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.

(Via An American Editor.)


  1. I’ve said it before – Amazon is the 800 lb. gorilla of the ebook space for the simple reason that nobody’s actually competing with them. As much as I’d like to see some strong competition arise, I refuse to put up with the appalling customer disservice dished out by Kobo, Sony, and B&N.

  2. The appalling lack of customer service is getting worse by the day. With most industries now dominated by a few huge companies (there are 4 cell phone carriers, 4 large banks that own all the smaller banks, a handful of airlines, only AT&T or Comcast for Internet around here, etc.), they are too large to care about individual customers. When you have 100,000,000+ customers, who cares if you annoy one? (Plus, AT&T must know that Comcast’s customer service is just as bad, so no incentive to switch there.) “Too big to fail” also means “too big to care.”

    One of the very few exceptions to this seems to be Amazon. Their customer service is not perfect, but it is head and shoulders above almost any other company their size. Amazon makes a point of customer service — it’s right in their motto (“The World’s Most Customer-Centric Company”).

    While people bemoan Amazon’s dominance, keep in mind that B&N and Sony and Apple are hardly small, plucky upstarts. They are large companies with typically terrible customer service. Also remember that Amazon for the most part got where they are by providing customers (and authors) with what they need — good customer service, great selection, low prices, products (like the Kindle) that work, a platform that allows authors to make money, etc.

    Our country is being taken over by large corporations — one political party is actively encouraging it and the other is doing nothing to stop it — so if we’re going to be dominated by a large company, at least Amazon has a better track record than most of giving a damn about its customers.

  3. I purchased a Czech-English dictionary for my Kindle at 2:30 in the morning last week. Several days later, again in the wee hours of the morning, I opened it to find that it was actually a phrase book which was not what I wanted. I spoke to a CS rep, (yes, a real person called me within seconds of my requesting a phone call), and was issued an immediate refund. When I got up the next morning, the refund had already been processed through my credit card.

    Oh, and in nearly 5 years of NYTimes delivery, it has been late twice, (normally appearing sometime between 5 and 5:30AM), …and both times i received an e-mail explaining the problem and apologizing for the delay. No refund, but they did let me know there was a problem which went a long way to keep me happy.

    And, I wonder what B&N would do if I called about a 2007 model nook that had stopped working? (Yes, I know there are no 2007 vintage nooks, I’m just making a point.) When I called Amazon about a 2007 Kindle that had developed a confused memory, (it seemed to think there was no room for new books despite the fact that my husband had deleted all but a few), they offered us a 50% discount on a brand new KKeyboard. What other company offers that kind of deal for a device that is 4 years out of warranty?

    Amazon’s success is based on “customer first”. I’m a customer and I like that.

  4. Peter: “I’ve said it before – Amazon is the 800 lb. gorilla of the ebook space for the simple reason that nobody’s actually competing with them.”

    I’ve also been saying it in many of the attack discussions on Amazon. It’s not as if it takes tens of millions to launch a competitor online !

    All we here are the publishers whinging and whining and blasting about Amazon but they do NOTHING to compete!

  5. My experience with Amazon has been somewhat similar. Many times when I report an issue, Amazon doesn’t actually correct the issue. What they do, though, is offer an immediate refund. With some people it does, with others it does not. However, it is very similar to the retail experience; I don’t expect Best Buy to fix a buggy game, but they will accept my return.

    For years, digital media has been non-refundable. Amazon has changed this, I suspect, bot by putting the burden back on the distributor, but by eating the cost. Maybe this is the way forward, but what we really want are products that work.

  6. I want to ditto the comment about continued service to the 2007 kindle. My son and father accidentally broke my 2007 kindle’s screen last week; I called Amazon just to see if there was something I could do since it had sentimental value. There was not, but they offered a great discount on the keyboard model 3g. Since I really wanted the 2007 one (I already have a k3) they helped me find a seller with a refurbished model. They even put it in my cart so I could think about it and come back to it.
    I love Amazon. They bend over backwards to make the customer happy. They may change—but I trust them now.

  7. Having a great customer service experience can make your week! A bad one can ruin it. Most of the time B&N has been good to me…even a small story in my book about them. Sounds like the company is not putting down all WAYMISHes!!…as experts on customer service at companies must appreciate all people that take the time to post, call, or write to people that are giving great customer service.
    That’s what gets things changed…walking away from a bad experience doesn’t help to improve anything…speak up…the companies NEED you to tell them what is RIGHT…and what is WRONG

  8. B&N wears the legacy of brick and mortar around it’s neck like a mammoth ball and chain. You get the feeling that their true desire is that all this pesky and difficult internet stuff would just go away and they could return to the nice easy world of physical bookstores.

    Amazon on the other hand is a pure internet company. They understand it and they know how to use it.

    Amazon uses connectivity to create pathways to customer satisfaction while B&N creates barriers to satisfaction. Which is why B&N will follow Borders into oblivion in a few years.

  9. Amazon is not only customer-centric regarding service, they always have their customers in mind when developing new products and services, as all companies should.

    Out of all the competing tech companies out there, Amazon always seems to be ahead of the game, they plan for the future to give customers what they want, even if they don’t know they want it yet.

    Our company uses their AWS cloud services, they are by far the most advanced, saving us $15,000/month over traditional data centers.

    The other reason to use Amazon is that they are a solid, diverse, well-managed company. Sony is struggling, as is B&N. What will happen to your libraries and devices should they go under? Anything can happen to any company, but in betting on the future, I’ll take Amazon over the others any time.

  10. Amazon has replaced several defective items for me or given me credit for them. This includes replacing two Kindles which were out of warranty. When faced with a choice of ordering something from Amazon or elsewhere, who do you think I choose?

    We have several Kindles and a Nook so have bought e-books in both stores. As recently as yesterday I flailed around in the B&N online store trying to find the Buy or Download button so am not sure why you find B&N easier to buy from. On Amazon, it is all up front and easy to understand. By the way, does everyone know that if you wish to return a Kindle book for any reason within 7 days of purchasing, you have only to go to Manage your Kindle in your Amazon account, click on Return for Refund. You don’t have to call anyone, just click the button, no questions asked. Try that at B&N. In regard to newspapers, I subscribe to the Chicago Tribune on my Kindle and it is usually there by 5 am. If not, then there is a message on my screen that says: “The Chicago Tribune will be late today.” I find it comforting to be told.

  11. I fourteenth the opinion that Barnes & Noble has not elected to put either the money or the time into designing customer service policies that are clear (both to their employees and their customers) and designed with the concept that a customer with a problem that is resolved to their satisfaction is in fact MORE loyal than a customer who has never had a problem. Nor have they put said time/money into hiring qualified, professional people to interact with their customers who have technical problems with their Nooks. They seem to have chosen the cheapest call center in the world who sent in the lowest bid.

    I have nothing but respect for most of the employees I have encountered at the physical B&N stores, but I have yet to have an experience with their Nook assistance staff that does not leave me with the desire to scream with frustration.

  12. You’re comparing B&N’s service to the service you got from The New York Times, not to customer service from Amazon, which isn’t exactly comparing apples to apples. Does Amazon deliver the electronic version of the Times any more reliably than Barnes & Noble? And if not, is it easier to get satisfactory customer service from them? Last time I had a service question for Amazon, I don’t even think I could LOCATE a phone contact number, no less speak to someone to resolve my issue.

  13. Suzanne…

    Yes, Amazon delivers the NYTimes reliably and efficiently. As I said in my previous post, I have been getting the Times delivered to my Kindle since 2007. It was delayed twice in nearly five years and both times I received a notice from Amazon explaining the problem and apologizing for the delay. Except for those two times, my newspaper appears in my K between 5 and 5:30AM.

    As for not being able to find the phone number to call Amazon, you must not have looked very hard. From the Kindle Help page, click on “Contact Us”. (Large link in bright yellow on the far right near the top of the page.) You will be taken to a page with three options: E-mail, Chat or Phone. Click phone and you will be asked to enter your phone number and a choose when you wish to be called. Choose “Now” and you will be called back immediately…usually before you have time to put your phone back down.

  14. @suzanne – not a subscriber myself, but if you scroll up in the comments a bit you’ll see that the answers to your questions appear to be yes, Amazon delivers more reliably, and yes, it’s easier to get non-veterinary customer service when there’s an issue with delivery – see January’s comment.

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