Thursday, December 20, 2007

Friendly Advice to Small Catholic Internet Stores at Christmas

Dear Small Catholic Internet Store,

Chances are you're a tiny business. Maybe you're home-based; maybe you have a real store in some part of the country. Perhaps you've worked and saved and struggled to build up a godly, family-run business so that you could escape the corporate nightmare and create something that would be an inheritance for your children, a shining star to the world, something more than mere profit-seeking. Maybe when you tell other people about your business, you use words like "ministry" and "apostolate."

All of that is wonderful, believe me.

And we out here in the world appreciate you, and what you have to offer. The world is full of secular goods at Christmas time, and it's nice to be able to browse the virtual aisles of stores filled with items that have a little more obvious connection to the Reason for the Season.

So I'm not trying to pick on you, or to be too harshly critical. But I do a lot of my Christmas shopping online. Most of it, in fact. And each year I do more, as I grow tired of the picked-over offerings, the crowds, the lines, and the attitudes prevalent at the brick and mortar stores.

And because I do so much of my Christmas shopping online, I've started to pay attention to customer service: the good (like stores that have free shipping for almost the whole month of December) the bad (like stores that will cancel your whole order and not tell you till six days before Christmas, because they're out of stock) and the ugly (like the stores that want your business but never mention Christmas. I won't bother linking to them).

Now, dear Small Catholic Internet Store, you know I don't hold you to the same exact standards that I apply to the really big companies. I don't expect you to provide free shipping, online real-time order tracking, or similar amenities. But there are a few things that would help our relationship tremendously, and that would help me to choose you for more and more of my Christmas business. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Communicate. There's nothing more frustrating than placing an online order, and then hearing nothing, or nothing beyond an automated order confirmation. If you're having trouble with my order, if your vendor has run out of the Second Shepherd figurine, if you forgot to schedule a U.P.S. pickup for a couple of days beyond when you told me my order would ship, if your five-year-old was helping to pack my order and chipped St. Joseph's nose and you won't get a replacement statue for a month, call me. Chances are I'll be very understanding and willing to work with you--but I'm not going to be very happy if I don't hear from you until it's too late for me to make other gift arrangements!

2. Be professional. I know you're a small family business, and I like that. But if you provide a "business phone number" for me to call, and I call it, and a young child or inarticulate teenager picks up the phone and blurts out "Hello?" then I'm not going to know that I've reached the "O'Malley Family Wee Bit of Irish Catholic Gifts 'n Goods," am I? It would be better to use an answering machine than to use the same phone line for your home and personal needs that you do for your business.

3. Don't Nickel and Dime Your Customers. This is a big one, to me. I recently placed my first--and last--order with a Catholic company that shall remain nameless here. I was appalled to be charged a shipping charge roughly as much as the cost of the item I was ordering! And this was not a heavy item--it was an 8x10 unframed print. It gets worse, though--a glance at the company's shipping chart showed that they would charge more than the cost of some of their items with their "base shipping" rate--for such tiny items as refrigerator magnets. Let's be honest, companies--shipping is costly, and no one expects you to "eat" the shipping costs on your end of things. But your customers won't appreciate being charged considerably more than the going rate to ship small or lightweight items just because your shipping chart is ordered more toward your convenience than a realistic view of how much it really costs to mail things.

This is equally true for "nickel and dime" charges like handling charges, packing charges, and the like. I would rather have you charge me $14.99 for an item than charge me $11.99, and then tack on a $1.00 handling charge and a $2.00 "packing materials" charge. What I especially don't want you to do is charge me $11.99, $3.00 "handling," and then $8.95 for shipping for a small lightweight item. Trust me--I'll delete the item from my virtual cart and shop elsewhere.

4. Create Customer-Friendly Return Policies. Again, I understand that you are a small business. When you sell an item, you are counting on that sale. If I decide six months later that I no longer like the item you really can't do anything for me; reasonable return policies are always acceptable.

Further, some of the items you sell may be personalized. If you put my child's name on a First Communion photo frame, for instance, I realize that you don' t want the frame back just because Aunt Sarah bought one too. But I do expect you to take back even a personalized item if it arrives with my child's name misspelled (perish the thought!) and I expect you to be reasonable about this.

What is entirely unacceptable to me are store policies that are designed to confuse the customer and make it extremely difficult for him to return anything; I also won't shop at a store that won't take returns on whole groups of items. I'm sorry, but if a person is willing to pay several hundred dollars for a 14K gold religious medal, you should be willing to take that medal back if it doesn't meet the customer's expectations. You don't want to anger any customers, of course, but the ones who can afford your best merchandise are the last ones you should be willing to anger, and nothing will make such a customer angrier than to be told, "I'm sorry, we don't take gold medals back; you should have read our return policy before you ordered."

5. Remember That I Am the Customer. Yes, we're fellow Catholics; yes, I applaud what you're trying to do; yes, I see your store as something good. But I also see your store as a business, and myself as your customer. I don't expect you to fawn all over me; I don't want you to act as though I'm your only customer: but I do expect you to remember that I am the customer, and that my business should be at least as important to you as it is to me. Maybe I only ordered a handful of inexpensive items from your clearance section--this time. Maybe I'm a little anxious that the item you promised would get here by today hasn't shown up yet. Maybe I'm planning to order, but need a response first to the email I sent you asking about the item's dimensions or colors or fragility. Maybe I received an item that isn't at all what I wanted, and doesn't even look much like the picture on your website. Whatever the case, this is the moment when you win or lose my business not just for today, but for always. Keep that in mind before you respond to my questions in a snippy or unhelpful manner; treat me like a customer, but treat me like a human being and a child of God, too.

Small Catholic Internet Store, just keeping these things in mind will greatly increase your chances of being on my ordering list next Christmas--and not only next Christmas, but for Baptisms and First Communions and Confirmations and weddings and maybe even an ordination or two someday. In addition to my three children, I have two sets of parents and parents-in-law, eight siblings, two brothers-in-law, two sisters-in-law, fourteen nieces and nephews (so far), and one convent full of extra "sisters." Only one of those people isn't Catholic, and we're working on him. :) So all I'm saying is, I represent a whole lot of potential future business for your small Catholic Internet Store, and I hope you'll consider my friendly advice!


Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the post. I was feeling a little guilty about my grievances with the company I bought my polish oblatek from for $2.oo. I paid $8 dollars to have it shipped and I don't think it's going to get here in time for Christmas Eve - an email confirmation would have been nice.

Michele said...

good post! and good advice too! i have one other comment to add, stores, please do not have snooty customer service! don't always assume that the person your to knows everything about the product either! that is why your called customer service, not know it all service!

Michele said...

oops, i meant to say, don't always assume that the person your talking to knows everything about your product!

Anonymous said...

We would use the small internet stores more often if the two you pointed out, shipping and handling too much & confirmation, would be clearer and more resonabe.
After being burned severly, I have gone back to the yucky stores with little online shopping. :(

Anonymous said...

Needed to be said! And you said it with grace and charity, of course!

Listen! You Small Catholic Internet Stores, we *want* to do business with you, but if it's unpleasant or overly expensive to do so, we can't.

~cactus mouse~ said...

I am so glad you posted this. I am in the middle of a similar situation, but was feeling guilty for actually wanting the product I purchased (over a month ago....). I WANT to support small Catholic businesses...

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

This is a great post.

It reminds me of a post I was thinking about writing: tips for organizations that want me to give selflessly with my money during this time of year -- a uniquely Christian concept -- but don't want to say "Christmas".

I just got an email from my alumni association asking me to "give in the spirit of the season." Which season? Winter? Because winter is traditionally a time of hoarding.

Anyway, great post. :)

Ian said...

Hi Erin, thanks for the thoughts. I posted a reply to your article on our blog.