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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 19th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Good service, bad service

04 August 2010

If you're someone who doesn't buy stuff online then you're part of a very rapidly dwindling minority.

The growth of the internet has meant that online purchases are now a part of most people's lives and the benefits they can bring, in terms of choice and savings, is enormous.

Whether it's some obscure CD from the second-hand section of Amazon.com or some uber-cheap bit of electronic trinketry direct from China, almost everyone will find something to tempt them when they log on to the web.

But what happens when something goes wrong and you are sent the wrong item, or you open the box, only to find something is missing or broken?

Well if my experiences of the past week are anything to go by, the results can be very highly variable, depending on who you purchased from.

My first problem was with a product purchased from a Hong Kong company that offers very low prices and often erratic shipping. When you purchase from a source such as this you can't really expect top-notch customer service so my hopes weren't too high when I discovered the item I purchased was missing a key component.

There was a two day delay in their answering my email and they asked me to weigh everything, including all the packaging materials, then lay everything out and take photos.

I pointed out to them that the missing item weighed no more than 5 grams and the total order came in at 2.1Kg. The cardboard box alone could have gained or lost 5g of moisture during its journey -- so would weighing everything actually accomplish anything except waste my time?

Whether it was going to prove anything or not, the weighing and photographing was a process that had to be performed if any consideration was to be given to my support request. It is very clear that this is a deliberate "hurdle" used to try and discourage customers from actually lodging customer service requests. What's more, by the time many folk would find that a tiny part of their order was missing they may have already thrown out some or all of the packaging.

Fortunately that problem was resolved when I discovered the missing part was secreted deep inside another part. However, if it really had been missing, I'd have probably written off the loss. When you buy at the cheapest prices you have to be aware that those prices are low for a reason and that reason is often down to a lower investment in customer support.

A couple of days later, I received another package, this time from a SparkFun Electronics (SFE) in the USA.

Inside the box were scores of different components, all carefully packaged. I checked the packing slip and it showed that all the bits I ordered had been supplied, no backorders.

However, I pretty quickly noticed that although I'd ordered two rolls of desoldering braid and the packing slip showed that two had been packed, only one was in the box.

After the previous experience I double and triple-checked that I'd not overlooked the second roll but it was nowhere to be seen.

Now this desoldering braid is only $2.49 per roll and it weighs less than 10g. I had added it to my order not because I had an immediate need but because it nicely rounded out the weight and total order value. It wasn't a big deal that it was missing.

I dropped SFE an email and told them about the missing item, asking them to simply drop it in the next order I placed, which would probably be in a few week's time.

They said "no".

The customer service rep replied by email that they would send out the missing item straight away.

"No need" I replied, "it's not urgent, just pop it in my next order, save yourself the postage."

The next day I got another email advising that the missing product had been shipped.

That's very good customer service, I thought to myself, they've actually spent money to post a $2.49 item to me at their own cost.

Well it wasn't "very good" customer service at all, it was excellent, and about to get even better...

When, just 3 days later, the courier knocked on my door with a FedEx package I was confused. I wasn't expecting anything via FedEx? What could it be?

Knock me down with a feather, it was the replacement $2.49 roll of desoldering braid.

Yes, here's a company that sets such high standards for its customer support that they paid US$20 or so to express courier the missing item worth just a couple of bucks.

SFE has a very good reputation and a very loyal customer base that continues to grow at a rapid pace. I've watched them evolve from a part-time operation run by a handful of students into a fully-blown major player. Their growth has been incredibly fast and now I can see why.

For the sake of a $20 courier bag, these guys have captured my business for life.

I sure hope there are other online retailers and suppliers who are reading this and able to learn just how much of an *investment* good customer service can be when it comes to growing your business.

Sometimes it's nice to have a good-news story to report. This is one of those times.

So what have *your* online shopping experiences been like? Have you encountered good or bad service?

Who do you give bouquets to and who deserves the brickbats?

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