Bob on Development

February 9, 2007

What PayPal, eBay and UPS Can Teach Us About How NOT to Treat Online Customers

Filed under: Managment,Products — Bob Grommes @ 4:11 pm

Two starkly contrasting things happened to me today. One of them makes me want to ram my head repeatedly into the wall, and the other one gives me faint but distinct hope that mankind is not about to be drawn into a bottomless suck-hole of mediocrity and indifference. In these experiences are some lessons for software developers designing customer-facing web sites, as well as some insight into how the devil such abominations can possibly be so common.

First, the head-ramming experience.

It started out simply enough. I had an LCD monitor to sell. I will spare you the details, but with my wife’s help (she’s been through all this before) we got the listing up on eBay and after a mysterious delay of a few hours, it actually showed up in eBay’s search engine, and was purchased by someone using “Buy It Now”.

So … item sold, the money is in our account, the item is packaged … story over, right? Ah, it was just beginning.

First, there is a feature integrated into PayPal where you can buy a UPS shipping label for this item. Great. So you enter the weight, the dimensions, and the value. The value I entered was $1650. The resulting error message: “The insurance valuation you’ve entered exceeds the maximum allowed.” No indication what the maximum would be, or how this could possibly be a problem since UPS will let you buy up to $50K of insurance if you’re so inclined.

I played around with different values (with and without the cents places) and figured out that anything over $1000 is apparently too much, but $1000 or less results in the message that “You have entered an invalid value”. Then it all came back to me that I’d sold something on eBay maybe 8 or 10 months ago and ran into this VERY SAME BUG which, incredibly, is STILL not fixed. Even though my customer had paid for insurance, I couldn’t actually insure the package.

So I did now what I did back then … said the heck with it, and went directly to ups.com. There, I was presented with a verbose JavaScript alert() (the kind that most end users just cancel and don’t even read) that said words to the effect that because I had such a high valuation on the shipment it had to be handed personally to a UPS employee and signed for, which gives me a choice between a 15 mile trip to the nearest UPS store or requesting a pickup. No problem … I’ll request a pickup. Sorry, no same-day service — they can’t pick up until Monday. And now I can’t back out to un-request the pick up.

In the end I voided the shipment and started all over, but now even though one of my two attempts shows in my shipment history as voided, they’ve still charged my credit card twice. Ah, I remember this happening before, too … it will get credited, eventually, in a couple of weeks. Still, it’s on my calendar to check up on this in awhile.

As a humorous coda to this whole thing, I phoned UPS to ask a human being whether I could get same day pick up, as I’m sure I’ve done in the past. The voice mail system took my name, address and tracking number, which of course, the human had to ask me for anyway (why do 95% of voice mail systems ask you for information they don’t give to the person you end up talking to anyway??!?!). But the recording did say I could pay extra for same day pickup. Then the human told me, no, the earliest they could come was Monday, and would that be okay? I asked if there wasn’t a fee I could pay for same day pickup. “Oh,” she said — “if you want same day pick up, you have to call the day before!”

At this priceless line I dissolved into manic laughter. I doubt the operator knew what I was laughing about. She seemed peeved. But I felt better, in a perverse sort of way.

So here we have three soulless corporations — er, multinational enterprises — all of which are doing their part to make what should be the simplest part of my whole customer experience a major pain in the touche. How can this possibly happen?

Let’s take the three-paragraph JavaScript alert() about the need for a UPS employee signature. Now … I’ve paid for insurance … what they are telling me is that insurance is worthless if I don’t personally hand the shipment to one of their employees. Although I suspect they’d be glad to charge me anyway. Somehow I suspect there isn’t a business rule that says to refund the insurance fee to me if it’s over X$ and they didn’t get a proper acceptance signature.

Is this corporate malfeasance, or just something that was bolted onto their web app in a rush one day and no one ever got around to fixing it? You be the judge. I suspect it’s somewhere in between: there is no financial motivation to do a better job, and some motivation to leave it the way it is, whether or not it was initially intended to increase net insurance revenue.

Okay … I promised you a contrast to this depressing incompetence.

I do some work for a business-to-consumer site. This site has a partner that processes online car finance applications for them. Today this partner called and said he’d noticed our application volume was down, had taken a look at our application form, and it was asking for more info than they really needed. Perhaps, he suggested, if we streamlined the form and reduced the “friction” for our visitors, more people would complete the form? He pointed me to an example form on his own site.

I looked into it and, sure enough, our form had been created for a bank we no longer partner with, and all our remaining loan partners have less stringent requirements. We can in fact make it simpler for our users.

Granted … the call was motivated at least in part by the self-interest of the finance partner. They want more loan applications, so they can approve more loans, and make more money. But this guy seems to understand what eBay and its partners — PayPal and UPS — do not: that I will remember the pain of today’s experience with them long after I’ve forgotten the particulars. This will get filed in my brain under “don’t go there” and I will try very hard to avoid using eBay in the future, especially since I only have an occaisional need and no motivation to learn all the little warts and hiccups in their cranky little system.

All of this falls under the general heading of “usability”. Nothing about eBay, PayPal, UPS or my customer’s own loan application pages is exactly broken, in the sense that it works for most people most of the time, such that these companies are making money even while they are making enemies. But the user experience still sucks. In the case of my client, we just haven’t re-evaluated old code in awhile. In the case of eBay and Friends, it’s probable that there is a whole comedy of errors behind the glitches and frustrations I encountered. But in all these cases no one is regularly asking whether the user experience is smooth and as simple as it can be.

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1 Comment »

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    Comment by trianiultaspipt — December 30, 2008 @ 12:13 pm | Reply


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