Mixing it up with real on-line expectations

Over the past few years, my bride and I have accumulated a small fortune in points in the American Express Membership Rewards program. This is a program that rewards you with points redeemable for goods and services. As our cards are suffering from plastic fatigue, we are doing very nicely on points.

Anyway, I went to American Express Co.’s Web site to redeem some points for a rather nice food mixer my bride needs. I hunted through the site and found the mixer, clicked on the button to get it, was sent to another page where I clicked on another button to confirm that I really meant it and was then sent to yet another page where I clicked on yet another button to confirm that I really, really wanted it.

So far, this is good stuff-the site is making sure that if I were indeed a clueless newbie I would have to be monumentally thick to keep confirming something I didn’t really want. The only problem was that the next page informed me that American Express was very sorry, but the site wasn’t available and I should try later. Argggggggh.

Why couldn’t they tell me upfront when I started the process of redeeming points? Why lead me down a twisty maze of passages all the same (if that means nothing to you, you have never played one of the classic computer games, Dungeons and Dragons) only to thwart me at the end of the process?

The customer service representative that I spoke with gave me what was obviously the party line: “The site is being updated and should be available in 24 to 48 hours.” Pardon? You what? Words failed me.

Much of my dissatisfaction was, and is, because I’m in the Internet business-apparently Joe User is much more tolerant than us IT types.

I found this out when I spoke to another American Express customer service representative about a problem with my password for their Web site. The customer service rep told me the majority of complaints about the site are from IT people, just as most of their serious customer billing problems involve accountants and other financial professionals.

This isn’t too surprising. When you know what can be achieved and know the standards to which you are held, seeing deficiencies in other people’s work is irritating and infuriating and makes you frustrated far faster than a less-knowledgeable user. I guess this applies to professionals in any industry-just imagine how irritating it must be for a surgeon to see an amateur performing an appendectomy.

A common complaint in the IT world is that “management doesn’t understand what we do” or “my boss is clueless about IT.” Just imagine how much more critical and demanding they would be if they did really understand!

But on-line, the standards IT professionals expect aren’t wishful thinking or unreasonable-they are the goals that will become the base level for all consumer on-line experiences in the very near future.

Unlike other commercial environments (shops, catalogues, telephone, and so on), the ‘net fosters expectations of ease of use, and consumers are becoming more demanding with every shopping season (according to Gartner Group, this Christmas promises to double last year’s worldwide sales to US$19.5 billion, with US$10.7 billion in North America alone).

On-line businesses need to get their operations in order as soon as they can. If they are not ahead of customer’s expectations they will wind up behind the competition that does it better.

Enough philosophizing-I must go back to claim my mixer.

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (US). He is at nwcolumn@gibbs.com.