It was my birthday last week and my almost 80 year old father had been so kind to offer me some book certificates of bol.com (comparable to amazon.com). The certificates, however, could only be converted into e-books. Bol.com’s Customer Service confirmed to me it was impossible to exchange the certificates into traditional books. In the end I succeeded, but I don’t want to deprive my readers from the lessons learned for Lean e-tailing.
Rules without Customer Orientation
You can always please me with some book certificates. I read a lot and have no trouble finding a good destination for them. Besides, a book certificate is a true convenience in the returning birthday ritual; both for the person wondering what to ask for and for the person having no clue what to give for a present. I had therefore asked my father to maybe offer me a book certificate. No sooner said than done… so we thought.
As said, my father isn’t that young anymore (almost 80) en despite him being still quite up-to-date with new technologies and the Internet, the phenomenon of an e-book was still unknown to him. So when you have a look at how the book certificates are presented on the site of bol.com, it is no wonder he clicked the e-book certificate, as all other certificates do not specifically mention the word ‘book’.
When I got the certificate I quickly noticed the word ‘e-book’. I already somewhat feared that we maybe could not convert the certificate into a traditional book (which I prefer), but still thought it was sure to come right. While trying we quickly found out it wasn’t, so I gave Customer Service a call.
A friendly lady confirmed to me that it was indeed impossible to convert these specific certificates into a traditional book. I persisted and told her I could not imagine that nothing could be organized. Physically exchanging the certificates, providing new codes, or any other alternative did not seem too difficult to organize to me. And I’m sure I’m not the only one having this problem. The lady tried with another colleague, but came back to me reconfirming she could not help me with my problem. “These are the rules with bol.com, sir. I would send the certificates back to the person that gave them to you.” You maybe can imagine that I was completely flabbergasted.
Being Busy with Failure Demand
Of course, I did not leave it at that. My 80 year old father spends his money on a certificate at bol.com, I cannot convert it into a book, and a supplier that simply states: “That’s not our problem.” I tried two parallel channels; I sent an e-mail to Customer Service and sent a Tweet to @bol_com and then @bol_com_service. My father also contacted Customer Service after he came home that day. I hope you are aware of all the additional workload this in fact creates for an e-tailer like bol.com (and even worse: its clients!). And all of this work does not create any value from a Lean perspective: 100% waste! This type of “demand” is often indicated as being “failure demand”: demand caused by an earlier failure to do something or do something right for the customer. And we’re all very busy dealing with failure demand… .
In the end, I finally succeeded in having the certificate codes registered under my profile on the site and convert these into traditional books. Despite my specific case being finally corrected (duly noted), the story raises many questions for Lean thinkers and practitioners: what in fact are the rules (standards) at bol.com? A nice case of inefficiently being inefficient (not preventing failure demand and subsequently treating failure demand in a not very efficient way).
Lessons for Lean E-tailing
We can learn a few lessons from the story above. First, concerning the rules bol.com uses in running its business (or its standards in Lean speak if you wish). When developing and defining standards, organizations should also define their standard reactions in case of deviations. Think of it as using process-FMEA at the time you develop your standard. So what is now the standard at bol.com? Why do some people state it is not possible to exchange the certificates and others finally exchange them?
And if there is a standard, or standard reaction in this specific case, how can organizations make sure all personnel involved is aware of these standards so that the organizations provides a consistent service to the customer? In this specific case it isn’t clear to me whether there is no standard reaction, or the company just failed to deploy it consistently. Not that this should matter to me as a client; to me as a client supplier inconsistency translates into lost trust and subsequent loss of turnover.
The story also clearly shows how a simple case creates a flood of failure demand via various channels (e-mail, twitter and phone calls), both initiated by the person that received the present and the person that offered the present. Several people working on the same case and this is possibly happening every day, everywhere as I’m certainly not the only one with failure demand…
Lastly, how can e-tailers like bol.com even prevent failure demand in the first place? Why was it so easy for my father to order the wrong product? Why is it that only for the e-book product category there exists a separate certificate? Why potentially confuse clients with this? And even if a client like my father mistakenly clicks on the wrong certificate, why aren’t there enough explanations and checks that verify whether the client actually wants to buy this product? As always, it is still better to prevent than to cure.
In cases like the above I think Lean can contribute a lot to e-tailing organizations. Lean concepts like 3P (production process preparation), pFMEA and built-in quality (jidoka) can certainly prevent client frustration, non-value added activities and ultimately loss of sales. I hope e-tailers like bol.com will take up this gauntlet and let Lean thinking help them create more customer value, reduce cost and retain customers.