Neil McNicholas: Lost values of customer care in the online age

I NEEDED one of those two-wheeled trolleys that you use to take the back-breaking work out of moving stacked chairs around in our parish hall. So I went online and found exactly what I wanted and because I needed it “yesterday” I ordered it immediately without reading all the print at the bottom of the page.


When the trolley didn’t arrive as quickly as I had hoped, I checked my order copy and discovered that delivery was assured “within 28 days”. Now what does that mean? Two days is within 28 days, but so is 27… so I rang the company and was told it would be delivered 38 days after I placed the order and not within 28 days.

What is wrong with companies these days? They apparently operate so close to the edge that they simply cannot afford to keep anything in stock.

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They advertise whatever it is they sell, but they don’t actually have it if you decide you would like it. Imagine if you went into a supermarket to buy groceries, but you weren’t allowed to take what was on the shelves but had to place an order for what you wanted and they would deliver in a month or two!

Once upon a time you could go into a shop of any description and walk out with what you purchased – or they would deliver it for you by the time you got home. Not any more.

Surely if a company – whether an actual physical shop or online – displays its wares, it should have to be able to supply what it advertises otherwise surely it’s false advertising because they don’t actually have what they are trying to sell. Among the worst offenders are furniture stores.

Let’s say, after much walking around their showroom and much sitting down and trying out, you find a three-piece suite you like. They won’t be able to sell it to you because they don’t actually have one other than the display model which is worn out from thousands of other people also sitting on it to try it out – so you wouldn’t really want it and the store isn’t going to sell it to you anyway. And so you have to place an order. Even as you do, lumberjacks are felling a tree in a forest in a country far far away which will one day be your three-piece suite – if you’re lucky. (At this time of year they may guarantee delivery by Christmas, but they never actually say which Christmas.)

And isn’t this the way of things in all areas of retail business these days? If only customers didn’t create such an inconvenience by actually expecting service and supply. It’s just so unreasonable of us. Retailers tempt us into their quasi Aladdin’s caves, seducing us into wanting things, putting them on display so we can see and touch them and hopefully order them… but then we can’t actually have them because the retailer doesn’t actually stock them and so we then have to wait until they can be imported from somewhere other than down the road in this country – which wouldn’t be so bad.

“We have one in our Huddersfield branch, sir. We can get it for you tomorrow.” No – it’s got to come by ship from China and so it will take four to six weeks. In the meantime what are you supposed to sit on? (Don’t answer that).

And apart, perhaps, from three-piece suites, nothing comes assembled any more. In the showroom it’s assembled, and in the pictures online it’s assembled, but when it arrives it comes flat-packed for the convenience of the manufacturer and the inconvenience of the customer. You need a degree in engineering just to put a nest of tables together. You probably missed the tiny print hidden in the online product description that said “some assembly required” thus absolving the company from supplying what is supposed to be a matching bookcase and sideboard and that ends up looking like an exhibit at the Tate Modern!

And don’t even think about complaining to the supplier. Once upon a time companies employed qualified secretarial staff to deal with, amongst other things, correspondence from customers (no one had phones and emails hadn’t been invented). 
The promptness with which they did 
so was a measure of their customer 
care and courtesy. Not any more. 
Phone messages go unanswered, 
emails are ignored, and by the time you receive an answer to a letter (if you receive one at all) you will have forgotten what it was you wrote 
about. If only we pesky customers 
didn’t get in the way of running their business.

So I’m sitting here still waiting for my chair trolley to be delivered. I could have made one myself by now.

* Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Middlesbrough.