Like It Or Not, Your Website Is Part Of Your Company (And A Big One)

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Preliminary note #1: this is not a customer service rant.

Preliminary note #2: I love these types of stores (I can’t walk by one without going in).

Every Friday we receive flyers in the Montreal Gazette from the leading electronics retailers. I simply can’t get enough of them. I love checking out every page, comparing prices, seeing what’s new… you get the idea.

I scoped out a Dell laptop last week (RichardatDell would be proud). I did my online research, I even went to the retailer’s website to check the "in-store availability." When I saw that multiple stores in my area had it available, I opted not to buy it online and headed over to retail. I feel bad for a lot of these major electronics store. In the day and age of the Internet, it’s hard to have strong sales people. Most people come into the store informed, knowledgeable and ready to go. You can tell that most of these minimum wage employees are simply not up to speed.

I pointed to the laptop I wanted and said, "I’ll take it." After waiting around for about five minutes, the sales associate came back and informed me that they had none left. I referred them to the "in-store availability" section of their website, to which he responded, "yeah, they probably count the demo model as a unit." I asked if any of their sister stores in the area had any left, to which he said that two were available at another store. I asked if he could call and hold it for me while I drive over there. No chance. I asked if I could go online to the website, order it and use the "in-store pick-up." He replied, "I’m not allowed to let people use the Internet."

I wasn’t asking to surf the Web… I was asking if I could give the company he works for money.

I explained that none of this would have happened had the website been correct, to which he replied, "it’s the website… that’s not our problem… we’re the store."

He wasn’t being rude. He wasn’t treating me poorly. He simply said what we all know (but don’t want to admit): "the Website is not the same as the store, it’s always different from the store, and even I don’t know who to call when something like this happens."

No, he didn’t say that line exactly, but I’m paraphrasing the overall sentiment of the dialogue.

Just recently, I had a similar experience with a telecommunications company. After a clerical error and a hour of frustration, the retail associate said, "this store and the corporate website are two separate companies."

Here’s the point: even if they are separate companies. Even if there’s always problems with pricing or mis-information. It is your brand. It is your company. And, it is your problem. It is all connected and one brand/company as far as the general public is concerned.

I don’t have to list the ways these retail associates could have fixed the problem. What’s of a more dire need is for them (and all of your employees) to realize that the website isn’t even like another store… it’s more important. It’s bigger. It’s the first place of contact and, more often than not, the source and driver that gets me to either buy or into your store. We all know the  "it’s not my problem" type of employees, but the bigger issue is that all Websites are intrinsic to the brand. It has to live and be consistent – from online to offline.

Maybe it doesn’t flow quite like that, but it’s the perfect moment for your employees to make it live. To humanize it. Because – at this point – most of us are getting more love out of the Websites than we are from your human capital.


  1. Good article. But if the employee admitted there was a problem with communication between store and site, would that have made you feel better?

  2. This wasn’t a customer service rant (see above).
    This isn’t about what the employee did.
    This Blog posting is about how companies need to think (and train) differently about what their website is and how it operates in relation to the brand (from top to bottom).

  3. I think it’s amazing that you actually had a reason to write this post. I’ve never understood as to why there’s so often such a disconnect between an organization and it’s website. You are so correct.
    Websites are now on the forefront of a company’s brand and by far too many of them see then as detached properties that have little to do with anything.
    It ain’t 1995 anymore.

  4. As a government employee involved in eCommunications, I see this all the time. Although politicians are now starting to realize the power of the web, it is slow to trickle down the ranks. The web is still often an afterthought in the lines of “oh, and we’ll have to put something up on the web…” This attitude will become unacceptable as survey after survey demonstrate that canadians are turning to the web as their first line of contact with the government.
    Bottom line, for private or public sector, your website is your main communications vehicle, neglect it at your own risk and peril.

  5. Right on Mitch – It’s a really important point that all the touch points representing a company’s brand be consistent and informational. What’s the point of an online ordering system if it’s inaccurate and what’s more, why are the employees not empowered to make the in-person experience as helpful and fruitful as possible. The impact of one bad experience can really hurt a company. Thanks for this important reminder that every company can benefit from.

  6. It’s like the big beast in the room that everyone is ignoring… even the brands that have great online channels (like this one).
    If the employees see it as a disruption and something that causes way too much confusion at the retail level, they are sorely missing the point.

  7. I find it utterly annoying sometimes the way you say the things that I am thinking (j/k).
    In my experience behind the scenes, I have found it seems to be more of an overwhelming accounting problem that sales and marketing is forced to reckon with. It’s a business decision to keep the retail revs (and thereby operations) either somewhat or very separate from the on-line revs (it varies by retailer). I think it has a lot to do financial reporting to shareholders but I’m also sure its more complicated than that.
    The bigger problem, again in my opinion, likely reveals itself in shipping and receiving (which seems to be at the core of what you ultimately experienced…out of stock).
    At ground level (retail customers) the fix revolves around communication but underpaid store managers do not have at the top of their corporately identified mandatory to-do’s to take hours a week to effectively communicate with more drastically underpaid and disengaged retail service employees.
    When analyzing the retail and on-line interaction within a retail organization, in some cases (but not all) it’s almost like an octopus that’s had a really bad stroke.
    Best always,
    – Peter

  8. Mitch:
    Great as always.
    One thing you said really got me thinking.
    “Just recently, I had a similar experience with a telecommunications company. After a clerical error and a hour of frustration, the retail associate said, “this store and the corporate website are two separate companies.”
    Here’s the point: even if they are separate companies. Even if there’s always problems with pricing or mis-information. It is your brand. It is your company. And, it is your problem. It is all connected and one brand/company as far as the general public is concerned.”
    My first thought to this was, how would the “store” company feel if I started a website using their logo, colors, everything and started selling different electronics…or even groceries? I mean, that’s a different company, so they should really have no concern or connection to my company.
    I think if you are using the same logo/brand you ARE the same company. Regardless of who actually manages that portion of your business, using that brand makes you the same company as far as the consumer is concerned.
    While I know you say this isn’t a customer service rant, it’s hard to pass up those elements. Creating a disconnect between the face your company presents online and in the store automatically creates a customer service issue.
    I know it wasn’t the salesperson’s fault…he was just doing what the company allows.
    But why don’t they allow the other store to hold one…for just a little longer than it should take you to drive there?
    Why don’t they make it a business practice to SUGGEST getting online to purchase so you can pick up…or if they don’t want you online, let the employee do it for you?
    I feel that anything that is using your company’s brand should present the same front and the words, “We’re the store…that’s the website, they’re different,” should never be allowed.

  9. It’s not only in the retail industry, but across the board in all industries. The internet division of a company or corporation is seen as a separate entity from the parties within. I had a recent experience with a very popular shipping company…you know the one…what brown can do for you, they don’t do for the local franchises. The owner told me that I can do everything at home from the computer online, enter the shipping info, print the labela, etc and if I bring it by the store to have him package it, the internet division/website gets the bulk of the revenue while the franchise only gets a buck, eventhough all the work/customer service was done inside the store. He even went so far as to encourage me not to use the website because he doesn’t make enough from the transaction to warrant the work. I would argue he’s building relationships that normally would not be available and the online contact is more of a marketing tool to help him sell more of his services in the store. However, I do understand his financial reasons, and given the economy and the tough times startups and franchises are experiencing, I believe many have this on-going battle from within with their websites/internet divisions. Unless the game changes, I’m not sure there is a band-aid big enough to fix the financial wounds being created by the online divisions with franchises in different markets. Nice topic and would love to hear how others are trying to change the status quo.

  10. Great thoughts across the board here.
    @Kevin – what I meant by this not being a customer service rant is that I didn’t want to be “that Blogger guy” bitching about a bad retail experience… because it was, as you said, a holistic brand experience.
    All the moving parts have to work together or nothing works at all. And yes, that’s everything from how your website fulfills a request to how the sales rep does it at the retail level.

  11. I think few people outside those of us who blog daily and engage in other forms of social media realize the human capital involved in making things work in the digital world. Do companies, both large and small, have someone with a title like “Digital Integration Manager” whose job it is to make sure things like your experience don’t happen?
    Creating a website or blog is less than half the battle. Joel you are spot on in saying that brands need to put more focus on how their online presence, in all forms, is integrated into the overall brand experience.

  12. I remember the same discussions at the peak of the dot com era when retailers started to open their online stores. Did they miss or forget the 360 degrees/CRM enterprise business model?
    Tons of business conferences, books and articles explain the best practices for an integrated online and offline user experience. Therefore, brands with multiples stores and a Web site have no excuses to not be educated on that topic. Reading your story, I feel that many are still at square 1.
    It is really sad that in 2008, many brands do not grasp the trivial concept of integrated point of sales.

  13. A few weeks ago I was in the new apple store, trying to choose a cover for my third iphone, yes third, because the first two I selected had been purchased on a whim based on the advice of the sales associate who had never tried any of the covers/skins out, so they were guessing which one to get. Stupid me, from the get-go, I should have done like I usually do, which is check online first and read the fantastic array of comments posted on the apple store site.
    So facing my third purchase I asked the sales associate for help, and gotta love her, she looked at the two and basically evaluated each cover- stating what was already obvious to my own eyes. But she did make the effort. So when I let her move on to another customer, i gave into temptation and jumped onto the shiny new imac and checked out their online store for comments and ratings. The lovely sales associate soon returned to use the computer and rather than chiding me for using it said she needed to use it and offered me the chance to use on of the terminals designated for customers.
    Why am I rambling? Well Apple got it partially right, they let me use there in store terminal to go onto their site, they openly encourage it. While that wasn’t really your issue with your experience, the experience I had made me wish for even more than companies realizing that their website is their company. It made me wish that companies would embrace their sites to the extent of getting their employees and managers to read the product comments, ratings and feedbacks so they are actually aware of how customers are really feeling.

  14. Just found the blog, and really liked it! You are doing great job here, and keep it up like that!

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