How to lose a business customer on the web

23 May 2014

People talk about Net Neutrality a lot. The fear is that a two-tier (or four-tier or six tier...) internet will develop once the floodgates are open, so that internet businesses can develop cosy preferential relationships with their most profitable partners, relegating all others to less well serviced, lesser performing backwaters that don't get the offers or find themselves cut out of all sensible forms of communication.

The Net Neutrality headline assumes this isn't the case at the  moment, and the current level playing field has to be protected and fought over and upheld, even as a basic human right.

I have to say: I suspect the fuss about Net Neutrality is actually the end of a process of segregation, not the beginning. It's the final move in a separation of web users into Businesses and Consumers, which has been going on for years.

For example: today, I needed to place an urgent order for memory. Project to finish, want to get delivery ASAP by paying for it, need to make sure the order is sensibly expedited. So I went to the Crucial UK website. It has done me proud on a number of occasions, even with obscure memory types for peculiar, outdated machines, and has a well-regarded ability to narrow down on the right kind of memory for the machine you identify. Which on this occasion, it did: except that apparently, having forgot which of my passwords I should be entering, it immediately fired me off a password reset email.

The instant he thinks he's got Joe Public on the line, that's it: game over.

Which did not arrive. Many other emails did - even password resets from other sites during the same time - so I thought it was unlikely this was my problem. The checkout page shows a Freephone number above the password entry box, so I rang it. Four times.

On the last time, I left my Skype Out session running, as the Crucial phone system played me those "we value your patience" announcements - bizarrely, cycling the recorded voices through a range of accents, genders, ages and moods. After some 20 minutes a human appeared. I explained that I wanted to place a next-day delivery order, and that I had not received my password reset email. "Oh yes," said my handler, "I see your account. You are actually a consumer, so I will put you through to the consumer helpdesk" - and instantly I was back on hold.

Now, when I signed up as a customer, about ten website designs ago, I don't remember being asked what kind of customer I was. As I recall, those 20 or more orders ago, I was making a small-scale speculative purchase of a simple bit of laptop memory, for my personal system. So if crucial.com ever did ask me, I would have said "home/private user".

On this occasion, though, I wanted big fat server RAM and lots of it. But that was of no interest to the man in the Business to Business department, on its phones. The instant he thinks he's got Joe Public on the line, that's it: game over. No idea that consumers change status, no oversight of the amount I've spent with his company over the years, no inclination to help. Are you just a user? Goodbye then.

The cloud lesson that Amazon teaches us, which is that, overwhelmingly, business users experiment first using private single-person credentials and identity, evidently has no traction within Crucial's call centre.

Of course, when this happens, all one can do as a business is make a commercial decision, which is whether one's time is better spent sitting on hold with this type of customer service attitude, or whether it's quicker, safer and cleaner to go find a competitor. In my case, I told the hapless lady in the consumer helpline this story: not that I expected much to come of it.

Perhaps, on the other hand, a blog about the general issue of consumers-as-irritant, might have a bit more impact. What do you think?

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