Update 2014-05-15: I got several copies shipped to me for free (not author copies – just as a thank you and “we apologise” from Elsevier). As I said elsewhere “shit happens but what matters is how you resolve the customer problem.” This is one way to do it, impressive I find. Check it out here
As the nom de plume of a woman called JK Rowling demonstrates, brand recognition in publishing is important:
“The Cuckoo’s Calling sold only about 450 copies in UK hardback under Galbraith’s name after it was published in April but quickly became the top seller on Amazon once it was known to be a Rowling novel.”
(see Gapper, John (July 17, 2013) – The superstar still reigns supreme over publishing)
The follow-up, called “The Silkworm”, is to be published on June 19, 2014. If you have limited brand recognition as I do, the publisher is another factor that can really do you in. In other words, if their production and shipping process, including their online store, fail to deliver, you are in trouble.
This blog post discusses my experience with Elsevier’s e-store. It is all about failure to communicate and providing the service needed to clinch the sale. I should mention that my original independent publisher Chandos has been acquired by Elsevier, so I suddenly found myself being one of many authors, instead of one of a few at a successful smaller outfit. What a change…
I thought I would share some of my journey from finishing the proofs until the copy arrives in the mail (still waiting).
Keywords: bigfail, customer feedback, KPI, outsource, onshore, metrics, performance, process management, quality of service, usability, trust
Let’s order a few copies, no sweat!
To get the book as early as possible, I visited Elsevier’s e-store in January and placed my order. The problem started right there: the system wanted to charge me value-added tax (VAT). If the total value of the shipment is below CHF200, no VAT is charged at the border by Swiss authorities.
You think I am joking, but ask Jeff Bezos. Amazon.de, .fr, .co.uk, or .it all manage to get me my books across the border without VAT – and it’s completely legal.
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Elsevier’s customer service crew is in the Philippines. They sent me an email to explain the ropes – a bit confusing, is it not (see below)? So, because I live outside the EU, I am out of luck, and must pay VAT…? I wonder if that VAT money really goes to the Swiss authorities, since, as I mentioned they do not collect it on shipments under €160 (or CHF200).
As with other firms, once I was done with the service representative on the phone, I got an email with an invite to complete a survey about customer satisfaction. I dutifully filled out the first. After a second call, the second… and then I gave up in disgust.
Why fill out a customer survey when, regardless of many phone calls, your problem cannot be resolved (i.e. the VAT issue is not resolved according to Swiss law, nor can the author discount be given at this time, because the book is not warehoused yet…)?
The printing of the final version of the book took a while. Nevertheless, before my birthday in mid-March 2014, the publisher sent an email informing me that the book was ‘in’. Since it had arrived in Elsevier’s UK warehouse, I looked forward getting my copies.
To my surprise, instead of seeing a book, I got an email, on April Fool’s Day no less, informing me that the order had been cancelled. The explanation was a bit confusing, something about the status of the book changing (the publication date had previously read September 2013 for ages, but that changed on April 2 to now show March 2014). Another email stated that because the order could not be fulfilled since January, it had to be cancelled – something regarding credit card regulations, and no, I will not bore you with details (see image below).
Where has my baby gone?
My publisher assured me that my desk copies were in the mail. However, by the time you read this around April 7, an anxious author is still waiting to be allowed to hold this newborn in his hands.
Because my order got cancelled, I tried to place it again on April 2 (Wednesday). I put in my author discount code and the final price shown was X. Surprise, surprise, when I clicked on “Go to checkout” the price had suddenly increased by about €40. And yes, using a calculator made it clear that Elsevier’s system had miscalculated. Are we truly surprised after reading the above?
Part two of the saga
On Wednesday afternoon (April 2), I got a call from Elsevier US inquiring about my experience with the e-store – usability, trust, processing of order, etc. They had chosen my name out of a hat and asked me about 10 days ago if I would be willing to participate. In return for my efforts, they would give me a voucher of US$110 that I could use to purchase books from Elsevier.
So whilst online, I demonstrated the concerns I had using the screen sharing feature (see below). “I hope that the Elsevier e-store will accept your voucher as part of my payment,” I joked.
To my surprise (not!) things failed to work properly the next morning. After entering my discount code as an author, I could not enter the code to claim my voucher’s worth, earned for work provided to Elsevier the previous day (i.e. the interview I gave).
In search of decision-makers
So I once again emailed a question, which again resulted in me getting a phone call (at yet another inopportune time). By now I am sure you know the routine.
I was told me that I could not combine two discount offers. Yes, I know what you want to tell me: one is for being an author and the other represents Elsevier’s token of appreciation for my work (also known as payment). Sorry, no can do. Policy does not allow this.
So I asked to get it in writing, which I did (see image below). Clearly, the policy is right and the customer is not. But this means I get cheated out of my time and to add insult to injury, I do not get paid for services rendered.
1. I placed the order early only to have it cancelled… because apparently the people responsible for order processing did not know about the book having arrived at the warehouse.
2. I had to deal with several phone calls, emails, and so forth, trying to get answers to my questions – so far with ZERO success.
3. After all that, I am apparently cheated out of the money promised for services rendered (because if I use that code, I forfeit the author discount that is higher since I want to order 20 copies of the book…).
What a rotten deal, and an unbelievably bad experience for a customer. On the bright side, Elsevier is fair: several customers who placed an order for my book early on had their orders cancelled as well. So I admit, Elsevier is consistent…
Tom Noonan, the guy who interviewed me about my usability experience with Elsevier’s e-store, wrote a very nice email below outlining what he had done. But sorry, there was no human around to take care of the mechanical turk and tell it that something is awfully wrong with Elsevier’s e-store and order fulfillment process.
How can this be, especially considering all the customer feedback Elsevier has gotten about my problem and surely from others as well? Why can nothing be done? Is anybody listening? Is there somebody called manager who has the skills and authority to see that this gets attention? Because from a business perspective, it certainly warrants action.
Another example of increasing data that fails to result in action. Elsevier has plenty of data from clients that things need fixing. But apparently these data are either collecting dust or no human is around to care.
The above illustrates that even if you try to reach scalability and mechanize the process, sometimes things go wrong. Considering the customer feedback Elsevier gets, why is the manager of customer service or the director of the Elsevier Store not able to get this fixed? They have gotten plenty of tapes of customer interviews including notes from their staff about matters like I describe above. Are they listening?
Had Jeff Bezos and I spoken about the Elsevier e-store’s usability, we would have agreed that the thing failed to work properly. It is especially funny when you get a 50 percent discount voucher offered by the system (see below), only to find out that this gets you a worse deal than the 30 percent author discount. Of course, given Elsevier’s history, I could not get an explanation for this either – I searched the FAQs (frequently asked questions), and found nothing… You suggest I email? No, thank you! I don’t need to be on the phone another 10 minutes for nothing. Get my drift?
Of course, Jeff would think it silly that on April 2, the site still showed a deal that ended March 31. But we maybe we could offer an introductory workshop. How does April Fool’s Day 2015 sound for you? It will address how to set up an e-store that works when trying to sell books and journals. Maybe Elsevier wants to have its staff sign up?
On the other hand, maybe they just need to shake up the e-store and customer service departments’ management. Implementing clear lines of authority, and actionable metrics that show how customer complaints get reduced would be a great start. Seriously, Jeff Bezos’ actions at Amazon show he believes replacing some staff is the first step – those at the top, of course.
And yes, I have given up on Elsevier. But lonely hearts may want to consider sending Elsevier a question via the email form for Customer Service. They will surely call and be unable to fix the problem, but you will maybe appreciate the human contact…
London law firm Russels was responsible for JK Rowling’s unmasking as the writer‘Robert Galbraith. Christopher Gossage, a partner at Russels, was fined £1,000 for breach of client confidentiality, after telling his wife’s best friend about Ms Rowling’s pen name.
(see Croft, Jane (January 1, 2014). JK Rowling lawyer fined for outing her as crime novelist)
Have you got an example of an abysmal e-shopping experience?
What actionable metrics do you use to see if your e-store performs properly?
Which KPIs (key performance indicators) do you use to make decisions about improving your e-commerce site?
Thanks again for sharing your insights – I always appreciate your very helpful feedback.
The author: This post was written by social media marketing and strategy expert Urs E. Gattiker. His book, Social Media Audit: Measure for Impact, appeared in 2013 from Springer Science Publishers. His latest book about social media fashion with passion was SUPPOSEDLY published in March 2014 – grab your 25 percent discount with free shipping now.