Competition can elevate everyone’s performance. Think, say, of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. Today, perhaps LeBron James vs. Kawhi Leonard. Formidable competition forces you to play at your highest level. That is, unless you are Barnes & Noble. The venerable bookseller has been competing with Amazon for more than two decades, but still lags behind not just Amazon but other retailers.
Here’s a case in point… A few days ago I gave an online keynote at the eCommerce Growth Summit about the ideas in Friction. My focus was on how friction-based strategies drive conversion and loyalty in eCommerce. There were 4300+ attendees – people apparently appreciate online conferences when they can’t travel! At least one audience member was paying attention: a day later, Patty Born posted on LinkedIn about her high-friction experience trying to buy a few books for her daughter.
Patty found that her Barnes & Noble membership, that entitles her to free shipping, wasn’t linked to her online B&N account. I’m not sure why B&N treats those as different universes. Even DC and Marvel can come together. Starbucks integrates every aspect of being their customer in their rewards app, even payment and cash balances.
Here’s what happened when Patty tried to merge her two identities, in her words:
It seemed easy enough “click here to link your B&N membership to your account” *presses button and enters membership number* I then receive the reply “we can’t link your membership number to your account. Please call customer service”. So I did. What do you think happened next?
“We are experiencing longer than normal hold times. Your expected wait time is FORTY-FIVE MINUTES” 😮
So do you know what happened after I waited on hold for 15 minutes? I hung up and ordered from my Amazon app and literally 2 minutes later my order was complete!
Count the ways…
I see a few obvious customer experience failures here:
- Allowing memberships and customer IDs to live in different and unconnected databases.
- Failing to provide an easy way for customers to correct this disconnect online.
- Failing to answer a customer service telephone call with a reasonable wait time. (Today, many customers would consider ANY wait in queue to be high friction!)
Barnes & Noble starts their mission statement with,
Barnes & Noble’s mission is to operate the best omni-channel specialty retail business in America…
It seems clear that competing with Amazon for twenty-some years hasn’t elevated B&N’s game to the point where they can deliver on that promise. (And, did they really need to include the jargon-y and superfluous “omni-channel” in their text? It’s rather an awkward phrase to rally the team around…)
A new #FrictionHunter story shows why Barnes & Noble is in trouble. #CX Click To Tweet
But wait, there’s more…
How do you tell if a company is really customer-centric? Watch what they do when the company’s interests don’t align with what’s best for the customer.
Banned books. One of my author friends had a best-selling book published through Amazon. Despite the title’s popularity, he was unable to get it into B&N stores – not because customers wouldn’t buy it, but because of B&N’s deep-rooted dislike of Amazon. They have always resisted carrying any books from Amazon Publishing. It wasn’t until my friend’s book was released by a traditional publisher in a new edition that customers could find it at B&N stores.
Who needs Kindle when you’ve got Nook? Another author friend released a book through B&N’s publishing arm, only to find they refused to issue it in Amazon’s Kindle format. This refusal came despite the fact that the vast majority of customers use Kindle devices or software. Instead, they released it only in their own dying format, Nook. 2018 data showed the Nook with just 2% ebook market share compared to Kindle’s 84%. To read my friend’s book, I had to hunt down and install a Nook reading app.
Did either of these self-centered and petty policies put their customers first? Or help their authors? Or even, somehow, boost B&N’s sales and profits? No, no, and no. They were simply indicators that B&N management was still fighting a war they lost years earlier.
A Ray of Hope…
It would be unfair to blame the vast majority of B&N’s team members for these customer experience failings. In my experience visiting the B&N’s retail stores, their staff are usually book enthusiasts genuinely interested in helping customers.
Rather, this has been a failure of leadership. Not fixing IT issues? Not tracking digital interactions and to eliminate needless friction? Banning books published by Amazon out of spite? Refusing to release Kindle versions of books? These policies started at the top.
There is at least some reason to be optimistic. In August, 2019, James Daunt became the new B&N CEO. Daunt had previously saved the bookstore chain Waterstones in the UK, and by all accounts is very customer focused. At Waterstones, he eliminated the lucrative but self-defeating practice of allocating the best display space based on publisher payola. Instead, he empowered his store managers to promote the products that would best fit their customers interests.
That one example encapsulates the tension between short-term profits and customer experience. Business leaders acknowledge that their customer experience could be better, but can’t afford to fix it without hurting current-year profits. Daunt was willing to take the short-term profit hit to display products that customers actually wanted.
According to Publishers Weekly, some of Daunt’s early moves were to shift advertising spending into making the stores more customer friendly. He eliminated “mystery shoppers” whose job was to ensure stores were following corporate directives. He said he hopes to recruit “vocational booksellers” who can operate with less central direction and tailor each store’s offerings to their customers.
With their new CEO’s customer-first attitude, I see hope for Barnes & Noble. Turnarounds don’t happen overnight, and a strategy to get more people into stores won’t work when stores are closed for in-person shopping by the virus crisis. But, when stores can resume normal operations, Daunt may well be the person to right this sinking ship.
Don't let short-term thinking kill your #CustomerExperience. Ask yourself, 'What would Jeff do?' #CX #FrictionHunter Click To Tweet
Your Customer Conscience
I can’t say exactly why B&N failed to solve the simple problem of connecting their disparate membership and customer databases, or offering an easy tool for customers to make that connection. I’m sure at least one customer-focused person in the company advocated for that. In my imagination, I see an IT executive pushing back because of the cost of the project and the amount of coding it would require. Or, an even higher-level executive agreeing that fixing this was indeed important, but it would have to wait until the next fiscal year.
Don’t get caught in this trap. Amazon and Jeff Bezos never hesitate to put the customer first. Yes, they even sell books published by their former arch-rival, Barnes & Noble.
When you are facing a decision that balances a frictionless customer experience against cost, IT effort, and other concerns, ask yourself, “What would Jeff do?” (This is actually the title of a book by Greg Jameson.)
And, when you have a high friction experience yourself, do what Patty did – let the world know on social media. (Use the #FrictionHunter hashtag, too!) Some brands pay attention to this kind of thing, and you might start things rolling in the right direction!
[Author’s note: please support your local book retailers, certainly independents but B&N, too. The current pandemic is devastating for these retailers who depend on in-person traffic to survive – make an effort to enjoy their ambiance as soon as restrictions are lifted. The world will be a worse place if we can only shop for books online.
FRICTION at Barnes & Noble
FRICTION at Austin’s BookPeople]