An American Editor

March 9, 2016

Barnes & Noble: Years Later & Still No Clue

As long-time readers of An American Editor know, I prefer to purchase my books at Barnes & Noble (B&N), largely so as to keep a competitor to Amazon alive. But I have to admit, even after years of struggling against Amazon, B&N still doesn’t have a clue and seems to not care that it is following a path of self-destruction.

Consider these past essays on AAE about B&N: On Mourning the Passing of Barnes & Noble (2014), B&N in a Fantasy World (2014), Can Barnes & Noble Be Saved? (2013), and And Then There Was One: Barnes & Noble’s Lack of Customer Service (2012). You would think that by now, especially with all the troubles that B&N has had, a light bulb would come on and B&N management would have an epiphany: “We need to greatly improve our customer service, because our poor customer service is what keeps us down!” Alas, dimwittedness continues to prevail.

I preorder a lot of hardcovers. At the beginning of last week I had 17 hardcovers on preorder and another dozen I have been thinking about. Last week I received four of those 17 hardcovers, in addition to two hardcovers in addition to two hardcovers that I read about or saw an ad for that I ordered. Six hardcovers purchased and received last week alone. In addition, I added 11 more hardcovers to my list of books that I want to preorder but have not.

And therein begins my tale, with one of the preorders I received last week: “Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion” by Susan Jacoby.

I preordered the book many months ago. At the time of the preorder, the price was an undiscounted $30.00. Because it was an early preorder, I didn’t worry about the price, because I (wrongly) assumed that if the book was discounted, B&N would bill me the discounted price. I wanted the book and if it wasn’t discounted, well, I’d pay the $30.00.

When the book arrived, I looked at the invoice and saw it was for $30.00. So I decided to check B&N’s website to see if that was the correct price. It wasn’t. B&N was selling the book for $20.63 — a $9.37 discount. Had the difference in price been a few cents, I would have let it go, but the difference was too much to not call B&N customer service.

I called B&N and the representative told me that “as a one-time courtesy” they would refund the difference but that it is B&N’s policy “not to match prices.” Match prices? I was not asking B&N to match a competitor’s price; I was asking it to sell me the book for the price B&N itself was selling the book, not the inflated preorder price. I thought perhaps I was not getting through because the representative was clearly not a native American English speaker, so I asked to speak to a supervisor.

Even the customer service supervisor seemed to have no clue. She began repeating the excuses the original representative gave — none of which were pertinent, such as “the preorder price depends on inventory, depends on number of preorders, and depends on the publisher” — and then repeated the words, “as a one-time courtesy.”

Unbelievable. I stopped the supervisor and asked, “If this is B&N’s policy, why would I ever preorder a book from you? You do know, do you not, that your biggest competitor, Amazon, offers a preorder price guarantee; that is, if I preorder a book I will be charged the lowest price that Amazon advertised the book for between the time of preorder and the time of delivery?” A waste of breath because she started to repeat the excuses, beginning with “Barnes & Noble doesn’t match prices.”

I decided to give it one more try. I said: “Does it make sense that I can return this book to you at your cost and get a full refund and then reorder the book at the discounted price, which you will ship to me at no charge? If I do that, you will have paid the cost of shipping three times rather than once, and thus lose even more money.” The supervisor’s response was that it is B&N’s policy not to match prices.

I gave up.

I know that contrary to what our Supreme Court has declared, corporations are not human; they are inanimate objects that cannot think. Consequently, they rely on human beings to do their thinking. And that appears to be the difference between corporations: some have smart humans doing their thinking and others not-so-smart, bordering on ill-informed, humans doing their thinking. Sadly, B&N continues to flail in the not-so-smart category.

It doesn’t take much of a light bulb to recognize that if you have a successful competitor who does X, you should be looking at X and figuring out how to make X yours. It doesn’t take much of a light bulb to see that good, credible, noteworthy customer-centric service is the one thing Amazon has going for it, the one thing that Amazon is really well-known in the marketplace for, the most important thing Amazon has that B&N does not have — customer-centric service.

It is not that Amazon never fails at customer service. I stopped buying from its subsidiary Woot a couple of years ago because of exceedingly poor customer service. But the Amazon that B&N competes with has a stellar reputation for customer service. Amazon has consistently said that it may not have the lowest price but it has the best customer service, and I know people who will vouch for that and have said they’d rather pay a bit more to Amazon and know they’ll get great customer service than save a few cents and risk poor customer service.

Is this a difficult concept? Not really. I would think any businessperson would know this, but then B&N management is the exception that proves the rule.

B&N is a struggling company that with a little bit of effort wouldn’t need to struggle so much. All it needs to do is change its culture by putting customers first. This was pointed out to B&N years ago, but even with changes in management it refuses to learn the lesson.

I am the customer that B&N needs and wants. I buy a book because I want it, not because of the price, and I buy hardcovers. I also preorder books, which tells B&N that it has a sure sale. B&N knows this (or should); all it has to do is look at my purchases in its databases. It’s computers must recognize me as a desirable customer because my membership has been renewed at no charge to me. The problem is getting B&N’s human staff to recognize what the computers recognize.

But B&N is driving me away. The customer service supervisor didn’t seem to care when I suggested that perhaps I should cancel all my B&N preorders and instead preorder the books at Amazon. I suspect she would have given me Amazon’s URL, thinking she was passing a problem customer to Amazon.

Years ago I said that B&N’s problem was very poor management. Even though there has been some management change, its poor quality seems to continue. If I were a shareholder, I’d be complaining loudly about how poor management is killing my investment by failing to invest in great customer relations. But I’m not a shareholder; I am just a customer who is thinking of jumping ship because I have had enough poor customer service and I am sure I can find some other bookseller who would like a customer who buys dozens of hardcovers every year.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 17, 2014

On Mourning the Passing of Barnes & Noble

After this week’s news that Barnes & Noble has lost money yet again, I decided that perhaps I should begin thinking about writing B&N’s obituary. After all, I am a B&N member and I buy a lot of books from B&N and I will miss it when the last store and website is finally shuttered.

But I was told not to don my mourning clothes yet. B&N has a plan. Great, I thought, until I realized that the same people who have brought B&N to its knees are the ones with the plan to save it. Not very likely.

The problem with B&N is simple: management that cannot see even a baby step’s worth of distance in the future. There are any number of relatively simple steps that could bring B&N back from the precipice, but each would have to begin with a recognition that today’s management team needs to be gone yesterday.

Start with customer service. How poor can customer service be? I don’t know but B&N is surely leading the way. Consider what happens when you call customer service. If you are lucky, you get someone who speaks English like a native and without a thick brogue that makes them incomprehensible. You know you are in trouble when the representative calls you “Mr. Richard.” The reason this is a problem is that the reps do not understand the problem you are trying to convey and so insist on a solution that is no solution.

For example, I recently ordered a book from Amazon Canada. I had to order it there because neither B&N nor Amazon US was showing the book except in their marketplace and the marketplace pricing for a clean copy was double or more the price Amazon Canada was asking. (The book cost over $100 to begin with, even at Amazon Canada.) When I received the book from Amazon, it was the right book but not the advertised book. The advertised book was for the correct print year and did not state that it was a print-on-demand reprint; in other words, I thought I was buying an original copy.

I realized that because of the book’s age, all that would be available would be like this, so I wrote Amazon Canada and told them I intended to keep the book but that they should note on their website that the edition they were selling was a POD reprint. Within a few hours I received a reply thanking me, telling me that the information had been passed on to the appropriate people, and because I planned to keep the book, Amazon was refunding 25% of the price.

The book from Amazon was the first volume in a nonfiction trilogy. Volumes 2 and 3 were available from B&N, and so I ordered them from B&N. Volume 3 was just released, so it was not a problem. Volume 2 was released several years ago but not so long ago that I should expect a POD reprint — but that is what I got. So I called B&N customer service (sending an email is, I have found, an utter waste of time). I got one of the “Mr. Richard” representatives. I tried to explain the problem and explicitly said I planned to keep the book and that my only purpose in calling was so that they could adjust their website to indicate that it is a POD reprint. After all, this was another very expensive book and the website implies you are getting an original.

I might as well have been talking in a hurricane for all that the representative either understood or cared. The rep “resolved” the problem by ordering another copy be sent to me because he agreed that website did indicate it was not a POD reprint that was being offered. I tried to prevent this, but after a few minutes, I gave up. I received the second copy of the POD reprint and sent it back with a detailed note indicating what was wrong and what I thought they should do. And so the tale ends.

There was no follow-up from B&N and the rep didn’t understand the problem or the solution I was suggesting. (He did say that there was nothing he could do about the website. Apparently that includes notifying anyone of an error at the site.) Bottom line is that B&N customer service continues to be an example of what not to do and Amazon continues to be an example of what to do. This same complaint about customer service was made several years ago on AAE and elsewhere and the same management team continues to do nothing.

The second place for B&N to go is to improve the interaction between buyers and B&N. B&N needs to be innovative, especially when it comes to its members. How difficult, for example, would it be to let members create a list of authors in which they are interested and for B&N to send a monthly email saying that a new book by one of my listed authors has been announced; click this link to preorder.

Along with that, B&N should guarantee that the preorder price is the highest price I would have to pay (which it B&N already does do without saying so) but that should at anytime before shipment the price be less, B&N guarantees that the lower price will be the price I will pay. As it is now, because I preorder books months in advance, I need to constantly recheck and if a price is lower, I need to cancel my existing preorder and re-preorder. Can B&N make it any more inconvenient for the customer?

In addition, B&N should be sending me monthly emails telling me of upcoming or newly released (since the last email) books that are similar to books I have previously bought. I know they have the information because both online customer service and the local store management are able to peruse books I have bought. To entice me to buy from this list (or even to preorder), B&N should offer me an additional 10% discount on the listed titles, which discount is good until the release of the next email and the next list of books.

Members of B&N are the prize for B&N. Members are likely to be those who buy exclusively or primarily from B&N and not Amazon and are the people who are more than casual readers. If you buy 1 or 2 books a year, you wouldn’t pay for a membership; it is people who buy a large number of books who pay for membership (e.g., just before writing this essay, I preordered 1 hardcover and ordered 2 others). So why not reward members based on their buying? For example, buy 15 books and beginning with the book 16, you will get overnight shipping or an additional 5% discount or something. Buy 20 books and get a gift certificate. Think up rewards that encourage more buying and offer those rewards to members. Make membership valuable. It isn’t rocket science.

Much (but not all) of B&N’s problems are from a mismanaged ebook division. Even though ebooks aren’t the bulk of sales, B&N should not be conceding the market. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how to improve sales or get more Nook loyalty. A simple way is to make it so that when a person buys the hardcover they can get the ebook for $2 more if they would like both options. Buy the first ebook in a trilogy and if you buy books 2 and 3 at the same time, you get book 2 for 50% off and book 3 for free. Maybe these won’t work but they are worth exploring and cutting special deals with publishers to make them happen.

The publishers have an interest in B&N remaining afloat. Should B&N shutter its brick-and-mortar stores, publishers will lose showrooms as well as major sales outlets. Publishers should create special editions available only at B&N. They should make shopping at B&N and at brick-and-mortar stores worthwhile. Make these deals available only through physical stores.

There are a lot of things that B&N — and publishers — can and should do to rejuvenate B&N. Unfortunately, these things require imagination, something B&N has in very short supply. Consequently, because I do not expect any miracles at B&N, I will continue to prepare its obituary. Maybe I’ll be fooled and my masterpiece will never see the light of the Internet; if so, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. But until B&N calls me and asks me for my ideas and calls other members and asks for their ideas, I won’t get my hopes up.

What would you do if given the opportunity to turn B&N around?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

February 6, 2013

Can Barnes & Noble Be Saved?

With the release of both Amazon’s and Barnes & Nobles quarterly figures, which include the 2012 holiday season, the blogosphere has been rife with posts foretelling the demise of Barnes & Noble. I find it interesting that Amazon’s results weren’t much better than B&N’s (according to Businessweek, Amazon earned one-half cent for each dollar of revenue), yet investors continue to support Amazon and blast B&N.

I suppose the reason for the different treatment by investors is that Amazon has a broader range of goods for sale and that investors think eventually Amazon will be able to increase margins by raising prices as soon as Amazon can force competitors out of business.

So, what it boils down to is what can B&N do to revive its fortunes? Can its fortunes be revived?

As it stands today, pessimism is probably appropriate for B&N. Mitchell Klipper, B&N CEO, Leonard Riggio, chairman, and management crew have shown that they are incapable of forward or strategic, or maybe even tactical, thinking. Yet they remain in control of B&N.

It was not so long ago that my wife and I visited our local B&N nearly every week. We rarely left the store without purchasing at least a couple of books, and my purchases were always hardcovers (my wife would buy both hardcovers and paperbacks) — and that was in addition to what I would buy online at B&N and to my ebook purchases. But Klipper and his predecessor have done everything they can to turn me away from B&N stores.

First, they did away with the discount that membership gave me. The first time was by the refusal to sell me Nooks with a member’s discount. The tale then told was that the Nooks were already being sold at cost (remember when the first Nook was sold for $249?). So for the same price, I bought Sonys, which were better devices and bought ebooks at the Sony store and Smashwords instead of B&N, because B&N ‘s DRM was incompatible with my Sonys (although B&N could have made them compatible). It wasn’t long after that Amazon began cutting the price on its Kindles and B&N began cutting the price on the Nook. Riggio and Klipper should have given that discount to members!

Second, they changed the discount members received. I bought hardcovers at the B&N store and received a 20% discount on adult hardcovers that were not already discounted. This was not as much a discount as was being offered at B&N online, but it was satisfactory and I bought more than 100 books a year at the local store. Then the terms changed — the discount became 10%. That wasn’t competitive at all, and so I stopped buying locally, shifting to online purchases.

Third, when B&N finally offered a reasonable deal on a Nook, I bought a Nook tablet. The tablet has been wonderful. In fact, it has become my preferred reading device. But the device has a terrible built-in flaw: the worst customer service imaginable. Even though I have spoken to several higher-ups at B&N about the customer service problems, nothing has been done. It hasn’t gotten worse, but it hasn’t gotten better.

Let me clarify this: The customer service I am referring to is the online customer service, not the customer service at my local store. My local store gives great customer service — as good as Amazon’s and perhaps even better — but it can’t give me the customer service I need for the Nook and Nook ebooks. Also, it is worth noting that I rarely have ever needed customer service for a pbook.

When I need to call B&N customer service, I know I am in for a runaround and an aggravating time. The Nook “technical” support people are so ill-trained and so lack product knowledge and so lack customer service common sense that they do not even warrant being called a joke — it would be an insult to jokes. And this is Klipper’s fault. Based on what I see as a customer, B&N places no emphasis on customer service and apparently little on training. As the CEO of B&N, Klipper should be making customer service the #1, #2, and #3 priorities. You cannot keep frustrating customers and expect them to keep coming back. At some point they will abandon you for the competitor who is viewed as caring. Some of us will hold on longer, but not because we love B&N; rather, because we do not want to see one company become so dominant that there is little market competition. That’s why I continue to buy at B&N.

Klipper and crew also need to become innovative. It is clear that they cannot compete with Amazon based on either price or customer service, so they need to be innovative. They need to increase reasons for Nook owners to visit stores; they need to increase the number of members they have and entice them into stores; they need to entice the general public into the stores.

There are things that they can do. For example, arrange with publishers and authors to exclusively offer limited numbers of first edition, first printing, signed copies of new books. Some of us are collectors and would be willing to pay for such books. Make it so that these limited edition books can be bought online for a minimal to no discount but if bought at the local store — even if having to be shipped from a warehouse — the buyer would get a 20% to 25% discount on the book but also the same discount on any other book purchased at the same time at the store.

Make membership truly worthwhile. Increase the price to $50 a year (from the current $25) but give the member a guaranteed minimum discount of 20% to 25% on everything purchased, whether in the store or online, and if purchased online, with free 2-day shipping.

Another thing that can be done is to offer a free copy of the ebook with the purchase of the hardcover. Nonmembers would pay full price for the hardcover but members would get a 15% to 20% discount (or receive a higher discount if they chose not to get the free ebook). Get a jump on Amazon by getting publishers to offer this arrangement exclusive to B&N (i.e., the free ebook with hardcover purchase) for at least 90 days.

B&N could also make it so that a Nook owner could visit the local store and check out books but buy, on the spot, only the ebook version using a special code that gives the Nook owner a discount off the normal ebook price because it is bought while in the store.

Because the Nook and ebooks are central to B&N’s future, really make the stores a place for Nook buyers. Have a problem with your Nook or a Nook ebook purchase? Come to your local store for real customer service. Train local staff to do real technical troubleshooting, not what is currently done when you call tech support, and authorize local staff to really resolve customer service problems, including giving refunds.

One thing that B&N should immediately implement is a new library system and a new option button. What I mean is this: Now when I buy an ebook, the ebook appears in my Nook Library. In the Library there are option buttons that let me, for example, download the ebook so I can save a copy locally and recommend or lend the ebook. B&N needs to add an option button that tells B&N to notify me when the author has published another book that is for sale by B&N. Additionally, my Nook Library should be changed to my B&N Library and should include all books — p and e — that I buy from B&N, whether online or in-store, each with the notify option button. The one thing that should not happen is that I receive notification for books by authors for whom I did not ask for notification. In that case, a good idea becomes a bad idea and spam.

Most important of all, spend some money on providing real online customer service. Fire your current providers/staff and start from scratch with people who speak English and do not read from a script.

Can B&N be saved? Yes. Will it be saved? Not unless it changes its attitudes and direction.

May 21, 2012

And Then There was One: Redux

Last week I wrote about my experience with Barnes & Noble’s customer service and how frustrating I found B&N’s attitude. Ted Weinstein twitted about the article and received back a suggestion that “Dan” at B&N be contacted, with an e-mail address. Ted was kind enough to post that reply as a comment to the article.

So I did write Dan and I commented, in reply to Ted’s comment about the response I got. However, the story does not end with that reply.

I’m a firm believer that when an effort is made to rectify a situation, that effort is deserving of attention, just as the original complaint was. I think the failure of much of the media and many of our fellow citizens to acknowledge that their complaint was heard and addressed or of acknowledging it in such a way that it is never really heard speaks volumes about how ill-mannered a world society we are.

As to Barnes & Noble, the e-mailed response I received, which was not a very helpful response, was followed a day later by a telephone call from “Stephanie”, who is a high-level executive in customer service. Stephanie assured me that steps are being taken to retrain customer service representatives based on the lack of service I received. She said that the records of my calls were being pulled and the responses given by service representatives to me were being used to illustrate exactly what not to do.

And unlike earlier representatives, Stephanie told me that regardless of whether the problem with delivery was B&N’s fault or that of the New York Times, it is B&n’s responsibility to address and fix the problem. Stephanie assured me that I can expect to see significant improvement in this regard now that the problem has been brought to her attention.

Stephanie also gave me a separate telephone number to call should I continue to have a problem with either Times delivery or with a customer service representative. This number will connect me with the people who report directly to her and should I wish to speak with her, rather than one of her colleagues, all I need do is ask.

In addition to apologizing and telling me that there will be service improvements and that B&N, indeed, does want to put the customer first, Stephanie offered me a $50 B&N gift card for my troubles, which I declined. I am not interested in making money off B&N and nothing occurred that warrants giving me a $50 gift card. I do not make my complaints lightly and when I do make a complaint, it is not in hopes or expectation of being financially rewarded. What I do want is good customer service and my Times delivered timely, and if you are not going to deliver the Times timely, then a credit for the value of that issue of the Times as I have already paid for it in advance.

While on the telephone with Stephanie, I told her about my “adventure” in getting the Nook Tablet and the Times subscription originally. I noted that in that case customer service was fine, it just couldn’t solve the problem, which should have been an easy problem to solve. (See The Tablet and Me: The Nook Tablet.)

Will there be an improvement in B&N’s customer service? I hope so because I would like to see B&N survive. I consider this response a good start and I feel better about continuing to deal with B&N. I also think that B&N deserves a few kudos for making the followup effort.

The flip side is that B&N shouldn’t have had to make the effort to reach out to me and an Internet complaint shouldn’t have been necessary to instigate that reaching out. Yet if B&N makes the transition from a B&N-centric to a customer-centric organization, it could become a formidable competitor to Amazon. Unfortunately, it will take more than Stephanie to make the transition, but every great movement has to start with a first step.

May 16, 2012

And Then There Was One: Barnes & Noble’s Lack of Customer Service

For a long time I have advocated buying ebooks from Barnes & Noble. Not because B&N was the cheapest or had the very largest selection (although I admit that I consider the argument that Amazon has more titles than B&N to be a specious one; after all, does it truly matter that one has 1.3 million titles and the other has 1.1 million titles, as long as the store where I shop has the title I want to buy? How likely is it that I will read even 10% of the available titles — or, more importantly, even have an interest in 90% of the titles that make up those numbers?), but because I do not want to see a retail ebook world that is essentially Amazon only.

Alas, B&N seems to be doing its darndest to give the ebook world to Amazon on a silver platter.

In recent weeks, I was given a Nook Tablet as a gift. It is an excellent device and works smoothly with the B&N ebookstore. I think B&N’s hardware is excellent and even many of the critics rate the B&N devices as the better devices.

Between the Amazon and B&N ebookstores, I prefer the layout of the B&N store. Whenever I visit the Amazon store, I feel like I am being assaulted by an infomercial for some unneeded and undesired product that shows at 2 a.m. on local TV. I know that Amazoners praise the one-click buying system at Amazon, but I don’t find the two-click system at B&N overtaxing.

The bottom line is that I think B&N has a lot going for it, yet it is handing over to Amazon a little bit more of the ebook world daily. B&N has a significant flaw, one that it appears unwilling to address, or perhaps it is simply unable to address. That flaw is customer service.

As I reported in an earlier post (see The Tablet and Me: The Nook Tablet), the impetus for giving me the Nook Tablet was the deal combining a New York Times subscription with a discounted Tablet. Those of us who read the Times know that it is a morning newspaper — it is meant to be read at the start of the day, not at the end. When I had the print subscription, the paper was usually delivered by 4 a.m. and no later than 5:30 a.m., allowing me to read the Times at breakfast (I am an early riser). This delivery schedule was met day after day, year after year, the exceptions generally being when Mother Nature intervened and prevented timely delivery. If the Times was not delivered on time, a quick telephone call resulted in a credit to my account. No-hassle customer service.

What I get now from B&N is the electronic version — bits and bytes sent over the Internet — that is, when I get it. Some days it arrives by 5:30 a.m., but never earlier; some days it arrives by noon or later; some days, it doesn’t arrive in a timely way at all. So when it doesn’t arrive by 5:30 a.m., which is already late as far as I am concerned, what can I do? Turns out: nothing.

You can’t contact B&N customer service because it isn’t open; it has banker’s hours. When it does open and you do get someone, as helpful as the initial reps may want to be, they are hamstrung by B&N policies, at least as communicated by the customer service representatives.

On one occasion, when the Times hadn’t arrived by noon, I called and asked for a credit. The customer service rep tried to give me one but couldn’t, and so very politely passed me to a supervisor. At first, the supervisor told me I’d have to take the matter up with the Times. I replied that it was B&N that sold me the Times, it is B&N that I pay every month for the subscription, and it is B&N that delivers the Times to me, so why would I contact the Times?

The supervisor then told me that it was my problem, not B&N’s; that B&N doesn’t give refunds even when it doesn’t deliver the purchased item; that there would be no credit of any kind; and I “had to eat it.” I suggested that not only was this theft, but more importantly to B&N, it was giving paying customers another reason to abandon B&N for its arch-rival Amazon.

I understand that we are not talking a lot of money — about 40¢ — but it is the idea that B&N simply doesn’t care that matters (and I’d be less concerned if this happened once rather than several times over the course of a few weeks). After the incident, B&N sent me a satisfaction survey. I wrote of my dissatisfaction and even gave my telephone number so B&N could followup. I’m still waiting for that followup. In my business, if I get a hint of dissatisfaction, I’m on the telephone trying to do damage control. It doesn’t always work, but I try. B&N seems impervious to the idea of customer satisfaction.

(This disinterest in customer satisfaction goes back to the beginning of B&N’s latest foray into ebooks. You may remember my complaints about how B&N treated its club members when it introduced the original Nook. B&N refused to give members the 10% discount on the Nook, claiming that, even at $250 per Nook, it was losing money. Not long thereafter, the price dropped to $150 before going even lower. I had wanted to buy two Nooks and ended up buying none.)

Is Amazon better? I only know what I read and what I read is that had I had the same problem with Amazon, something would have been done. I also suspect that Amazon would deliver the newspaper on time. But it really begs the question to ask if Amazon’s customer service is better — it can’t be worse! And this is what B&N doesn’t seem to understand. Customers will put up with a lot if they think they are being fairly treated; if they think they are not being fairly treated, they will put up with little to nothing — and will let others know of their dissatisfaction.

The point is that it is these little slights to customers that build into major frustrations, and it is these little things that should be taken care of immediately. You are better off putting out the fire while it is still in the BBQ than waiting for it to ignite the forest — a lesson that B&N sorely needs to learn.

I am happy with my Nook Tablet; I really cannot say enough good things about the device to express my pleasure with it (I like it so much that it has been a month since I last used my Sony 950). I enjoy shopping at B&N’s ebookstore (although I dread what customer service I will get should I buy the wrong ebook or an ebook that is missing material). I especially like that I can automatically download ebook purchases to my Nook Tablet, as well as download those purchases to my desktop computer for storage (and that it is easy to strip the DRM from B&N ebooks so they can also be read on my Sony 505 or 950). All of this is to the positive.

Yet the problems with customer service, the limited hours of operation, and the attitude that the customer is to blame is irritating. I’m gradually getting closer to leaving B&N in the dust; each time I call customer service and am told I need to “deal with it,” and am displayed B&N’s indifference to customer satisfaction, I get closer to saying “Enough already!” What holds me back is my unwillingness to give the ebook market over to a single gorilla ebookstore. But what I want may be of no matter as B&N seems to be working diligently to turn another customer into an ex-customer.

Ultimately, whether B&N survives the ebook wars will rest on its customer service. So far, it is losing.

December 7, 2010

Will You be a Googler?

Yesterday, Google Books opened for U.S. residents. This is the long-awaited bookstore, although after a browse of it, I’m not sure why. The question that remains to be seen is whether this bookstore will be very competitive and whether it will challenge Amazon.

Also in yesterday’s news was the rumor/announcement that Borders, in conjunction with the private equity group that currently is keeping Borders afloat, plan to make a bid for Barnes & Noble. This will be interesting.

But the two bits of news really belong together.

Google Books has one thing going for it: it will be a way for independent bookstores to provide an ebook service to their customers. Powell’s in Portland, OR, has already indicated it will be partnering with Google Books. But a look at the Google bookstore doesn’t leave me chomping at the bit to buy books from it, whether print or ebooks.

Try finding customer service. I had difficulty finding it and, more importantly, had difficulty determining whether Google Books is a cloud-only service or a combined cloud-download service. The former I would never buy from (unless I absolutely had no choice) whereas the latter at least gives you the option of maintaining a copy of your purchase on your desktop. But what happens if I purchase a book only to discover after purchasing it that it is not downloadable, something that appears very easy to do at Google Books? Trying to get your money back and have the book removed from your cloud-based library looks to be a herculean task, in contrast to the ease of access to customer service at Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Sony, to name a few competitors.

There are lots of problems with Google Books. One would think that a company as resource-rich as Google would hire better specialty designers, but I guess even money doesn’t cure the hit-or-miss school of design.

Yet, I suspect that in the not too distant future most of us will become Googlers, that is, buyers of books via Google Books, unless we become Amazoners. I think that the foretold shakeout of the ebook retail industry has just begun. Here’s why and what I would do —

I’d like to be sitting on the cash — note it is cash — that Google is because I would now take the steps necessary to thwart Amazon and Apple’s ebook business. First thing I’d do is buy B&N. Google can do it for cash; Borders can’t compete, Jobs doesn’t believe in reading and so won’t compete, and Amazon could never buy B&N and get past antitrust concerns. And no matter what Leonard Riggio thinks, a serious bid for B&N by Google would be insurmountable by Riggio. It isn’t exactly like he has been such a great leader in recent years that private equity would simply line up and beg him to lead a takeover.

Second, I would put Borders out of its misery. Buy it and merge it into Google Books. The only real value to Borders is its customer list.

Third, I would approach Sony and offer a deal for its ebookstore. I doubt Sony could resist any reasonable offer, especially if Google made a deal to scrap the nook device and help Sony make its devices more price competitive. The reality is that the Sony devices are probably the best dedicated reader devices available except that they cost so much more than the Kindle, nook, and Kobo (and other third-party devices), they can’t get the kind of traction in market share they deserve. Combine Google financial power with Sony technology and suddenly you would see a truly competitive ebook market.

Finally, comes Kobo. The Kobo device isn’t something I would write home about; it’s OK but not a class leader. But the Kobo ebookstore is a different story. If the ebook race were to be decided simply on the quality of the ebookstore and customer service, the race would be between Amazon and Kobo, none of the other major players would even be a blip on the horizon. Kobo is aggressive and provides customer service at the vaunted Amazon level. So what I would do is see if I couldn’t partner with Kobo, perhaps pay a fee to bury the brand and merge it into the Google Books brand but have the Kobo personnel essentially run Google Books.

Ultimately, I think the only ebook bookstore survivors of the major brands will be Amazon, Google, and Kobo. Sony’s ebookstore isn’t bad, but Sony hasn’t got a clue how to promote either its reading devices or its ebookstore. B&N and Borders are mismanaged; B&N does do some great promoting but drops the ball after the promoting. Borders doesn’t seem to do anything right. Apple is really a nonentity as regards ebooks. It’s hard to become a real competitor when the only person who matters doesn’t believe in reading.

Google Books is the unknown in the lion’s den. Google certainly has the fiscal resources to take on Amazon, which is the key player today, but whether it has the vision and the stamina to do so remains to be seen. If we begin to see improvements in the Google bookstore, especially in customer service options, and see Google make moves to create a true competitor to Amazon, then many of us may well become Googlers. Until then, I think Google Books will be last in the race.

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