Journal: News & Comment

Saturday, June 05, 2004
# 11:47:00 AM:

How to annoy customers

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I was pleasantly surprised when I ordered our eMac a few days ago that the accessories shipped the next day, and the custom-built computer itself was to ship "on or before" yesterday.

It turns out that didn't happen. There's nothing shocking about that—while it's quite possible, with today's online ordering and just-in-time computer manufacturing (pioneered by Dell), to build a custom machine in three days, sometimes there's a backlog, or parts are unavailable, or whatever. I understand that.

But Apple could make the delay clear and minimize the inconvenience by communicating better about it. Yes, I can check the status of my order. But right up to 11:59 pm last night, it still read "on or before 06/04/2004." Then, as midnight passed, suddenly it was "on or before 06/14/2004." An instant ten-day delay.

I doubt it actually will take another ten days (otherwise it would have been silly to estimate four days to start with), but Apple's systems obviously have some software that automatically adds ten days to the estimated ship date when orders slip past the original estimate. But I received no e-mail, the web page doesn't indicate that anything has actually changed (no "DELAYED" flag, for instance), and there's no background about why the delay, or whether the ten days is realistic.

So, in the space of a few seconds, I went from someone thinking "Hmm, maybe my computer will actually ship today, how cool" to "Those bastards! They were lying all along!"

What could Apple do better?

  1. Perhaps put a longer initial estimate on the shipping date. If four days isn't realisitic for the vast, vast majority of orders, it would be better for people to be a bit disappointed initially, then pleased if things move out earlier.

  2. If there is a delay, make it clear on the order status page, and try to note it before the last minute of the day when the shipment was originally supposed to go out—like maybe a few hours before, when the people building machines go home for the day or the weekend.

  3. Send a follow-up e-mail apologizing for the delay, giving reasons (even if they're boilerplate, listing the usual reasons why delays happen, such as parts unavailability, unusual workloads, or whatever), and explaining whether the revised ship date is a true estimate, an automated ten-day bump, or just a worst-case scenario.

That's the kind of information I'd expect from my local computer dealer. There's no reason I should expect less from the manufacturer's online store, rather than what I'm getting, which is (as Girl-E writes) "a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a low-carb tortilla." It would make me feel better, at least, and more likely to buy something there again in the future.

Note that the things I'm suggesting here require no changes whatsoever in Apple's efficiency in actually building and shipping systems, just better communication about how it's going for my order in particular. As it is, I know not to believe the shipping estimates the Apple Store gives me at first, which isn't the best reputation for it to have.

UPDATE: Apple did, in the end, send the e-mail—but my spam filter caught it, so I didn't see it right away. It's actually pretty good, reading: "Due to an unexpected delay, we now anticipate shipping the following item(s) as follows: Z0AE, EMAC 1.25GHZ/SD CTO will now ship on or before 06/14/2004. We regret any inconvenience this delay may cause." Then there are instructions for changing or canceling the order, or phoning someone for more information.

So maybe I was a bit hasty. Still, it would be good to know what kind of "unexpected delay" we're talking about, and why the delay is nearly three times as long as the original shipping estimate.


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