Does your digital offering leave customers in the rain?

man with red umbrella caught in rainIf your digital offering is so poor that your customers are forced to go offline to meet their needs then you should be worried; they may not be customers for long. And if when going offline they get caught in a rainstorm it is likely they will never return and their sentiment towards your brand and its products and services will be damaged forever.

That is what happened to me recently when an order I placed with the (outsourced) online shop of an English Premier League football club (identity protected, for now) could not be fulfilled. Not only did I have to make an unplanned visit to the shop at the club’s ground to make my purchase (I live about 90 miles from the ground) but in the walk from the train station to the stadium I got caught in a massive rain storm to round off what was an altogether poor customer experience. And all because the club’s digital offering does not come up to scratch when compared to the standards set by other online retailers who truly get digital and provide their customers with a service that ensures they keep coming back.

So what went wrong and what lessons can the club in question and any business involved in digital learn from my experience? I placed an order for three replica shirts, one each for me and my two children. The children’s shirts were to have their names and ages printed on the back. A fairly straightforward order that was due for delivery within 4-8 days. This would ensure the shirts arrived in plenty of time for the first game of the Premier League season.

Within minutes of placing the order I received the usual confirmation e-mail. But a week later I had not received any further communication from the shop to tell me the order had been dispatched or to inform me of a problem. I checked my account and the order status was still shown as “new order”. This raised some concerns about whether the shirts would arrive in time for the start of the season so I sent an e-mail asking where the order was.

Lesson 1 – proactive communication: when there is a problem or delay with fulfilling an order contact the customer as soon as you are aware of the issue. Do not wait for the customer to make contact, as you will only increase their level of disappointment. If you are proactive then you will temper their disappointment and, if you handle the issue well by being open, understanding and by offering options to the customer, then you may even turn the failure into a positive customer experience. With an online customer you have their contact details, including their e-mail so getting in touch with them is so easy there is no reason for not doing so. And, if you are really smart you will see from their order history whether they are a regular customer, a new customer, a high value customer, etc and deal with them accordingly. In my case none of these things happened.

The response I received explained that due to the high volume of orders the online shop had run out of certain letters for printing names. In my case the letter X was out of stock so the children’s shirts could not be printed.

Lesson 2 – provide visibility of stock: most online retailers can tell you whether an item is in stock before you place an order. The good ones will even tell you exactly how many units they have. And the really good ones can tell when you an out-of-stock item will be available. This allows the customer to choose whether and when to place their order. In the digital age, customers are used to being in control; they do not respond well to companies that take this decision away from them. And retailers that take orders without knowing whether they can fulfil them will quickly lose the trust of customers. In this case it would seem that whilst the shirts are stock items, the letters are not. But without the lettering the product I ordered could not be provided even though the retailer confirmed that it had accepted the order. In fact, at the time the shop sent the confirmation e-mail it had no idea whether or when it could fulfil my order.

The e-mail advised that the letters would be back in stock “sometime this week” and that my order would be marked as a high priority so that it would be sent out as soon as possible. That was it. No dates, no options for alternatives and nothing offered to limit or temper my disappointment (I am a regular customer by the way).

Lesson 3 – be precise about timescales: digital customers are used to knowing exactly when things will happen and they also expect to be able to track their order at every stage of the process to ensure things are actually happening. Telling a customer that their delayed order should be fulfilled “sometime this week” does not meet this expectation. Given that one failure has already occurred and hence customer confidence in your organisation has been reduced, giving vague timescales for resolution is likely to further damage their confidence. Your systems, processes and relationships with suppliers need to be capable of giving precise timescales to your customers.

I then asked whether the adult shirt could be sent separately as no lettering was required only to be told “amending the order is a very complicated process” and that it would be better if I cancelled the whole order and instead purchased all three shirts from the shop at the stadium!

Lesson 4 – make it happen: customers are not interested in the limitations of your systems and whether certain transactions are difficult to process as a result. This is your problem. In the digital age customers are used to being able to decide whether items are sent individually or batched as one delivery. To not have this ability and, worse still, to be told it is “difficult” to do when they ask is not acceptable. If your organisation has failed and the customer makes a reasonable request that would help them overcome the failure then just make it happen. Do not use systems, processes or any other internal issue as a reason for not being able to help. You are an online retailer. As an online retailer your business model depends on technology so to use it as a reason for not doing something damages customer confidence in your business. In this case the online shop could have (proactively) contacted the stadium shop and arranged for the shirts to be printed and either sent to me or made available for me to pick up on match day. However, I suspect that, as they are in effect separate companies with their own systems, this would also have fallen into the “difficult” category. But it would have made for a great customer experience if they had found a way to make it happen.

So I duly cancelled the order. And, to avoid having to queue in the stadium shop on match day (never a good experience) and to ensure we could all travel to the game wearing our new shirts (important for football fans), I had to make a special trip to the stadium to purchase the shirts and get the names and numbers printed for my children. It takes about ten minutes to walk from the station to the stadium. But this is summer time in the UK and in that time the weather changed from bright and sunny to heavy rain, very heavy rain. And so it was that the poor digital offering of this football club led to me being caught in a rainstorm. But the poor experience didn’t stop there. The cost of the three shirts, including names and numbers was less in the stadium shop than it was in the online shop. The online shop charges a fixed price for printing (presumably because its systems cannot calculate prices based on length of name at the checkout) whereas the physical shop charges per letter. So, if like me you have a short surname, you are overcharged when ordering online!

Lesson 5 – only charge more if you are offering something extra: customers have come to expect that online prices are at worst the same as those charged in physical shops. In many cases, however we are used to saving money by shopping online. Online retailers do not have the same overheads or fixed costs as traditional retailers so to charge more per unit (excluding delivery charges) just doesn’t make sense. If you are an online retailer that charges more for products then you need to be adding some additional value for which the customer is willing to pay a premium. For example, an online retailer may offer personalisation (!) or customisation of a product, which cannot be done in an offline store, as a premium service. If you charge more than a physical retailer for the same product and you are not offering an enhanced product, the convenience of quick delivery or a high quality service then you are not giving the customer any added value or a reason for shopping with you.

The service in the stadium shop was excellent as usual. Helpful, quick, everything was in stock and it cost me less. So why would I use the online shop again? In this case I have no choice. As a supporter of the football club in question I only have two options for purchasing replica kit and other goods carrying the club’s badge. And I will not always be able to go to the stadium. So I am stuck with the poor customer experience that the outsourced provider of the online shop provides. And this leads me to my final lesson…

Lesson 6 – poor systems = poor customer experience: if your business model is enabled and driven by technology, that technology has to be at least as good as that used by your customers when they deal with other businesses. Online customers compare their experiences across markets, products and services. And if they are not happy they can easily let other people know via social media and (usually) they can switch to another retailer in just a few clicks. That means your systems need to compare well to Amazon, Asos, Next and other retailers that have invested in their platform to provide a good customer experience from browsing through to ordering and fulfilment. And, if you are a business that provides white-label solutions on behalf of your clients, then those solutions have to be market leading, otherwise what value are you adding? If you have sub-standard systems then the customer experience will also be sub-standard and you will damage your clients’ brand and, eventually, your own business.

If my experience related to any other retailer then I would be ending this article by saying that I would never be shopping with them again. But in this case I am a captive customer. I cannot switch to another provider. However, most businesses are not so fortunate; they face intense competition from both existing and new competitors who are exploiting technology to create digital experiences that customers want. If their digital offering is poor then they will struggle to survive in the dynamic, customer driven markets of the digital age.


  1. Sounds seriously shoddy Ian, have you contacted any big cheeses at the club (we know which one!) so they know how poor their supplier is – in terms of tech and also quite simple common sense when it comes to customer service?

    In think you’ve also summed up the ‘football experience’ brilliantly well in the final paragraph with your tale – not sure how intentional it was but giving you credit for it:

    “In this case I am a captive customer. I cannot switch to another provider.”

    • Thanks for the comment Ed. I have tweeted the chairman a few times, including a link to the post but haven’t heard anything back so far.

      That sentence was deliberate btw!


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