The Dark Side of Digital Life

Glitches are part of a digital life.

Usually I don't think much about these ongoing digital annoyances, which have become part of the background noise of daily life. This week, however, has been a doozy.

Some of the most annoying issues come when filling out online forms, with their the rigid, unforgiving digital logic. God help you if you don't read the fine print and enter that information in exactly the right format.

Then there are the bizarre twists and turns of the business processes that underlie e-commerce. When everything works, it's wonderful. Chose a product, click "one-click ordering" and you're done!

When the forms or business processes behind them go wrong, however, I end up spending more time than if I had just driven to a store 10 miles away and picked it up myself.

Barnes & Noble Order Flub

Earlier this week I ordered 35 copies of a book title from Barnes & Noble online for $9.50 each. I received a PayPal confirmation of the total amount: $332.50. Barnes & Noble also sent an e-mail confirming that I had placed the order, although it did not include the order details.

Yesterday I received a "Your order is on its way" e-mail with shipment information - for only 10 copies. That was followed by a "Your order is scheduled to ship" notice time stamped at 2:33 am today. Then, at 7:45 am this morning, another e-mail stating that "Your order has been delayed."

I followed the order number to the B&N Web site, which showed that an order for 10 copies of the book had shipped -- yesterday. The B&N site also displayed a tracking number for the "shipped" order. But when I followed it to the USPS Web site I was presented with this message:

"The U.S. Postal Service was electronically notified by the shipper on January 11, 2011 to expect your package for mailing. This does not indicate receipt by the USPS or the actual mailing date. Delivery status information will be provided if / when available. Information, if available, is updated periodically throughout the day. Please check again later."

Uh-hello, where is my order? And what happened to the other 25 copies? Apparently even the 10 copies were not shipped - probably because the pickers couldn't find any on the shelves. Further down the page, another revelation: The remaining copies for the order had been cancelled, with no explanation - and no e-mail alert to that affect.

In an ominous turn for my order, Barnes & Noble's Web site no longer shows it selling the title.

The revised order that apparently didn't ship shows a charge of $95. Is that an additional charge on my credit card? If so, did they reverse the $332.50 charge? Somewhere along the line, B&N's business processes broke down, leaving me, the customer, in the dark.

Amazon: You can ship it any way so long as it's 5-8 business days

Yesterday evening my wife wanted to order books from Amazon.com. She has a special student account that provides free shipping on every order, regardless of dollar volume, but she needed the books sent priority next day. Unfortunately, Amazon's order process didn't present a priority shipping alternative.

We suspected that there was some sort of glitch that had to do with the type of account she had with Amazon. (Hey, you're a student. Why would you ever want next-day shipping?). After several re-tries and a fruitless search for answers, she ended up in a chat session with a customer service rep in India who conceded the problem, had her place the order, and then upgraded it himself. But by then what should have been a five-minute affair had taken the better part of an hour.

Acer: Get your dates straight

Yesterday morning I needed to order Windows Vista recovery media from Acer. The form wouldn't process the order. After a few go-rounds I figured out the problem: It wanted the credit card expiration date in the format mmyy. Not 1/2012, or 1/12 or 112 but 0112.

Do it this way. No, that way.

Another Web site I visited this week asked me to fill out a 2-page online form. On one page it wanted a phone number formatted in this way: 603/555-1212. On the next screen it wanted it in the format 603-555-1212. Other sites insist on (603)55551212 or 6035551212.

Programmatically it is very easy to trap all of these ways of inputting numbers and recast them into the format the vendor prefers to ensure data quality.

So why don't they do it?

Don't follow me. I'm lost.

After all of this it didn't surprise me when I tried to follow the new CFOWorldUS account on Twitter - and couldn't find it. Repeated searches on Twitter over a series of days failed to turn it up. Several other people had the same problem, I found out. But CFOWorldUS did exist, and was already following me. So I trolled down through my list of followers (which of course are not arranged alphabetically) until I found it and clicked "Follow."

Whatever works.

"Isn't that weird?" said the colleague who told me about the account.

Yes, I said.

But not unexpected.

Update 1/14/2011: A shipment containing 10 of the 35 books arrived today. Paypal shows the $332.50 charge as "pending" and a new charge of $95 processed. So far my VISA account has been hit with only the $95 charge.

24 hours after sending an inquiry to Barnes & Noble I'm still waiting for a response.

Update 1/18/2011: Although I received an e-mail robo-receipt confirming that Barnes & Noble received my customer service inquiry I never received any response from the company. The $332.50 charge, however, has disappeared from Paypal.

Note: I enjoy conversing with blog readers but it's difficult to keep track of ongoing threads from regular readers if everyone posts as "anonymous." To keep the dialog going please consider taking a moment to enter a regular identity "handle" with your posts. Keep the comments coming! --RLM

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