Regular followers of diginomica’s retail sector coverage will be aware that one of the Holy Grails of companies in this market is click-and-collect. It’s the realisation that the offline real estate of stores can be used as pick-up points for orders placed online, via the corporate website or through a mobile app.
It’s cost-effective. It’s convenient. And if you’re O2, it’s complete and utter chaos and incompetence on a grand scale. The UK mobile provider, part of Telefonica, is a prime exemplar of how not to (a) manage an omni-channel strategy or (b) provide a good customer experience.
This is a sorry tale of transactional IT systems with a known defect that isn't disclosed, no plan or workaround in place to address that fault, inflexible in-store processes and customer-facing communication that varies from O2 staffer to O2 staffer.
Let’s start at the beginning. My iPhone contract is with O2. It has been for years. So long in fact that I am, apparently, a Platinum customer. I didn’t know that and I don’t really now know what that means in practice, other than to wonder how badly lower-tiered customers are treated if what’s happened to me over the past 48 hours is how O2 treats its Platinum users.
You’ll have noticed that Apple recently rolled out its new iPhones. I’d intended to sit out my contract until the iPhone X appeared, but as luck would have it, my existing iPhone 7 Plus began to pack up a week or so ago. (I have a recurring paranoid fantasy that as soon as any Apple keynote is finished, CEO Tim Cook scuttles back stage and issues the command, “Unleash the Obsolete-o-meter!!!”).
The long and the short of it was that after a week of trying to make do with a clearly dieing-on-its-ass handset, I decided the simplest solution was to make use of my Refresh option on my O2 contract and upgrade to the iPhone 8 Plus. With that intention I went onto the O2 website on Monday morning, ticked all the relevant boxes, jumped through the requisite hoops and completed the upgrade process.
For my delivery option, I select click-and-collect and am given an option of two stores in home town. They’re both literally on opposite sides of the street and within walking distance of home. Both have stock, according to the website, so I select one of the two outlets. A confirmation email comes through almost at once, confirming my order and telling me that I can pop into the store to collect my phone.
This is backed up by a text message that tells me the same.
Followed literally 2 seconds later by another text message telling me that actually, no I can’t come and get my phone as:
There’s been a problem with your order…We’re working hard to fix this and we’ll be in touch when it’s ready.
Confused now, I call up customer services and ask what’s going on - one confirmation email, one confirmation text, one ‘go away’ text within the space of a couple of minutes? The lady on the phone, who is at least very friendly and helpful, is utterly baffled and goes off to check what’s going on.
Back she comes and tells me that the problem is that the shop I selected for collection has given the wrong response and doesn’t have the stock in store. It vaguely crosses my mind that it’s been a very, very fast response from the shop if they’ve realised they’ve made a stock mistake, but at this point I just want to get a phone and don't think too much about it.
OK, I say, does the other store have the phone in stock? Yes, the good news is that it does it seems. Super, I say, can we just change the collection point on the order to the other store then please?
Er, no we can’t. The order is underway and the ‘computer’ has changed my click-and-collect status to a ‘delivery from warehouse to store’ status. That means I now have to wait until a phone is shipped to the shop from a distribution center. It should arrive within 48 hours apparently.
Meanwhile there is plenty of stock to complete the order as originally accepted by O2 in a branch of the same retail chain that’s only a few hundred yards away. Couldn’t someone just pop across and get a handset and bring it back to the other store, I ask. That would be simple and sensible and really good customer service, wouldn’t it?
It would indeed, agreed the customer service lady. So, can we do that? No, no we can't.
The only thing we can do, it appears, is to cancel the current order and place a new one for click-and-collect at the second store. Fine, I sigh, irritated by the need to replicate a transaction that I’ve already done correctly and with no fault or error at my end. But I need a new phone and ideally I need it today, so...
Through comes a cancellation confirmation via text. Fine. I go back on the website and prepare to re-order - only to be told that I can’t place another order as there is already an active upgrade underway. I call back to customer services and point out that O2 has already confirmed that the original order is cancelled. Don’t worry, I’m told, the website can take a while to catch up, but it’ll be cleared in about half an hour.
It takes until the next day for the O2 back end to catch up with the front end and permit me to place a new order.
Real time IT does not appear to be something that’s high on the tech agenda, something of a flaw you’d think from a would-be omni-channel retailer? But I’m free to proceed now so back through the hoops I jump. The order is accepted, the click-and-collect is for the other store and the confirmation ‘come and get it’ email arrives. Super. It’s 24 hours late, but I will have a new phone.
Then exactly the same thing happens as did the day before - a confirmation text, followed by a ‘there’s a problem’ text. It’s clear now that far from this being a stock error by the shop the day before, there’s actually a fundamental problem with O2’s tech here.
I call customer services and get another very helpful lady, who goes so far as to call the store where I want to pick up my phone, where it is confirmed that there are plenty of the models in stock. Go in, pick up your phone, it’ll be fine, I’m told.
I knew it wouldn’t be. Deep down I knew there was no way it would be. I just didn’t realise just how badly it wouldn’t be.
I go into the store. A gum chewing sales assistant sits down and looks up the order. It’s not on their system, he says. Of course it isn’t. Why would it be? So I show him the confirmation email, complete with order number and collection reference. I tell him customer services has contacted the store directly within the past hour and that I’ve been told to come in and collect my phone.
He looks a bit blank, then picks up his phone and calls customer services himself. This a very long process - 20 minutes at least made up of a lot of long silences and chewing of gum - with not a lot of action seemingly resulting.
Eventually I’m told that the only solution - and you can see this coming, can’t you? - would be to cancel the existing order and complete the upgrade process in-store. My click-and-collect order has once again been converted to a delivery from warehouse option, despite there being eight handsets available in-store for me to take home.
OK, I sigh, before it occurs to me - if they cancel the online order, how long will it take to do the upgrade in-store? Oh, about ten minutes, is the response…once the cancellation shows on our system. How long will that take? Oh, about 24 hours. So, what I’m being told is that the click-and-collect upgrade process I started on Monday might - if I’m lucky - be completed sometime on Wednesday?
I ask to speak to a manager. He comes and sits down and smilingly patronises me with platitudes about how there’s really nothing he can do to help, it's all about the computer, you see. I insist he calls customer services and sorts this mess out. I end up talking to a senior manager in customer services, a conversation from which a number of interesting revelations and conclusions emerge.
- This problem having occured to me twice in 48 hours and with different collection points selected suggests that I am not an isolated incident. No, in fact it turns out that O2 is aware that there is a problem with click-and-collect whereby the system is choosing to re-allocate some orders to warehouse delivery for reasons that no-one seems to understand.
- Despite it being an identified problem that has happened to enough customers for it to be a known issue, no workaround has been put in place to deal with the customer-facing ramifications. There’s also been no action taken to disable the click-and-collect option on the website, so customers are essentially unknowingly taking a gamble that the service on offer is what they'll actually get. All of which, I suggest, means I’ve been left to try to deal with O2 under false pretences, with the retailer aware that my order may well not complete as it should, but without providing any warning to that effect.
- Although there is stock in the store, it’s at the discretion of the store manager as to whether he fulfils that click-and-collect order, which everyone - store staff, customer services - agrees is valid. He chooses not to as it is clearly more than his job’s worth, computer says no etc etc.
- I suggest that he could give me one of the phones in stock and replace it with the one that’s now being delivered to the store. The reference codes won’t be the same, he objects. Well, note the code on my phone, then when the other one comes into the shop, take its code and go into the inventory system and edit the necessary data. This is just not possible, as it seems from this conversation that O2 has back end systems that can’t be updated or amended and which only refresh themselves once every 24 hours.
- Everyone concedes this a problem entirely of O2’s making, so customer services offers me £50 as ‘goodwill’. I might have been placated apart from the insistence that this isn’t to be seen as compensation. O2 wants to make that very clear. O2 does not offer compensation for inconvenience, loss of earnings etc even when the problem is one that O2 has caused and that their customers have had to deal with. NOT compensation, OK? Compensation implies blame, I assume.
- It's all the fault of IT. The one thing that every O2 person I spoke to during this hideous debacle agreed upon was that all of this is the fault of the techies. So that’s OK, isn’t it? My customer experience might be appalling, but it’s the IT bods that are to blame, so no reason for anyone in a customer-facing role to have to offer a solution.
- I still have no new phone.
A complete and utter omni-channel omni-shambles. Effortlessly the worst online retail experience I’ve encountered. While the customer service phone people appeared to be doing their best, the in-store staff were out of their depth or just unwilling to take any action outside of what are clearly utterly inflexible processes and procedures.
As for the underlying tech that caused the initial problem, maybe it is the fault of the IT people. But when there’s a known glitch, until that is addressed it’s also the responsibility of the business to ensure that there are contingency measures in place to support delivery of an acceptable customer experience - and that means doing more than offering a bung of £50 to shut up and go away filled with goodwill.