Latest Business Tactic to Improve Service

Last Updated Jul 7, 2011 3:58 PM EDT

I ordered two short-sleeve polo shirts from online retailer L.L. Bean last weekend. But that's not why I'm writing this.

L.L. Bean, it turns out, is adding a mobile commerce page to its website today. But that's not why I'm writing this, either.

Here's why: Buried a few paragraphs in the story, L.L. Bean spokeswoman Laurie Brooks not only says it makes "sense" for her company to be engaged in the mobile channel â€" something that holds true for many businesses today â€" but that it will be an "extension of our customer service options."

Translation: A mobile site helps L.L. Bean serve its customers better.

And L.L. Bean is a company to watch, when it comes to service. Just last year, it claimed the number-one spot in Bloomberg BusinessWeek's "customer service champs" rankings, beating out perennial favorites such as Apple, Amazon and Starbucks.

But I'm skeptical of its latest claim.

Even though I think a mobile site works for L.L. Bean and other many other e-commerce businesses, I'm not sure if every company should rush to create a second website any more than every business needs to be on Twitter.

Let's back up for a second and define a term or two. By "mobile" site, I mean a separate website that's optimized for iPhone, Blackberry and Android devices. Consumers who access L.L. Bean's e-commerce site from a smartphone's Web browser will be automatically redirected to the mobile website.

An optimized site displays fonts that are easier to read and graphics that are shrunk for a smartphone's smaller screen. L.L. Bean is using a platform called Usablenet, which works with several big-name companies like Walgreens and FedEx, to make their sites go mobile.

Here's where I have a little problem: While I think a mobile site can better serve customers accessing L.L. Bean through a mobile device, I'm not sure if that necessarily means the users are getting better service.

That's a small but important distinction.

L.L. Bean's online user experience is good, but it's far from perfect. When I tried to order my shirts, I got lost a few times and then tried to order items that weren't available in my size. The user-generated product reviews below the merchandise were generic, and not specific to the shirt I was looking at. If L.L. Bean is just making a tricky product mobile-optimized, is it really improving anything?

To be fair to the company, I found the overall experience pretty decent â€" far better than trying to use the FedEx site the previous week to print a draft of my book and send it to an editor. I gave up after an hour, including a frustrating phone call to its 800-number.

To truly improve customer service, L.L. Bean would have to expand its call centers and begin training its customer service agents in the use of various forms of social media, such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, in order to support customer inquiries made via smarphone or mobile device.

Given the company's reputation for service, I'm sure it's already well on its way. I'll bet my shirts arrive before that happens, though.

But a single mobile site can not â€" and does not -- improve customer service.

Related:

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He's the author of the upcoming book Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, which critics have called it "eye-opening" and "inspiring." You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
Photo: Cristian Ghe./HowardLake
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.