By unknown, modified (alpha-channel added) by DocMario [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We are all on the receiving end of online automation every day. Every time you receive an email about a sale, an online petition, a newsletter, or an upcoming concert, that’s been automated. After all, no one at your favorite local golf course is likely to be crafting a sale just for you, personally, and taking the time to email just you about it. We surely all know this, and aside from the combined volume of these automated messages sometimes being overwhelming, we accept it. After all, we opted in to that marketing list, political campaign, or event notification list, and we can opt-out at any time.

That said, we are also being served automation in other ways we don’t realize, and this can return pretty mixed results for us and for the companies who have put it in place. Today, I’d like to talk about two examples of customer service automation that I experienced recently — one crummy, and one great. It might help companies and organizations who are trying to lighten their employees’ workload decide which processes are good candidates for automation and which processes should retain a human touch.

Where Are My Shoes?

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I’m a jogging photographer. I also have pretty specialized running shoe needs, and I’m very careful to replace my shoes every 500 miles. At the end of November, I realized that I would hit that magic number within the week, so I went online to order a new pair of the identical shoes to the kind I’ve been running in for several years. When I found out that they were being discontinued, I snapped up the last pair from a major online shoe retailer. I was going out of town the next day — a Saturday — for five days, but at least one of them was Sunday and one was Thanksgiving (two postal holidays), so I figured that the 5-7 day shipping option would deliver my shoes just after I returned home. Perfect.

I went on my trip, had my last couple of runs in my old shoes, and returned home. After a few days home with no shoes delivered, I checked the status of my order through the retailer’s web site and found that they had been delivered while I was gone — in fact, they had been delivered two days after I ordered them. They had been delivered by UPS, who left them on my porch, where they were stolen because I wasn’t home to receive them.

After a call to the online retailer, I got credited back my money, but they didn’t have any other pairs of my shoes. It turns out that they had given me a complementary upgrade to two-day shipping. This had been automated by their systems, probably triggered by the location of shoes in the warehouse, other shipments in my area, or some other circumstances having nothing to do with me. In the end, here was the fallout from that automation:

old shoes floating in the air

  • I never got my shoes, and I never will. It seems those were literally the last pair of Asics Gel Trail Whatevers available for purchase anywhere. I had to find a new pair of shoes that work with my weird feet, which wasn’t easy.
  • I can’t get deliveries left for me by UPS anymore. Because the online retailer requested that UPS pay them back for the shoes they left on my porch, I had to fill out a signed affadavit stating that I never received them. This kicked off another automated process, this time at UPS, that protects them from this happening again by flagging my house as a theft risk. I have to be home when UPS arrives or sign one of their notices every time they try to deliver a package when I’m gone, warranting that I will not hold them responsible if they leave it.
  • I’m angry with that online retailer. They didn’t ask me if I wanted upgraded two-day shipping. If they’d asked me, I would have said “no, thank you” — because I knew I wouldn’t be there to receive anything in two days.  Now, I don’t want to order anything from them again, and because there are other options for shoe-buying online, I don’t really have to.

Automation Grade: D (They didn’t get an F only because they quickly credited back my purchase amount.)

Clean Water for the Win!

In total contrast to the above, I recently had a great experience with the company who sells replacement filters for my refrigerator’s water dispenser. When I bought this fridge about two years ago, it came with a filter good for six months. Six months later, I searched online for a replacement and came upon a very humble site that just sells filters — filters of all kinds, but including the exact one I needed for my fridge. This retailer offers a discount if you buy two or three instead of just one, and though I was wary of buying an 18 month supply of anything (what if the fridge dies? what if they’re the wrong filter? what if we move?), the discount was just enough to make me take the risk.

Here’s where the automation became super-useful to me and added a ton of value to a pretty boring purchase. About six months after my order arrived, I got an email from the online retailer. Here is what it said, in part:

email from online filter store telling me it was time to change the filter

I got this same email twelve and eighteen months after buying my three filters. The first two times, I got out the filters I’d bought and replaced the old one with no trouble. The third time, I clicked on the red button to “Re-Order Online,” and the link took me to the right product page online, which, once again, offered me the option of buying one filter (full price), two filters (small discount), or three filters (bigger discount). On the product page, there is also a video explaining how to remove my old filter and install the new one.

Here’s what happened as a result of this great automation experience:

  • I always have clean, filtered water coming out of my fridge. I spend very little time tracking down the filters themselves in my house, since I get reminders to replace them often enough that I don’t forget where I stored them last time.
  • I have not broken my fridge or any of the filters during the installation process. Because they obviously have two “special” fields in their product database (one for the duration of filter use, and one for a video demonstration), I have managed to effectively replace filters four times now. Given that this is a skill I can only practice twice a year, and the process is a back-of-the-fridge, push-up-then-pull-down-then-twist-off (or something like that) combination, I do need that video.
  • I buy my filters from this same retailer every time. They’ve got me now. Their reminders add value for me, but they also keep the name of their web site in my mind, which is tough for any company whose customers only need to buy something from them every 18 months. They’ve found a way to remind me of their existence in a way that does not feel like a nuisance.

Automation Grade: A- (would be an A if there was a way to set the date of the reminders myself — just in case I order filters earlier than I need)

What sets good automation apart from bad automation? It’s a combination of assumption and intrusion. Are you assuming things that, if you act on them, could be intrusive to your customer? Both of these companies acted on a hunch that I might like their ideas, but only one of them actually showed up in my physical space with their assumption. An online retailer needs to consider the potential upsides and downsides to automation for themselves and their customers — and when in doubt, ask the customer to opt-in.

Have you had an automated service backfire on you, either from the vendor or customer end of things? Let me know via email or on our Facebook or Twitter pages. We’d love to hear your story.