Ecommerce And The Death Of Customer Service: How One Company Said “No!” To Shopping Carts And Focused On People Instead

Ecommerce And The Death Of Customer Service: How One Company Said “No!” To Selling Online And Focused On People Instead

Just last week I wrote about why internet marketing must die – not because it has no value but because we can put too much value on it at the expense of our real-world relationships with customers.

So I was delighted to have a conversation with one of our long time customers about a similar topic – and whether or not he should have a shopping cart on his website so he can sell his products online.

When we opened up the discussion, he thought about it for five minutes and then said….

“Nope.”

Well heck, there goes my job.

But after talking with him about the whys and wherefores, it’s pretty obvious that this makes perfect sense for his business.

Could he have an ecommerce site?

Sure. Some of his competitors have one. Some of his customers have asked for one.

And yet he stands firm in his conviction that ecommerce isn’t for him.

But Everybody Is Doing It!

If you’ve been reading my blogs for any length of time you know I’m not the “jump on the bandwagon” type. Trendy, shiny stuff has never been high on my list. Even trendy, shiny stuff that works for one person may not work for everyone. I’m big on asking, “Why?”

I want a Facebook page.

Why?

I need to be on social media.

Why?

I have to get a mobile app.

Why?

It’s not good enough to do something because it’s hot. Or because it works for someone else. Or because everyone else does it.

It has to work for your business.

Just listen to what my customer told me when I said…

“You Could Have A Shopping Cart On Your Site But You Stubbornly Refuse. Why?”

John Kenyon is one of the owners and the national sales manager of Advance Furniture in Buffalo, New York. He sells some gorgeous contemporary furniture (I have my sights on one of those bedroom sets… it will go nicely with some of the other décor I’ve already bought from him!) and has been running the business with his wife Christine and brother-in-law John Pusateri for over two decades.

They must be doing something right – it’s a family-owned business that’s been thriving for nearly 60 years.

John is an internet enthusiast and a forward-thinker. He had an early vision to grow the business beyond the boundaries of their Buffalo storefront and snatched up the contemporaryfurniture.com domain early on. I bet a few of his competitors wish he hadn’t been so wise.

He put a ton of effort into helping the company transition into the internet age. From researching shipping and return policies to “Who’s going to buy this stuff?” and “How are we going to get it to them?”

His was one of the very first websites my company ever built and one of the first in his entire industry.

So it makes you wonder why he would hesitate to “think forward” again.

I’ll let him speak for himself.

John Kenyon Advance FurnitureYou cannot get the same kind of customer service from a website with a shopping cart. It’s just that simple.

Over the years I’ve watched online companies come and go. No matter how big or how much money they want to sink into their sites, the biggest challenges are product returns, failure to meet product expectations and poor communication with customers.

It wasn’t difficult to understand that we don’t face these issues with our local trade, and with fundamental Business 101, we chose to apply this same personalized service to online consumers.

It all starts with an email or phone call. We talk about the product in detail.  We send wood and fabric samples at no charge. We talk about the space the furniture will go in, and who will be using it.

Not only do customers ask us questions, but we ask them a bunch too. There’s a consulting component that goes along with selling and you can’t give someone that kind of individual attention just with a photo and product description.

Our website is a great place for people to dive in and research. People shop online first, then get in their car to see a product in person. Today, people walk into our stores with product printouts from items they find on our website. Some of these people drive across the country because they don’t have a contemporary furniture store within hundreds of miles or because they found something we sell exclusively.

Our customers are telling us something about how they shop, just by showing up in our store. And what they’ve been saying is that they want quality products and service and reassurance before they commit.

When we communicate personally with customers, it’s amazing how much information can be exchanged, and this is the key ingredient in helping people to find exactly what they need.

But I Wonder… What About People Like Me?

You know, the ones who really hate picking up the phone to call a vendor and who will happily send two hundred emails before making a single call? The ones who hate the sales pitch and pretty much distrust any retailer out of the gate?

Here’s John’s take.

I am very aware that consumers feel like they don’t want to be bothered talking to someone. Many years of high-pressure salespeople have jaded them, or maybe a simple lack of time can explain their reluctance.

But once a person makes the crossover from email to speaking with us, they fully understand that having a dialogue provides them with more information than a website possibly can.

Plus, when you know you can contact someone behind the website if you have a question or problem, this provides a lot of reassurance that you won’t be left to fend for yourself.

Yes, I’ve been there. I bet you have, too.

It’s kind of ironic but now that I think about it, I may not want or choose to call a vendor but I won’t do business with one that doesn’t post a phone number on their website.

I often wonder how people expect to do business without a website. Even if you don’t use it for direct sales, it still provides a presence – a legitimacy. If I want to find you, I know I can. If I want to research you, I will. No website, no deal.

But then… No phone number on the website, no deal, either.

And now that I really think about it… I actually will pick up the phone and talk to someone if it matters. I mean, we’re not talking about a $5 widget here. You can buy and return those all day long. But I bet there aren’t a whole lot of us who will invest in an Ophelia Modern Bedroom (my birthday is coming, John. Just sayin.) sight-unseen without even a “but do the drawers glide or stick?”

We’re High Maintenance, We Online Shoppers!

I want good stuff. And good service. And good follow-up. And a good experience.

I’m tired of lowering my expectations to what passes for “shopping” these days.

The internet has brought us a world of opportunity but in some ways it has completely disconnected us. Instead of talking to people we “chat”. Instead of fixing problems we “respond within 48 hours”.

Why do you think a company like Zappos has taken off like wildfire in ways its competitors could not?

Service. Attention. At the end of the day, giving customers what they want.

It’s the same premise John works under and as much as I’d love to give him the opportunity to sell online with a shopping cart and get those dollars as efficiently as possible, I understand why efficiency would come at the expense of loyalty.

Don’t believe me? Take it from a guy who has sold furniture not just to customers… but to kids of those customers.

Our customers come back all the time. Referral business has been our driving success over the years locally as well as online.  We have watched children grow up to become second-generation buyers.

On many occasions we have delivered products to two different people who live on the same street, and come to find out that their neighbor told them about us. What a great feeling!

From my first day working on the showroom at Advance Furniture I’ve met people who come in almost daily and they share that they purchased something 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago and they still have our furniture. And now their kids are buying our furniture, too.

Customer retention is our number one goal and from the feedback we get, it’s easy to see that people are getting something with us that they can’t get elsewhere.

We have had an online presence for almost 20 years with an impeccable A+ rating with the BBB. We attribute that to the experience we create and that goes way beyond a shopping cart.

He Had Me At “Experience”

I’m big on customer experience. I’ve quit buying from vendors based on service alone. And I’ve stuck around – even spent more – by virtue of a good relationship.

So when John talks about giving his customers individual attention, I’m totally on board.

And he clinches the argument with this… because he echoes exactly what I would want as a customer.

Each and every person will make a choice to purchase for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s the lowest price. Many times it’s as simple as human interaction and product knowledge.

Today’s retail experience is much different than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Quality product is much harder to find. More and more retailers have sold their soul and converted to low-end price point products and this comes with a lot of headaches. Lower profit margins and competition has forced dealers to cut back on staff to survive and this ultimately affects customer service. Customers are very disappointed with the quality, too.

Part of my job is choosing the best products that exceed our buyer’s expectations while keeping costs down. But we have never compromised on customer service and personal attention.

This is a tremendous advantage over our competition because we may not have the lowest price point but we have the highest attention to quality and communication.

We receive a lot of feedback from customers because our lines of communication are open. We build a rapport with our customers. We often hear that our product and service exceeded their expectations.

Our website has become a great virtual storefront where people can research, check out our BBB report, read about our customer service, shipping procedures, history and even see a photo of the person they are working with on the phone.

But the sale isn’t made with a shopping cart button. It’s made when you connect with someone and you build the relationship and earn their loyalty because you listen to what people want and give them more than they expect.

It’s True. People Matter.

But I really want that bedroom and I’m thinking maybe a trade is in order… ecommerce site for king size? So I try one last time…

What about the future? Do you think you’ll ever tackle ecommerce?

Right now, I don’t see it on the horizon. Communication and a personal touch are critical to what makes us unique.

Our customers crave this and appreciate it. Once that goes away, we will think about converting to an ecommerce platform.

Drat.

And yes.

I completely agree.

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn Rivera

I'm a business owner, content creator, podcaster and marketer. In 1999 I founded Rahvalor Interactive, a web and creative services production studio, with my husband and business partner Ralph. In 2011 we created Web.Search.Social, a consulting and marketing service line for small businesses. We also cohost the Web.Search.Social Podcast where we challenge the status quo of marketing and the Carbon Based Business Units podcast where we talk about the human side of being an entrepreneur. On any given day I wear the hat of project manager, consultant, social media manager and content marketer. My true passion is writing and in my spare time I'm busy planning my early retirement to Barcelona as a famous and wealthy novelist.
Carol Lynn Rivera
Carol Lynn Rivera
  • There are SO many sales channels both online and offline Carol Lynn that yep, we need not rely on 1, or the other. Online, offline; making real connections is the key. It’s why I’m so huge on video; takes the convenience of being online, and adds that personal touch that outside of an in person connect, can’t be replicated. Thanks!

    • Exactly – we have to remember that the internet (and our websites) and just one tool. But it can’t substitute for real interactions and it isn’t the be-all-end-all.

  • Thanks for that article, Carol Lynn. You hit the nail on the head!

  • JulieWaltonJewellery

    An interesting article, Carol Lynn. I do think there are a lot of items that aren’t good to sell on line, and often people like to see before they buy. However, I have recently come across some fabulous coffee tables which, when I have some spare cash will be looking into further with the potential to buy. I would not have known about about them though, without having come across their website by accident. If you have a specialised product, a website can be a useful “shop window” for reaching the wider audience even if the customer has to visit before they buy.

    • Yes, that’s exactly it! The website is the storefront. People find something they like, but then they get the attention and help they need before buying.

  • Sarah Arrow

    I love that John is focusing on the offline experience. And I agree with him totally, and yes you need that bedroom set. 🙂