Sears Discovers Why Merging Call Center And Web Not A Great Idea

As retailers try and inch closer to true merged channel reality, experiments abound. But trying to make all channels connected on the backend is good. Assuming that consumers have immediate access to all those channels—and plan to use them without being prompted—is bad. Don't take our word for it: Ask Sears.

We point to this delightful story in Consumer Reports' The Consumerist site, where a frustrated consumer unsuccessfully tried to buy a pair of air conditioners from Sears. The point of this for us, though, is that consumer placed the order on the phone—dealing with a Sears call center—and yet he was being charged a couple of hundred extra dollars because of fine print on Sears.com. But given that the order was placed on the phone and that the call center rep mentioned nothing about the consumer being expected to go online to read a lengthy "anything we do wrong is not our fault" document, it seems something that Sears can not reasonably enforce.

As the post makes clear, Sears customer service did an awful lot wrong in handling this matter, but I'm wondering how many other chains are assuming that a disclosure that only exists on the chain's Web site could protect them when purchases are made on the phone, in-store or via mobile?

As the Consumerist story so elegantly said: "We were also told that the Sears.com website indicated the buyer must beware of any additional fees that might apply. The only problem was that we made our purchase over the phone. Why we might then, upon hanging up the phone, choose to consult the website's fine print was a question to which neither we nor the complaints supervisor could muster an answer. It seemed Sears had admitted the entire department devoted to taking orders via the telephone was, in the truest sense, ineffective, a waste of time, not worth the effort. If only we'd known."

This does, however, raise a practical question. An online purchase can certainly be governed by an online CYA page. An in-store purchase can be protected by posting signs in various conspicuous places, where the fine print will do a fine job. But how should a retailer today list all of the disclaimers with a phone or a mobile order?

In theory, a chain could treat a mobile-only order like a Web order and displaying a large number of pages of straight text. But if it's unreasonable to expect any cellphone consumer to read such a page—far more unreasonable than reading it on a desktop machine and how many consumers bother to even do that?—it's only a matter of time before some judge will find such notification legitimately inadequate.

Why not have a package that distills the disclaimers to the few that apply to a particular purchase and displays just that, for mobile purchases? For call center interactions, dare we suggest having the rep review anything relevant with the consumer? Sure, it would take a lot of time, but perhaps that would be a good incentive to streamline the disclaimers? If you can't do it for customer service reasons, maybe time efficiency will make it worthwhile?

But what about the original Sears approach? Is it indeed unreasonable to assume that most purchasers today using the phone have access to the Web site? And is it reasonable to put the onus on the consumer to go to another channel and review a document?

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