The Explosive Website

So I have this evolving theory – the Explosive Website – and it kind of runs like this. The web, when it’s good, is setting this amazing service experience which is becoming increasingly dominant.

Witness Amazon. I can find and order a book within a minute. It remembers who I am, it knows what I like, and (very occasionally suggests things I didn’t know I’d like). It’s always on and it does the same thing every time I go. I search for the author, mispelling it, and I get it within seconds. I look inside and reject it. Amazon recommends two others. I opt to buy one of them. So this service experience is smart, predictable and efficient.

Witness the DVLA tax disc service on Directgov. I can renew my road tax within a minute. Again, it’s predictable, it’s always on. Another straightforward service experience.

Now let’s compare the offline cousins of these services.

Witness a recent Borders experience. I go in, it’s busy and the foyer is cluttered with irrelevant things being pushed at me. The way finding makes me suspect I’m being forced past impulse purchases. The shelving system isn’t dewey decimal, so I have to guess the category. It’s two floors up. I get there, I browse. i can’t find. So I opt to drill down and search through an expert. i look for one and, a couple of minutes later, I find an arty looking student. He doesn’t recognise the book. We walk to the terminal and he searches & locates the book. We find the right shelf and he pulls it off. I read the back cover and decide I don’t want it after all. I spend the next ten minutes browsing the shelves, get a bit hot and jaded, and leave. This is not a great service experience.

I’m not going to dwell on the DVLA one, only to summarise as “what paperwork? where is it? how long is that post office queue? but I don’t have that with me! oh – my insurer has closed it’s helpline until 8am. etc etc etc. Awful. Abysmal.

But, but – before we start suggesting all shops should be closed and we should do it all online – I considered this – when the offline book buying service works, I love it more than I ever love the perfect Amazon service. I like to feel the books, to chat to the staff (all of whom are trying to write books). I like to support the business community. It’s three dimensional. Even at its very best Amazon lacks the emotional service experience. It’s two dimensional and, other than the financial saving, it’s unrewarding. I’m trying to pin down the third dimension… it’s something human and instinctive.

iTunes is an even more extreme example. My desire to own the CD (the tangible product I can love) is only slightly beaten by my desire to pay less (and end up with a two dimensional thing I have less love for).

Anyway – that’s why the theory is “the explosive website” – there’s a sense that the web is setting the benchmark for service – so it’s inherently expansive. Working in the digital realm, I hear more and more about how digital thought leadership is influencing offline business leaders. This is generally accepted as “a good thing”. But there’s also something of a threat in the explosivity – it’s charged, and potentially damaging. There’s a risk that the expansion is so fast that our desire for things fast and cheap means we lose that important third dimension of the service.

Witness Woolworths – the much loved UK chain – which yes was killed by the downturn, but that was the bolt gun to the head. Woolworths was lame because it couldn’t compete with the choice of eBay, because its staff were surly and gave piss poor service compared to an eBay jiffy bag. But what a price – we lost an institution that was a much loved part of the high street. It perversely had huge staff and customer loyalty. I think there was something of the third dimension in that.

Similarly but more tangentially, I had this same discussion about CAP policy reform with my dad. I was mourning the loss of small french farmers that bring such life to breton villages. My dad was saying good riddance to a heavily unionised, over subsidized and grumpy bunch of Frenchmen. But he loves those breton villages as much as I do. I was trying to articulate how technocratic decisions based on speed and efficiency are so often inhuman. So often in our race for what we’re told is better (books in seconds) we throw the baby out with the bathwater (the taciturn book seller with encyclopedic knowledge).

So – the explosive website – a service conundrum in draft.

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