When 2 Weeks Are Faster Than 2 Hours

Few weeks ago I bought my wife a set of lenses for her iPhone. Usually I buy everything on amazon, but this time I ordered from B&H, a brick and mortar retailer with an online store, because it sold what I wanted for 25% less.

When I received the item I found that I ordered the wrong model – one for the iPhone 4s instead of the 5s. I submitted a request for an exchange, which was approved. I wasn’t clear on how B&H’s exchange process works, so I called their customer care. The guy I spoke with, who was super nice, explained the process and said that it might take about two weeks to get a replacement. To avoid the long wait, he suggested I’ll swing by the store and make the exchange there. It will be faster, he said, and I agreed.

Today I went to the store. But when I got there I found that I’m not the only one thinking they can “game” the system. About 20 other customers had the same idea, creating an expected waiting time of about 2 hours. I loathe lines. Just the idea of waiting for an hour at the DMV gives me more agitations than that of going through a root canal procedure. So no way I’m going to wait 2 hours to replace merchandise.

And so I went back home with the wrong model. I plan to ship it back to B&H, and buy the correct one on Amazon. It will cost more, but at least I know I can’t go wrong.

This experience made me think about the concept of “speed” and about trust.

Is faster really faster?

The guy from B&H assumed I would prefer waiting 2 hours in store than couple of weeks for a delivery. He was thinking about speed in absolute terms – 2 hours vs. 2 weeks. I, on the other hand, think about speed differently. I take into account other variables, such as the actual – physical and mental – waiting time, and the total of the transaction.

Let’s think about actual waiting time first. At almost any given moment, I have Amazon packages en-route to me. I don’t really wait for or keep thinking about them. They create zero mental load on me. But when I’m standing in line, crammed between 20 other customers, lamenting the lose of a Friday, I feel the wait with every fiber in my body. For me, 2 hours of wait are like a pure torture. They feel worst, and hence longer, than a shipment that will land on my door eventually.

But even if you think about speed in absolute terms, in-store exchange isn’t much faster. I talked with the B&H representative more than a week ago. Since then I’ve tried to find time to visit the store (more mental effort). Turned out the only day I could made it was today, a vacation day. Overall then, I waited almost the same amount of time I would have, if I shipped the item.

And here’s where the second and more important insight. You might ask why did I go to the store and didn’t send the item back?

Trust is in the details

B&H has an amazing store. If you haven’t been there and you’re in NYC, you must pay it a visit. And if you have kids, take them with you. It’s like an amusement park for electronic devices, where gadgets take rides from the automated warehouse to the checkout. They’re doing it in electric plastic carts that run on rails across the entire ceiling of the store. The constant bustling and rattling sounds of the moving carts feels like there’s a roller coaster running over your head.

This design instills confidence. When I’m in this store, all I can think of is “boy, those guys know their craft and understand technology.” But then, when I tried to return an item online, this confidence vanished. I didn’t feel that I can send the item and forget about it, as is the case with Amazon.

Let me explain. When you decide to return an item to B&H, you have to fill-up a form online. You then submit it, and wait for a representative to reply. This simple flow creates immediate concerns. Waiting for a reply means that someone has to process my request. But will anyone pick it up? will they approve it? how long should I wait for a response?

Fortunately, my exchange was approved. I got an RMA form [1] the following day. It noted that I agreed to receive a replacement instead of a refund. This form, though, raised more concerns – how can I be sure someone will read this form, see that I asked for a replacement and ship back the correct item? I started to think about the workflow this form triggers, and became aware of all the possible points of failure in that process. In addition, the form indicates the address where the item should be returned to. That’s another point of failure, since I have to fill-out a return label, and hope the package will then ship to its destination.

Thinking about this process, I can see why the B&H representative suggested I will go to the store, and why I thought that’s the right thing to do. To make sure I return the product and get a replacement, I should go to the store in person.

Now, think about Amazon, where all of this complexity is hidden from the user. You want to return an item? no problem – here’s the label. Print and attach it to you’re item. Drop the item at the closest UPS store, and a refund will hit your account (minus delivery fee), or a replacement process will initiate as soon as you exist the door. The whole process is automated, done using printers, scanners and emails. No human intervention, hence no place for error. At least that’s how you feel. And just like a magic, few days later a new package delivery is waiting at your door.

And so, here are my take aways:

  1. As a customer – trust worth money.
  2. As someone who builds products – keep your users in Wonderland, and don’t ever let them see through your challenges, problems and complexities.

[1] They keep referring to this form as RMA, which I have no clue what it means. Using internal lingo with your customers is a horrible idea. Don’t ever do it!

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