Lack of Customer-Centric Philosophy: Books A Million “Case Study”

Ok…stand back, this is going to break away from my norm…but I am so annoyed. So I am going to use this post to identify why I am so irritated. One brand, a single offering, confusing customer service! This is where it all began!

My father bought me a gift certificate for $25.00 to purchase a book. It was a birthday gift, since March 5th I have been trying to figure out what I am going to purchase. I get the quarterly newsletter in the mail from the Harvard Business School and noticed a book about social entrepreneurs. So, I searched through my email to find the e-certificate from my dad for this Books A Million purchase. I went to, searched for the book and proceeded through the online process to purchase the book. I entered my credit card information as a requirement, just incase my purchase exceeded the $25.00 limit of the e-certificate.

After entering my credit card information, the online shopping cart provided a place to enter the e-certificate code. It should be….voila. Uhh…NO! The online store could not validate the e-certificate. I tried over and over again. Tried different browsers, re-entered the e-certificate code, and nothing worked. So…I thought that after teaching class in Clemson, I would stop back by Books A Million in Anderson to see if they could help.

Walked into this newly renovated location in the Anderson Mall, to seek help. I go to the front desk and ask for help. I had a feeling they were going to have to call the manager. So I waited in the front while the manager made his way to the front of the store. He introduced himself and I explained the situation. Direct quote, “I cannot help you…you need to call this 1-800 number to solve this problem.” I starred at him, perplexed. I responded in a light hearted disgust, “that stinks.” He proceeded to inform me, ” this is standard practice across the industry, all brick and mortar retail shops will not help you solve your online purchase.”

Now, I understand what he said…I think. For immediate problem…it is annoying. But from a customer point of view, how can you expect the customer to distinguish the difference between a brick and mortar store and the online property of the same branded company. Where in the fine print does it say, “Hey we are Books A Million brick and mortar and we do not associate with Books A Million online.”?

I looked at the manager and said one short sentence, “This is disappointing customer service.” I guess from a customer perspective, we want to hope that the manager might take the e-certificate and help us navigate this situation. I guess not in Anderson, SC.

So, while he was explaining his justification that it is industry standard to separate brick and mortar store from the online property…I walked away to call the 1-800 number myself. So I walked around the store, trying to navigate the call center dialing options. There was not a selection that matched this situation. After finally talking to a person that was willing to help me figure this out, the manager walked back up to me to explain, “You might want to wait to call tomorrow, the online store might be closed after 6:30pm.”

Let me explain what is so wrong with the omission by the manager. First, he led me to believe he had no dealings with the online store, which is why I must be the one to make the phone call. Hmm…then how does he make the assumption that the online call center closes at 6:30pm. He must have some prior knowledge. The other issue here, I think it was his intention to persuade me to leave the brick and mortar store to make the phone call.

As I was chatting with the lady from the call center, I looked at the manager at the brick and mortar store and said…”I have this covered, thanks for your help.” As I walked around the actual brick and mortar store, browsing while talking to the online call center…I finally resolved the issue. The book will be at my house in a few days.

So here is my problem. I guess I just made a mistake, one I will not make again. I assumed that someone that works at Books A Million at a brick and mortar store could and would be willing to help me with an online Books A Million problem. Second, I assumed that by taking the time to drive to the store to try to resolve an online problem, that  this Anderson, SC store would take the time to help build a customer relationship by trying to solve this issue.

Now I understand that the online store is a “different division” of the brick and mortar stores. I mean, companies like GE have different divisions with different offerings. GE makes turbines for airplanes and also makes wind turbines. Both separate products under one brand. But, Books A Million sells books. Yes, they sell books online and in the brick and mortar store. How can you expect the customer to differentiate between the two since the brand is so closely tied with the single offering. I would expect that a person at the brick and mortar store to be able to handle that same issue as a call center. But that is not a safe assumption.

Like my dad said, making an assumption is just like making an “ass” out of you and me. I will not visit Books A Million again.

So if this is the trend, where is the customer-centric focus? If this was my grandmother, who is not a part of the digital world, how would she understand the difference? Just does not make sense to me.