This post is a bit off topic for me … but then, life tends to veer off topic at times. So here goes.
On October 16, 2014 I was perusing my bank statement, just a quick glance to make sure everything seemed kosher, when something caught my attention as being out of place. There was a $9.80 debit from my account labeled BarnesandNoble.com. Now any other month I may have browsed right past that entry with no alarm bells, but it just so happened that I knew I had not purchased anything on my Nook since September.I had injured my knee and gotten distracted with doctor’s appointments, work functions, trips out of town, school starting back, and a long list of other of life’s trials and tribulations, the result of which had been my Nook sitting on a shelf gathering dust over the last several weeks. Fearing I had been hacked, I logged into my BarnesandNoble.com account and checked my recent purchases. The last purchase had been John Green’s “Finding Alaska” on September 26th for exactly $9.80. Ah, I thought, that solves it then. They must have had a delayed billing. I gave myself a mental shrug. It’s been known to happen with them and I’ve never found it to be a big deal. Before moving on completely, I decided just to do a quick check to confirm that I was never charged for the purchase back in September. I pulled my bank statement back up and scrolled down to around the original date of purchase, and there on September 27th was a debit referencing BarnesandNoble.com for $9.80. So they had charged me at the time of purchase. I searched from September 27th to October 16th looking for a credit for the $9.80, anything to explain the duplicate charge as a reasonable occurrence, but there was nothing. I logged back into my BarnesandNoble.com account and went back to my purchases. I pulled up the last six months and looked for any other purchases that totaled $9.80, but the September 26th purchase was the only one. In fact, when I went all the way back to the beginning of time (meaning when I first received my Nook three years ago), miraculously, there had never been another purchase for $9.80. There was only one conclusion to be drawn: I had been double charged.
I felt a flash of indignation. They had my debit card information and therefore had the ability to withdraw money at will. Why had it never occurred to me to be concerned about this before? Then I told myself that I was being silly, they are a reputable company and I had been a loyal customer for years. I have spent thousands of dollars with them and this will all be settled with a simple phone call. I had trouble finding the phone number to their customer service support line on their website and ended up having to Google it. I was put on a short hold and then Sonia came on the line, sounding very friendly and helpful. This was going to be tied up in neat little bow in no time. I explained the situation to Sonia, ending with a rather clever “I mean, I like John Green and all, but not enough to pay for his books twice!” I paused, waiting for Sonia’s chuckle of agreement, but apparently her sense of humor had taken a hiatus for the day. No worries, I still had confidence that she was good at her job and valued my loyalty as a customer. After that our exchange went something like this (I’ll refer to myself as Loyal Barnes & Noble Customer, or LB&NC. I’ll refer to Sonia as, well… Sonia.):
LB&NC: So as you can see Sonia, my account has been double charged for
my last order and I will need one of the charges refunded to me.
Sonia: I understand your confusion, but we had a problem with our
billing system which resulted in some delayed billings. Your
order was not charged twice, the charge was only delayed.
LB&NC: Actually, Sonia, I am looking at my bank statement right now and
there are two distinct charges for $9.80, one on September 27th
and then another one on October 14th. So I will need a refund.
Sonia: You were only charged once.
LB&NC: No, Sonia, I just told you, I am looking at my bank
statement and I was definitely charged twice.
Sonia: No, you weren’t.
LB&NC: Yes, I was.
Sonia: Ma’am, I know this may be hard for you to understand, but you
were not charged twice!
By this time I was reeling. Is this some sort of plot on behalf of Barnes & Noble? Do they go into customer’s bank accounts and take a small sum of money, hoping that the customer won’t notice? Oh my gosh, has this happened before and I haven’t noticed? And do they train the customer service representatives that if a customer does happen to notice and call in, to just deny, deny, deny in hopes that the customer will buy it and go away quietly? Well this customer is not going away quietly! The ticked off part of me wants to inform Sonia that I work in accounting and if I can’t decipher a simple bank statement, well, let’s just say that there is a university who owes me some money back. But the rational part of me just sighs and asks to speak to her supervisor.
Now Kate comes on the line, and she begins by apologizing profusely, which is a good start. I explain how I have been charged twice and she is both sympathetic and apologetic. She tells me that they are aware of a billing problem which caused a delayed billing, but that they also know it has caused some customers to be double charged. I was taken back. They knew they had double charged customers and did nothing about it? They could have at least alerted customers that they are aware this has happened and are working on it, but no, they just said nothing in the hopes of … what? The only conclusion I can come to is that they said nothing in the hopes that no one would notice. Kate asked me if I could fax over a copy of my bank statement showing the double charge, to which I agreed though it seemed like a hoop for me to jump through when they are the ones in the wrong here. I wrote a cover letter, detailing the story of what happened (again) and faxed it to the number Kate had provided me along with my bank statement and a printout of my BarnesandNoble.com purchase log, showing that the September purchase was the one and only purchase in the amount of $9.80.
And then I waited. I checked the email address associated with my BarnesandNoble.com account, in case they contacted me there to acknowledge receipt of the fax, confirm the refund had been issued, apologize for the error, something. But there was nothing. I checked my bank account everyday for signs of the refund, but there was nothing there either. Three days went by. Then five, seven, ten days. Still nothing. I decided to brave the customer service hotline again. This time I got Jody. I explained the situation to her (that’s four times now) again and asked when I can expect my refund. She asked for my account information and then put me on hold for what seemed like forever (but was actually only a few minutes, to be fair). She came back on the line and confirmed that they did receive my fax and they are still working on resolving the situation. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. Working to resolve the situation? It’s been ten days! These people managed to build and operate a multi-million dollar company, but can’t figure out a way to refund their customers in a timely manner? Especially for a double charge error that was wholly their fault? What happened to the customer being the most important factor in a business? What about the customer always being right? They should be falling all over themselves to rectify the situation and make amends. Instead, they act nonplussed about the whole thing.
It is at this point that I start to feel genuinely angry. Up until my chat with Jody, I was irritated with the whole situation, a little wary about the security of my bank information with Barnes & Noble going forward, but a quick righting of the situation, a little genuine remorse and effort at customer care would have smoothed things right over. Because the truth is, I have truly enjoyed my relationship with Barnes & Noble. I was thrilled when my husband gave me the Nook as a birthday gift and have spent many, many hours snuggled up with it, engrossed in the “pages” of a good book. I currently have about 500 books in my Nook library. That’s a lot of books. And a lot of money spent with Barnes & Noble.
Of course, I know there is a simple and quick solution to this. With one phone call to the Wells Fargo customer service hotline (which has never been anything other than superb, by the way), that duplicate charge will be reversed faster than I can say “Nook book”. But that would be too easy. That would be letting Barnes & Noble off the hook. You see, for me, it is no longer about $9.80. No, now it is about the principle of the matter. They should be the ones to rectify the situation. They should be the ones to apologize. It doesn’t matter how big a company is. Doesn’t matter how many stores they have or what their annual gross profit is. No one should treat a customer this way. No one should perform an unauthorized charge on a customer’s debit card, make them jump through hoops to get it corrected, and then tell them that they will have to wait a few weeks or so to be refunded. Would they consider it alright for me to go into a Barnes & Noble store and take a book without paying for it and tell them I am just borrowing it for an undisclosed amount of time, but don’t worry, I’ll bring it back eventually? Maybe I should. I should march into Barnes & Noble and pick out a book valued at approximately $9.80. I could tell the cashier that it’s OK because I have a credit on my account in that amount. She could call Sonia, Kate, or Jody to verify (well, maybe not Sonia).
Truth be told, the situation is sad because I know that this, this $9.80 conundrum, signifies the end of my long standing relationship with Barnes & Noble. I simply cannot do business with a company that I no longer trust, not only as far as the security of my bank information goes, but also in trusting that they have my best interest at heart. They don’t. I am a faceless customer, nothing more than a pocketbook, a debit card, a gift card holder. And this is why Barnes & Noble doesn’t care about me, or you. Sadly, for every me or you that walks away from them, there are a long line of replacements stepping up, pocketbooks open, debit cards in hand, gift cards waving in the air. Hopefully Barnes & Noble eventually takes a step back and evaluates their customer service. That stream of customers may seem endless, but they are not.
Now when I see my Nook gathering dust on that shelf, put away most likely forever, or when I happen to glance at the Barnes & Noble store when passing it on my way to work, I feel a pang of regret. It feels almost like when that friend you thought you were so close with turns out not to be who you thought they were. You feel disappointed, angry, sad. Mostly sad.
Something good has come from my break with Barnes & Noble, however. My thirst for literature has led me back to simpler times: the public library. It had been a long time since I had curled up with a real live paper book, and I had forgotten how comforting it can be. There is something soothing about the feel of holding something solid, actually turning pages as you work your way to the end of an adventure. Or a mystery. Or a romance.
Sam Walton once said:
“There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”
Smart man, that Sam Walton. In order to grow as large and successful as they have, Barnes & Noble must have believed in this philosophy once. I hope they somehow manage to find their way back to it. For their sake.
P.S. If anyone is pondering my Christmas gift … a Kindle is pretty high on my list. Just saying.