Customer Service: A lesson from Foyles

Telling companies they’re doin’ it wrong often feels like a pointless exercise. How many times have you seen something in a shop or on a company’s website that makes you seethe with rage? These days it’s easier than ever to point out the error of their ways, but that doesn’t always mean that you’ll get a speedy and satisfactory response. On 29th December 2012, I saw a tweet from Simone Webb about the terrible choice of categories used in the Gender Studies section of the Foyles bookshop website. I didn’t take a screen grab at the time, but the three sub categories were: Women, Men and… Transsexual & Hermaphrodite. Simone had already emailed Foyles and had received no response, so she used Twitter to send them a link explaining why the use of the word “hermaphrodite” is inaccurate and offensive. At 12.29pm that day, I tweeted about it myself.

Amazingly, by 12.40pm the same day, we’d had a response from Miriam Robinson who is Head of Marketing at Foyles. She apologised for the lack of response to the email Simone had sent, and said that she was very interested in the points we were making regarding their Gender Studies page. Miriam then gave us her personal email address so that we could send our complaints directly to her for discussion with the Foyles web team, as soon as they were back from their holidays. Not only did I receive an extremely understanding reply from Miriam on the day but, on 4th January 2013, the three of us who emailed received the following feedback:

Now that everyone is back in the office I’ve had a chance to confer with the web team. We’ve made some changes and, where we haven’t been able to make changes ourselves, I have contact details for you should you like to take this directly to the (other) source.

To begin, we have changed the category previously labelled Gender Studies: Transsexual and Hermaphrodite. Based on your suggestions and research it is now called Gender Studies: Transgender, Genderqueer and Intersex. Thank you very much for highlighting this issue – it was clear to all that an immediate change was necessary.

A bit of a note regarding why it was there and where we go from here – websites like ours take their feed from a larger database of books in print. When you have almost 20 million titles for sale online, as we do, you can imagine that we don’t actually upload all of those individually – they come through a feed based on the book information that publishers send to this database, who aggregate it and feed it to commerce sites. The database names literally thousands of categories, and publishers when uploading new titles choose which categories to match them against. They then come to us accordingly.

We of course like for our site to be as bespoke to Foyles as possible and as such have the ability to prioritise that feed and to change or move individual titles (thus how certain titles end up on the home page, or in favourites or staff pick sections etc) but not 20 million of them! Many of our online sales come from a hugely diverse range of individual titles that wouldn’t be possible without that feed, and can’t be maintained by in-house buyers. As a comparison, our stock-holding at Foyles on Charing Cross Road is just over 200,000 titles – the largest range of any bookshop in the UK – and we employ over 30 department buyers instore to look after just that.

Interestingly, Gender Studies is not a headline category in this larger database (thus most likely why you don’t see it on other websites’ category listings) – we chose a while back to bring it to the forefront as we consider it a highly important category. So it does already enjoy greater prominence on the Foyles site than it would had we not adjusted the feed early on.  Not clocking that the database was still using the term hermaphrodite, however, was an oversight. To remedy this we have essentially overwritten their coding specifically for our site. So it is solved for Foyles but won’t be solved for other sites using their feed, clearly. It does make the Gender Studies: Women and Gender Studies: Men issue a bit more difficult to solve – these again are categories that, even if we renamed, would still hold the same books in them. And we can’t simply collapse them because we would then also lose the Transgender category. So for the time being we’ve opted to leave that as is.

In short this all means we can override the category names but to get to the root of the issue (if you so desire) we suggest going straight to the company who manages the database to ask them to alter the way they categorise their books. […] I do hope this has addressed your concerns – it’s not a perfect solution but categorisation on a large site like ours is a particular challenge and one we keep trying to make better as we go – not always easy for an independent bookseller! As always we’d welcome any more thoughts or feedback that you have on the subject.

So, hats off to Foyles for responding so quickly, for actually listening to their customers and for taking the time to address the issue in so much detail. If you’d like to contact their web editor about category changes (within reason!) or would like further details about the larger database, let me know and I can send you the contact information. Also, if you have any books that you were thinking of buying, I’d highly recommend shopping with them. If you live in London, make a point of visiting their wonderful bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Good customer service should always be rewarded, I think.

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