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This is the Modem World: Four ways to fix e-commerce and shipping companies


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Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

I'm going out of my head right now. I came home hoping to find my cool new Santa Cruz mountain biking jersey all wrapped in plastic thanks to UPS via, my crazy-discounted gear site of choice. We're not talking anything expensive -- I think the thing cost me $20, but I was psyched to have a team jersey from my favorite bike company. I'm a bike dork, what can I say?

I should have been skeptical when I tracked my package from the office to learn that it had been left at my "front door" at exactly 2:00 PM. While it's possible the driver hit the 2 PM mark on the head, it's unlikely that he or she left anything at my "front door" given that it's three stories or 76 stairs -- my mom counts and complains every time she visits -- above the street. In fact, every single delivery I've ever received here was tossed over my little wooden fence. But in my head, everything was fine. The jersey was waiting for me, my future as a Santa Cruz team member assured. Victory was mine.

But there was no package, downstairs or way up at the "front door" of my house. There was no Santa Cruz jersey. There was no fanfare. No finish line. Nothing.

Deflated, I knew what was coming next: a pointless call to UPS.

And so it was. I talked to "Mitch" -- a woman -- who informed me that there was nothing she could do and that I'd have to call I asked if she could contact the driver to find out if the package was actually left at the "front door" or if it had been simply tossed over the fence at street level as usual. She told me she had no contact with the drivers.

Yes, UPS customer support apparently now has no way to contact the drivers. I've been down this path before, and there are ways to wrestle yourself to the driver via the local dispatch, but I found it amusing to hear that UPS tells its customers that it has no way to contact its own employees. I gave up, as I knew what was coming next: a whole lot of nothing.

So there we have it. I'm told I need to contact to ask them to contact UPS because they have information that they need. I'm essentially out of the loop and hoping that the two companies resolve my -- albeit small, in the scheme of things -- issue.

But here's the thing: This isn't the first time this has happened to me, or -- I can assume -- you. How many times has a shipping company messed up your e-commerce delivery? I'm going to guess it's happened more than once. And here's the more important thing: How many times has that damaged your perception of said e-commerce company?

Every. Single. Time. Right?

Let me make something clear: I love They throw out some great deals for addicted gearheads like myself. But now that I'm stuck proving that I did not, in fact, receive my stupid biking jersey, I'm feeling a bit bitter. E-commerce, as great as it is, is inexorably attached to shipping companies who -- every single one of them -- are not so great at customer service, and it hurts the technology.

I've gone to local stores just to avoid the inevitable pain that shipping so often causes me. I've paid more for the simple security that I, and only I, am responsible for getting the product home from the store and into good use.

Rather than continue to complain -- I've done enough of that already -- I present some simple ways that shipping companies can fix all of this via technology that already exists.

  1. Give us visual proof of delivery. Give your drivers smartphones, which they probably already have, and have them take a quick picture of the package at the "front door" or wherever else you say it is. That way, we know where it is, as soon as we open the tracking information, if the thing is indeed where you say it is. This simple act can happen at the same time as the delivery scan, adding little to no time to the delivery process. In fact, couple it with a barcode reader and two birds have been struck with one stone.
  2. Give us geolocation information. You and I both know that you know where the package is. Expose that information to the consumer. Be transparent. Let us watch it move across the country and into a local delivery truck. It will be both fun to see and recuses all parties from misconduct. Everyone wins. Pizza companies do it. Taxi services do it. You can do it. And when you do, you'll be our heroes.
  3. Enable your customer service reps. When I am told that the representative I am talking to has no way of contacting the delivery person, I am filled with a mix of doubt and helplessness, and no one wants to feel that. Surely you have the ability to bridge the gap between dispatch and customer service, and, if not, I can introduce you to a few companies who have conjured ways to share networks and phone systems. This is the 21st century, after all.
  4. Enable your drivers and put us in touch with them. I'm willing to bet that most delivery drivers just want to do their job, get paid and go home like the rest of us. If you gave them the tools to communicate with customers -- and vice versa -- things would probably go a lot smoother. Sure, some customers would annoy the heck out of the drivers, and you'd have to deal with that. And, sure, some drivers would be total customer service nightmares, but you'd deal with that too. In the end, though, you'll have better drivers and customers who are less frustrated.

Perhaps I'm too idealistic. Clearly, shipping companies are out to spend as little as possible and make as much at the same time, and e-commerce companies are out to spend as little as possible on shipping, so they're really in on it together.

But the cold, dark truth is that the shipment portion of an online order is the final touch point that a consumer has with a brand, and if that part goes awry, so does the whole relationship. Maybe with a little pressure from the e-commerce firms and some enlightened leaders at the shipping companies we'll -- one day -- enter a new age of trust and transparency. Until then, I'll be talking to "Mitch," the girl.

We can fix this with technology. Years ago, you told us that GPS technology wasn't ready. Years ago, you told us that mobile bandwidth wasn't there. So what's your excuse now?

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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