that this was an end-user problem on my side.

He urged me to take screen shots of the two screens with prices and send them to help@walmart.com, so I did that. He said that they would eventually honor the price, if the Web team clearly saw the screen shots with the different prices.

Call #3

About an hour later, I decided to call back to check on the status of my email with the screen shots.

Again, I was speaking with a kind woman very quickly (in just under one minute.) After I explained the story, she said she was seeing the same price that I was seeing. (Yea!! Progress — I thought.)

She urged me to wait to hear a response from help@walmart.com “They will fix this for you.” She said that the screen shots could take several days to process. “Don’t worry. We always will honor the advertised price.”

After I suggested that I was frustrated and didn’t want to wait, she also offered to transfer me to corporate customer service (her management) for a better, quicker answer. She transferred me over, but the answering system said the wait time was 45 minutes. I opted to get a callback, which would come in about an hour.

Call #4

About an hour later, I received the callback from corporate, just as promised.

I proceeded to explain the entire story to a professional, kind woman from the corporate office, and we had a long conversation. She clearly knew her stuff.

She quickly recreated my problem, and she apologized for the Web issues, which she attributed to the Web team not working weekends. However, she also informed me that it was a good thing that I did not buy the laptop for $499, because Walmart will only honor the price in the shopping cart — not the price advertised elsewhere. “You would not have gotten that $129 back (plus tax), and I don’t know why he told you that.”

She also told me that this was not “false advertising,” because it was an “honest mistake.” She claimed, “This will get fixed by COB Monday when the Web team returns, but there is no way for us to track all of these expired promotions on the weekend.”

I disagreed — hopefully in a kind, professional way.

For my troubles, she did offer me $60 off the price of $499, saying the promotion was officially now over. I declined, saying she should offer me the new laptop for $379. Note: I just thought that $439 was not a great price.

One More Time on Tuesday

I thought I would never see this laptop sale again. However, on Tuesday of this past week, I saw this advertisement at the drudgereport.com:

I clicked on the same laptop sale for $379 (notice on left near the bottom), but this time I received a shopping cart price of $449.

No, I didn’t call customer service again. I decided to move on.

What Can We Learn from This Example?

So perhaps you are wondering why I told this long story about a laptop purchase that didn’t happen. It is true that I typically offer one or two blog rants a year, and it has been too long since I wrote a “rant blog.” But you also need to know that I actually like Walmart (for the most part), and I purchased laptops from Walmart in the past. My family shops there all the time, and I think they have very good deals and generally good online (and offline) customer service over the past decade.

Nevertheless, I think this situation offers lessons of the “good, bad and ugly” that all customer service organizations must address. Regardless of how successful you have been in the past, we all need to continually improve and earn customer trust.

Here’s my list of what they did right and wrong:

Good (Do This)

  1. Nice website design overall. Lots of technology options, price ranges, +++
  2. Good ads that show up all over the place.
  3. Call center wait time was short to speak with someone. I spoke with a person in under a minute on a Saturday on several occasions.
  4. Kind, professional staff. Everyone was nice.
  5. Callback service worked well when corporate escalation time was too long.

Bad (Don’t Do This)

  1. The first agent told me I was mistaken. Please don’t tell the customer that the problem is an end-user error, unless you know that for sure. In this case, he was actually mistaken — which was verified in calls 3 and 4. Provide a way for agents to see what the customer is seeing.
  2. Get policies clear across different call centers and management layers. This may be the biggest concern I experienced. I heard different directions and policies from different people. (Do you honor the screen shot price or not?)
  3. Match ads with website shopping cart. The weekend webmaster needs to be able to fix Web problems that arise on a 7x24x365 basis.
  4. Empower customer service agents to do more to fix real issues. No one — including the corporate executive — could actually get me the laptop for $379, even after multiple tries.
  5. Most important — online and offline technology must integrate better. More and more portals are trying to get you to not speak with a live body, but when customers do speak with someone, resolution needs to happen more quickly.

Final Thoughts – Online Stakes Are High

As more and more public- and-private sector business is conducted online, the stakes are growing for organizations regarding customer service. No doubt this was about a laptop, but every organization needs to think in terms of policies, procedures, technology, training and other people issues. This situation could just as easily been a campground reservation or another product or a break-fix help desk ticket.

My hope with this blog is to get all readers to think about their own client service centers, websites, portals and customer service. I think customer service is a hard thing to maintain, and we can all do better.

Are your call centers integrated with your online business portal? How is it going? Are you sure?