Sunday, June 03, 2007

Let's do the time warp

The epitome of American e-commerce technologyEvery so often — actually, quite often — life in America makes me feel like I've gone back in time. Sometimes it's twenty years, like when I read about how the California legislature is considering (only considering, mind you) a law that will make it easier for women to not have to change their names when they get married. Sometimes it's five years, like when I go into the bank and see people still filling out those tiny slips of paper. Today, it was ten years. Back to the early days of the Internet, when companies were just beginning to figure out what purpose real-time mass distribution of information might serve.

The note in my daybook says to pay my cable TV bill online today — and yes, I use a paper book, I carry it around in my bag, along with my paper notebook, and yes, I appreciate the irony, Gentle Reader, but I don't have thousands of customers, and I don't encourage them, on my website, to sign up for online billing. I'm all for saving trees and saving stamps, though, so last month I did just that on the Comcast website.

My first bill, for the first month and the installation (yes, I just got cable. Heck, I just got a TV, remember?), was due May 14. I paid it online, $45.35, on the Comcast website. The transaction was posted through my bank on May 16, but that's another rant. The current rant is about Comcast.

Last week I received an email message reminding me that my next Comcast bill was due June 3, so today I logged in to their website to pay my bill, and saw:
Amount due: $60.57
Well, that's just not right, I thought, and I knew I was right in thinking it. So I clicked on "view bill" to see the details:
Previous Balance $ 45.35
Payment(s) $ .00
Comcast Cable Television $ 14.07
Taxes, Surcharges and Fees $ 1.15

Payment Due Date 06/03/07 $ 60.57

I called Comcast's customer service.

"Hi. I'm on your website, trying to pay my bill, but the account information your system is showing me is not correct. I paid the previous balance of $45.35 on May 14."

"Well, yes, sometimes there's a delay on the Internet."

"I understand that, but this was more than two weeks ago. The Internet isn't that slow."

"Well, you see, it's showing you your current statement. If you were to get a paper statement in the mail...."

"But I don't get a paper statement in the mail."

"Yes ma'am, I understand, but if you were to get a paper statement in the mail..."

"But I don't get a paper statement in the mail. Your company encourages customers to sign up for online billing, to not receive paper statements in the mail, and I'm all for that, so I did that, and now I'm trying to use your online system and it's giving me incorrect information."

"You're not letting me finish."

"All right, go ahead and finish."

"If you were to get a paper statement it would have been mailed just after your last due date, and since your payment hadn't posted yet, it would still be showing on your next bill, the one that's due June 3."

"Right. I understand that. But the key point here is that this is not a paper statement we're talking about, it's your online system. It should be showing me current information. When I log in, it shouldn't tell me I owe you $60 when in reality I owe you $15. The information it's giving me is wrong, and that forced me to call you, taking up company resources that online billing is supposed to avoid."

"There's nothing I can do about it, that's the way our system works. It's basically the same as the paper statement."

"That's ridiculous. Then what is the point of offering online billing?"

We went around a few more times after that, but you get the gist.

* * *

Back in 1998 I worked for Chapters Online, Canada's first national online bookstore. I was the public relations manager, and spent my days dealing with the press. At that time there was a fear among consumers about using their credit cards online. I spent a great deal of time repeating our key message, "It's no more dangerous to use your credit card online than it is anywhere else." The other communications challenge I faced was countering the insane perception that "Canada is two years behind the U.S. in e-commerce."

I learned a valuable lesson about the news media; that if a phrase is repeated often enough in writing, it becomes the truth, regardless of what the truth actually is. That phrase, about Canada being behind in e-commerce, became a mantra in the press, despite the fact that it was patently ridiculous. Canada was the first country in the world to offer online banking (in 1995) and to have an airline that allowed consumers to buy tickets online (in 1996). Canada has always been a world leader in communications. We invented the telephone, for fuck's sake! We invented the first Internet search engine. We invented the fucking Blackberry. Since 1994, every year that some analysts publish data about Internet adoption rates among consumers and businesses, Canada is number one. Today — heck, for the last five years — I don't know anyone under the age of 50 in Canada who doesn't bank and pay all their bills online. Most people I know don't even own chequebooks any longer.

Yet here, in the country that harbours the delusion that it's the most advanced nation in the world, there are still signs in stores that explain the circumstances under which they will accept a cheque. When I tell that to Canadians, they don't believe me.

America, you do great P.R., I'll give you that.



Blogger Tracy Lynn said...

Dude, I completely agree- the whole paper thing is so 1998. It drives me nuts to be behind some idiot writing a check in the market.

Blogger Michael C said...

Maybe one day we'll shift money from the marketing budget and actually work on some of the things we say we've perfected.

Blogger Snarky Writer said...

Yay, Sass is back! I was starting to worry about you.

Isn't technology wonderful? They say it's supposed to make our lives easier, but . . . *snort*

Blogger Postmodern Sass said...

TL: Yesterday Sparky and I went shopping and the man ahead of us at the cashier in Bed Bath & Beyond was writing a cheque. A man, writing a cheque. I have never, in my entire life, known a man who carried a chequebook with him. It's such a girly thing to do; that's why we have purses and they don't. Why didn't that man use a debit card? I just don't get it.

Michael: America is testament to what a serious investment in marketing can accomplish, and for that I must say, bravo!

Snark: I'm back, yeah; sorry to be so snarky my first post.

Anonymous Benjamin said...

Um... in all fairness, this isn't a US only problem. People all over the world "don't get it" about all sorts of things. Pretty sure that stupid "math test" on contest entries is right up there.

Blogger Postmodern Sass said...

Ben: I'm not sure I get what you mean. I assume you're referring to the "skill testing question" you have to answer to enter contests that, well, require no skill. Those are there because the law (in Canada) requires that people "perform" some task in order to win a sweepstakes. The law doeesn't say it has to be a difficult task, so most marketers choose a simple math question. Probably because if they asked contest entrants to state Pi to eighteen decimal places, no one would enter. But anyway, I don't get what any of that has to do with technology. Then again, I don't get much before I've had my first beer of the night.

Blogger Benjamin said...

I mean that Canadians can have ideas that are just as stupid as Americans. Having a law that requires contestants to perform some task, presumably to prevent... something, is a silly law. Silly. Especially when it spawns fourth grade math problems to stem gambling.

Don't get me wrong, I'm an expatriated Canadian living in the US for a long time and I miss the homeland, but Canadians can be just as backwards as Americans sometimes. Or delusional anyway.

Blogger Paperback Writer said...

Oh, technology. Isn't it weird and wonderful?


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