Tuesday, 1 December 2009

A website customer is not for life or for Christmas

Tis the season to be jolly. The high street TV advertising onslaught is in full swing (Charlie Brooker puts it far better than me: http://bit.ly/8rE8Po) and December is the great white hope for all retailers.

Given the time of year and the enormous pressure that traditional retailers find themselves under, given the great depression and all, you would think that every customer was to be treasured and loved, that customer service and user experience would be givens not luxuries, that all websites would have been finely tuned, tested and vetted to check they were all ready and raring to suck in those millions of browsers and turn them into customers?

Well, with this little horror show from Debenhams in our household, it would seem not.

To try and cut to the chase and avoid a too rambling tale, let’s look at the whole woeful story as a timeline below.

I've also removed the details of the ten items we ordered - so that if any of the extended family happen upon this they won't know what it is we were planning to buy them for Christmas!

21st Nov

After about two hours of online browsing, including one heart-stopping moment when the wireless connect dropped and we were fearing a lost basket, we have painstakingly put together a comprehensive order of Christmas gifts for the tricky to buy for extended family. Not unlike many browsers, the big on and offline promotion caught our attention for their weekend-only online sale and it was decreed that http://www.debenhams.com/ would be the port in the yuletide shopping storm.

Still, registration complete, delivery details given and payment sent. That’s that done then. Time to put the feet up with a marker pen and a copy of the Radio Times whilst we wait for the order to arrive.

We even got two order confirmation emails to assure us that everything had been received, the ten items were in stock and all was being processed…

From: mail@online.debenhams.com>Date: Sat, Nov 21, 2009 at 7:30 PMSubject: Thank you for your order

yourorder@debenhams.comDate: Sat, Nov 21, 2009 at 7:34 PMSubject: Debenhams Confirmation 715573633

Hmm, not so.

25th email from customer service.

On Wed, Nov 25, 2009 at 8:46 AM, Customer Enquiries (Head Office) Customer.Enquires@debenhams.com> wrote:

Dear Miss Dixon,

Due to the nature of the product you recently ordered with Debenhams, a number of security checks including age verification were required. Unfortunately these checks failed and your order has therefore been cancelled.

Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Kind Regards,

Debenhams Customer Services

One of the products we ordered was a wine gift set. As such, we had failed to pass the Debenhams online age verification system and so in their infinite wisdom they decided to cancel the whole order. Yep, not simply done with removing the one item that we might not be able to order (I thought you had to be 18 to get a credit card anyway?!) they decided it better to cancel the whole bloody lot!

It seem the main drawback with the Debenhams age verification system is that there isn’t one.

Telephones calls to customer service

Cue many, many expletives in this household, 5 minutes to calm down and then a number of polite yet firm yet exacerbated phone calls to Debenhams customer service. Alas I can’t share these with you, but I’m sure if you ask them nicely they will be able to find them, seeing as they record them for “training purposes”, and they can perhaps offer a transcript here? I’m sure this call is being used right now to work out where they went wrong and not being stored on a network drive gathering dust alongside the many, many other calls they take…

Net result of that little lot: nothing. They can’t help – we were advised to pass go, not collect £200 and start again!

Arghh, the pain, the horror of it!

Right then, only one thing for it, let’s get all British on them and write them a complaint letter. Well, an email, we’re not angry enough to actually write with ink.

Complaint letter email sent…

Date: Wed, Nov 25, 2009 at 1:36 PMSubject: Re: Debenhams Order 715573633To: "Customer Enquiries (Head Office)" Customer.Enquires@debenhams.com>

I'd be interested to know in which area I failed please? I was never asked to verify my age. I'd like you to clear up the query and reinstate my order please. I am very unhappy with this. This was the majority of my Christmas shopping and I have not been contacted up until now.

Email response finally sent from Debenhams. Sent from an email account that doesn’t take replies (very smart way to minimise bothersome customers trying to contact you) and with the tone that says “somebody has already talked to you about this, why are you still here?”.

On 11/27/09, DirectCustomerServic@debenhams.com DirectCustomerServic@debenhams.com> wrote:
If you are replying to this email please quote: 715573633

Dear Miss Dixon,

Thank you for your email. We apologise for the delay in responding to your query.

I see from our records that the below query has already been dealt with by a member of our Customer Services Team.

If you require any further information please do not hesitate to contact us.

Kind Regards,

Customer Contact Centre
Debenhams Retail PLC

This particularly unhelpful email sent the anger gland up to 11 and so we replied again to this address. Amazingly this is the response we got: The email was undeliverable. It seems the account that they sent from will not accept incoming emails! Genius.

From: postmaster@debenhams.com>Date: Sun, Nov 29, 2009 at 10:16 PM
Subject: Undeliverable: Fwd: CRT - JL [ Delivery has failed to these recipients or distribution lists: DirectCustomerServic@debenhams.com

The recipient's e-mail address was not found in the recipient's e-mail system. Microsoft Exchange will not try to redeliver this message for you. Please check the e-mail address and try resending this message, or provide the following diagnostic text to your system administrator.

More phone calls then

After eventually getting the message that they didn’t want to engage or help online, we tried the phone on last time. This time we happily told that we can now reorder all the products with them, but as the sale had now closed, we would now have to order them at their now much higher prices! Seriously.

So, no apology, no lateral thinking from anybody at Debenhams to take one item out, or better still try and work out our age and approve the whole order. No, just a frustrating tale that has led to a bloody good case study for me on how not to do online customers service and user experience, a lost £200 of revenue for Debenhams at Christmas and back to square one for the tricky wider family gifts for Christmas conundrum.


After being drawn in to buy online with them, spend two hours online with them and having being told (twice) that our ordered is in and processed, we receive the simply ludicrous first email that cancelled the first order for lack of age verification, then numerous other emails and calls that have all resulted in nothing. Literally nothing. The only option we have now is to restart the order at the now much higher prices than the sale.

My advice to consumers. Try what is left of the high street this Christmas, this Internet thing will never catch on, least not when major brands treat it and its user like this.

My plea to Debenhams: Email me and say sorry. Explain why something so daft can happen in this day and age? And honour the original order. Why not pick up the phone to us? Or email us, we promise we will accept an email from you and not return it as a bounce. If not to appease us, do it to show that you are actually half serious about customer service, about doing business and about surviving in such tough economic conditions, where an act like this shoots you a giant hole in your plc-shaped foot.

My advice to any agencies out there: Pitch to Debenhams, as they really need your help, but just don’t email them to make this pitch.

Update. Feb 2010

Well, it seems this social media thing has some influence after all?

I'm pleased to say that just two days after i posted the above article on my blog and sent it off via the world of Twitter, we got a call from Debenhams.

A rather apologetic, incredibly subservient call in fact.

The caller informed us that she had somewhat vaguely been asked to "look into our order by her bosses" and the result was this call.

This call was followed up by several more over the next 24 hours, to ensure that the newly reinstated order (complete with free delivery and an additional hefty discount as a goodwill gesture) was received safely.

So, all's well that ends well.

Well, maybe not quite. Still no excuse for a brand like Debenhams’s in a month like December to have such a flawed online ordering system, as well as such an inflexible customer service programme, but let’s leave that to them to head scratch on as we rejoice the fact that for once a little man can take on The Man and have his voice heard!