15 April 2010
Ebooks represent an opportunity for publishers to sell direct to customers, and to bypass the traditional sales channels. There are many reasons they might want to do this: it enables them to build a direct relationship with readers so they can better understand their needs, and it enables the publisher to make a bigger margin on the sale. It creates a massive challenge, though, which is often underestimated: customer service.
I've mentioned the Retro Gamer app a few times on this blog recently. It's an iPhone/iPod app that enables you to read issues of the magazine, which covers computer games from the 80s (or 'retro games'). I used to write games for the Amstrad CPC, so I like to dip into this magazine and the app version is cheaper and more portable than the print mag. The app features a catalogue of all the available issues, and you can use an in-app payment to buy one you want, which then downloads.
When I bought the latest issue, it failed to download correctly. Towards the back of the mag, there are about 10-15 pages that say 'downloading' on them, but which never download. There's no option to reset the download in the app, so the only solution is to file a support enquiry.
This is where the process breaks down: the print magazine has outsourced the whole operation to PixelMags, the company that makes the app. PixelMags says it responds to enquiries by the end of the next business day. But it doesn't: I've sent two enquiries (last Friday and Monday) and had no response to either of them.
As publishers move from print to digital, they need to reorientate their business around customers. Print books rarely have support issues. It's possible a book might be misprinted or wrongly bound, but I can't remember ever returning a book. In that event, the retailer, which has extensive customer service experience, would manage the replacement. In the print world, publishers can basically be creative manufacturers, shipping out crates of books and not worrying too much about end customer service. (They do have retailers as customers, but their needs are very different to readers').
Standardised formats and ebook channels (such as Apple's iBook store and the Kindle store) will help publishers revert to retail-led customer service. But when publishers want to be more innovative and sell iPhone apps or PDFs from their website, they have to make sure they can cope when things go wrong. The content delivery can be automated, but the customer satisfaction cannot. The promise of ebooks is immediate delivery, so customers expect prompt and helpful service.
Because this is an emerging technology, the publisher has more at stake than the reader does. In my case, I'm writing off a £3 purchase of an app, but the publisher is losing annual sales from me of about £30, because I'm unlikely to purchase again.
(Download a free chapter from The Customer Service Pocketbook).
UPDATE: I filed a support request with Apple, and Apple has promptly issued a refund and said it will investigate the issue. So in this case, the retailer was still able to offer an excellent service as support provider of last resort, even though it couldn't fix the downloading issue. As a result, I can continue to have faith in buying apps, although I probably won't buy any more issues from the magazine app.