Why B&N Can’t Ever Catch Up to Amazon: Customer Service

Ask any retailer and they will tell you that a happy customer is a repeat customer. Good service is Amazon’s first goal, but as some reports show the same cannot be said for B&N.

It’s been some time since Rich Adin wrote about his poor experiences with Barnes & Noble’s customer service, and if recent reports are to be believed not much has improved.

Steve Gosset posted last week about B&N’s seeming inability to process a refund. On his blog Reality Bites, he writes:

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to go shopping from the comfort of my bedroom in search of a new read. After subjecting my wife to some harrumphing over the price of new e-books, I came upon a $2.99 deal for “Love Me, Hate Me,” a book by Jeff Pearlman about Barry Bonds. I confirmed the download with the press of a button and when I went to check my bookshelf, there it was, as usual. Except, it had been joined by another book I had never heard of, had never seen and never ordered called “Dancers Among Us: A Celebration of Every Day.”

And, as it turns out, a book for which I was charged $10.19.

Steve goes on to write about the steps he took in getting a refund. First he checks the website (which for the record would be the last step for getting a refund for a Kindle ebook), and rather than provide useful info, it says this:

Is there a refund for books, periodicals or apps? If I accidentally purchased the wrong book, can I return it?

Please contact customer service at 1-800-THE-BOOK (1-800-843-2665).

Note that it does not say refunds are impossible, which might have been helpful and not a completely unreasonable policy.

He calls the number, but that seemed to be pass-the-buck day at Barnes & Noble. No one could figure out how to do the refund, nor could they explain why they couldn’t do it or why he didn’t deserve it. Steve then tried to get the attention of the Nook folks on Twitter, but they were equally unhelpful. The only info he got out of the Twitter folks was a broken link to an FAQ page which didn’t exist, followed by this brush off:

We have answered your email regarding your individual account and as previously stated we are unable to issue a refund. We will pass along your feedback to the proper department regarding.

Now, Steve’s issue was resolved after he had posted his complaint to his blog, and similarly Rich only got a positive outcome after he posted his complaint back in May. Sadly, that tells me that not much has changed in the past 7 months.

In both these situations, B&N’s customer service reps were either inept or incapable of taking care of a reasonable request from a customer. Both situations were only resolved after B&N was publicly criticized and an upper-level manager intervened.

So one must first publicly shame B&N in order to get B&N to match the quality of service which Amazon will offer automatically by email.

Perhaps that would explain the low rating which B&N has on ConsumerAffairs.com. There are 147 complaints against B&N on that site, with the vast majority giving the company a single star. And since reviewers cannot give a no-star rating, the average of 1.3 stars is actually the next best thing to zero.

Why is the online and phone service so bad? I happen to know a number of B&N store-level people, and they seem to be uniformly competent. It’s just the online service which is bad, and that’s a serious issue for those of us who do not live near a store.

And as B&N expands beyond the US, the issue is only going to get more serious. If I cannot spare the time to drive to a B&N store, what chance would someone in the UK have of getting face-to-face help, or in Germany, or in Russia?

If B&N can’t fix this then they won’t ever be able to catch up to Amazon. And that would be a shame, because if Google Trends are any indication, B&N has the best shot:

The above chart shows product searches on Google, worldwide, with the red line representing Kindle searches. The blue line is Nook searches, and as you can see far more people are searching for the word Nook than for Kobo (yellow line, and close to zero).

Kobo already has a solid presence in a lot of markets, but B&N is still getting more attention from people who want to become customers. Right now all that is stopping them, besides B&N not selling in their market, is B&N’s crappy  customer service.

Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. BooksellerDoinHoldinOn10 December, 2012

    I understand the legitimate complaints customers have about dot-com returns or refunds. It’s especially maddening to those of us in B&N stores who have to explain to a customer why s/he can’t return an item to the store because ‘the person on the phone said so’.

    Most of the time it’s for something paid with Paypal. We have no way of refunding a customer’s Paypal account from a B&N store. Should we? Yeah. But we just can’t. So, imagine the look on that customer’s face when they’re told “no” by me, after having been told “yes” by a service rep. Fun.

  2. Richard Adin10 December, 2012

    Sadly, B&N, as you point out, has not improved its customer service one bit. It really is a shame that B&N still lives in the age of the robber barons. Personally, I much prefer its website for finding books than Amazon’s and because I do not want to help feed Amazon’s dominance of the book marketplace, I prefer to shop at B&N. But even I admit that it is increasingly difficult to shop at B&N because of its poor customer service and poor policies. Yet, I am unwilling to move from ePub to Amazon’s ecosystem, so I continue to primarily use B&N while occasionally trying other ebookstores.

  3. Joe Luke10 December, 2012

    I have owned a Kindle starting with the first-generation back in 2008. Whenever I dispute the price of an e-book (which is rare) Amazon gives me the book for free. Period. Oh and it is done 100% online. Why in the world would one go to B&N, buy a e-book online and then have to call some antiquated 1-800 number to get help? It sounds like B&N just doesn’t get it, which is what I always thought when going into their stores (where I haven’t been in 3 years).

  4. fjtorres10 December, 2012

    The chart also shows the (by now) expected seasonality of the ebook business so it does seem as if online query rate is a valid proxy for consumer interest. Of course, if the queries involve customer service reputation that interest is only going to feed Amazon’s bottom line.

    I’m left to wonder…
    It is a matter of record that Nook launched with strong momentum and in its first year or so it quickly grabbed about 25% market share…and then stalled.
    For the past three years Nook’s US share has been flat and they haven’t made up any ground on Amazon despite aggressive pricing and pushing the technology envelope.
    I’m not ready to say it is due to their customer service reputation but it does seem reasonable; all else being comparable, educated consumers do care about refund policies and processes.

    1. flyingtoastr10 December, 2012

      To be fair, Amazon’s hasn’t budged either in the last two years.

      Come to think of it, no one’s market share has really changed, outside of Apple supposedly gaining a few percentage points.

      1. fjtorres10 December, 2012

        But Amazon has the Lion’s share to start with and *their* growth strategy for the past two years has been international.
        B&N’s strategy until this year has been focused on taking share from Amazon.
        A lot of effort and investment to no great result. In fact, if one were to take a skeptical look at B&N’s Nook verbiage in their quarterly financial reports one could read in them a very slight *drop* in their market share.
        The hardware isn’t *that* different, the software is comparable, and the ebookstore prices weren’t terribly different under Agency…
        What remains is the services portion of the business, no?

    2. Nate Hoffelder10 December, 2012

      What’s even more interesting about this chart is that it shows the Nook has a higher recognition quotient than Kobo – pretty much everywhere. Doesn’t that make you wonder if perhaps Rakuten bought the wrong company?

      1. Mike Cane10 December, 2012

        And where is Sony Reader?

        1. Nate Hoffelder10 December, 2012

          Why would anyone want to buy the Sony Reader? Rakuten was looking for a usable platform, and the Sony Reader isn’t.

          Also, I really don’t think Sony is capable anymore of making a decision like selling off a component. That would get mired in a committee and die.

  5. Geert10 December, 2012

    I think it has all to do with saving money. B&N’s digital business is still losing a lot of money, so they have chosen not to spend too much money on customer support other than their stores.
    E-mail support just sends automated replies.
    The outsourced telephone support seems to have no training and no authorization to do anything.

    1. fjtorres10 December, 2012

      It’s probably a bit deeper than just cash.
      Amazon is an online retailer and online sales means a higher rate of returns that B&M retail so Amazon has long had to field a large and well-trained customer service operation with well-debugged scripts and processes. For Amazon keeping customers happy is a matter of customer retention and second in importance only to keeping overhead low. Which explains why some things, like returns, are automatically approved and audited after the fact (cheaper to take a few loses to improper returns) than to incur the extra staff time and effort of vetting each interaction.

      B&N, by contrast, is rooted in B&M retail and bookstores. Not much customer service needed beyond special orders. Their basic mindset is from the heydey of the warehouse bookstores: “stock it and they will come” with no great experience at wooing or retaining customers. And to top it off their online operation before Nook was a corporate step-child.
      Good customer service comes from treating it as a core competency, not a cost center or an afterthought.

  6. Don Smith10 December, 2012

    I’ve had a number of experiences dealing with customer service at B&N and every one needed a higher level management decision in order to fulfill my requests. A non-working usb recharging cable, a nook that had a bad display upon purchase, a number of ebooks that had total terrible formatting and recently a transfer of ebooks from the eReader and Fictionwise sites that they still haven’t been able to complete correctly. However, maybe these issues extend from a request I made jokingly when the first nook came around if they would accept a trade in of their Rocket eBook I purchased in 2000. However, since I don’t like the Amazon ecosystem, I’ve decided to put up with the incompetence involved in purchasing from them. I just figure from time to time I have to apply some of my skills that I’ve acquired over the last 32 years in dealing with computer companies since I bought my first personal computer.

  7. Connie10 December, 2012

    I used to buy my books exclusively at BN. I’ve been a customer of theirs since they mailed out their 40-60 page lists of remainders on newsprint paper and they had only the one brick-and-mortar store out East.

    Last year, I placed another order – instead of sending it to my current address, they mailed it to an address that was two years old. It finally did arrive about two months later with $6.20 postage due (thanks for the free shipping!). The other item on the order was through a third party – never did get that. Took more than half a year to get a refund, and they put that refund on an old gift card – I think I’ve found it, but if I hadn’t, it would have just bee lost to the ether (over $160).

    Then about six months ago, I downloaded their Nook app for the PC. When I went to register it, they wanted my credit card info – before I tried to order a book. Needless to say, I uninstalled it and haven’t been back since.

    It’s a shame.

    I think they need to bring someone in who could do a whole corporate ‘attitude-adjustment’ session. Getting the right person or team to do that could improve things a lot for them. I know that when I was a kid, my Dad had to do only one of those session for me to ‘straighten up and act right’ for a very long time!

  8. ElizabethN10 December, 2012

    “First he checks the website (which for the record would be the last step for getting a refund for a Kindle ebook)”

    This is what you want to do first if you’ve accidentally purchased a kindle ebook. Go to manage my kindle and if the book was purchased recently then there will a link “return for refund.” Link is not present on books purchased for free. If you’re on a kindle and purchasing from the store, a page will briefly come up telling you that your purchase is being downloaded and also giving you a button if you’ve accidentally purchased. (sometimes touch screens and clumsy fingers don’t work well together). If too much time has passed before realizing that you accidentally purchased something, then go through customer service.

    It really is a pity that B&N can’t get the basics of customer service right. That’s been one of the reasons why my interactions with them have dwindled to almost nothing. When we go the 3 hours to a town that has a B&N store, the store used to be the first stop on our list and now we usually don’t even stop.

  9. Christopher10 December, 2012

    I used to go into B&N bookstores frequently about three years ago; however now I rarely set foot in one due to the fact that their bookstores are very depressing to be in and because the customer service is pathetic. I am very satisfied with Amazon and their customer service which I have always found to be professional and extremely helpful. Amazon has a great ecosystem and their Kindle Store is by far superb compared to B&N. I really see no hope at all for B&N. Perhaps William Lynch needs to see the writing on the wall instead of looking through rose-colored glasses and pretending that everything is alright. The first step would be to start closing many of their stores which would save on rent and salaries as the retail brick and mortars are dying and nothing more than a huge financial drain on the company. Focus on the Nook and move towards a business model such as Amazon. If they do not change their path they will be the next Borders very soon especially in this economy.

  10. Jess9 February, 2013

    I have a nook. Don’t even know how it happened but 190.00 book was purchased. It was a textbook. This is robbery. It is that easy to purchase a book without even realizing it. They refused to refund me. I am going to sue barnes and nobles And take this public. I am not going to give up. Furious!


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