Barnes & Noble Doesn't Understand "Service"

Barnes & Noble has a history of not getting the point.

How To Completely Screw Up Coupon Code Promotions

A few months ago, I received a promotional coupon code via email, as a holder of a Barnes & Noble membership. It was a very specific coupon code, one of those things for which I usually have no use because it only grants discounts on half a dozen books or so, though they are usually pretty deep discounts. My reading habits do not tend to match up with the mainstream, so the books they offer are typically of little or no interest to me. This time, however, there was a discount for something like 40% or 50% off Neal Stephenson's new book. As it happens, my membership was on the verge of expiration, too, so I decided to get a new book and a renewed membership in one stop to the site.

That is when the trouble started. For some reason, would not accept my coupon code. I fought with it for a while, then used a contact form on the site to send a message to what one can only call a "customer service" department if one crosses one's fingers behind one's back.

It turns out that there was already a discount applied to the book due to some other promotion that lasted longer than the coupon, and because of that discount the coupon would not work. Well, okay -- except it is somewhere on the other side of absurd that I would get a coupon code for a specific product, but the coupon is invalid for that product. Remember: the coupon code expired before the discount. There was no indication that the discount was different from's normal "online price", which is generally lower than cover price anyway, either.

Well, no biggie. Barnes & Noble lost a sale, and a brick-and-mortar independent bookstore got my business when I bought the book there, full price, at a Neal Stephenson book signing instead.

How To Prevent People From Buying Your Products

More recently, I got one of those "You could save as much as 50%!" things from Barnes & Noble. I decided to give it a whirl, though I had a sneaking suspicion the coupon code would have some kind of problem. As far as I know now, after the fact, it might well have had some kind of problem, but I never got that far.

I tried quite diligently to buy a book and a Barnes & Noble membership. I failed -- or, rather, Barnes & Noble failed to sell these things to me -- without even getting far enough to enter the coupon code. This is what I sent to Barnes & Noble via the customer support contact form:

Every time I try to place an order in which I try to renew my (now expired)
membership, something goes wrong.  I was trying to place an order using
coupon code 25N5AKLUEVTQ1 for the book "The Passionate Programmer", and to
add a membership to my order, but every time I try to continue my checkout
to get to the point where I can enter my coupon code the thing pops up a
CSS window asking me if I want to buy a membership.  If I say yes, it goes
nowhere and pops up the same CSS window.  If I say no, it goes nowhere and
pops up the same CSS window.  I guess you lost a sale -- again.

I probably could have been a little more felicitous, but it is not like this is the first time has failed me. Just like last time I tried getting in touch with someone in customer support for Barnes & Noble to fix a problem I had with ordering something, it took several days for someone to get back to me. There is, of course, some kind of message on the site when sending a message to customer support that it might be some period of time, either twenty-four or forty-eight hours (I really do not recall), though in the previous experience it took notably longer than that to get a reply. I don't know about you, but if someone was trying to buy something from me and failing, I would definitely try to fix the problem pronto.

It Gets Worse

I had no intention of writing about any of this until I got my (slow, as usual) response from a "customer service representative" whose job it evidently is to send canned responses. The response did not even have my name attached to it, like any respectable automated system replying to contact from a site where the customer is logged in should; it calls me Customer.

Thank you for your e-mail.

We have received your inquiry regarding renewing your Barnes & Noble
Membership Program.  Members who have not opted for a Continuous Service
membership can renew at any register or by visiting our site at
Your Barnes & Noble Membership Program expiration date will be updated at
the time your renewal fee is paid.

If, however, you would like to enroll in Continuous Service so that you may
enjoy uninterrupted benefits and offers, you may fill out a Member Update
form at any Barnes & Noble store, or simply call the Barnes & Noble Member
Service Center.

If we can be of further assistance please do not hesitate to contact us
on-line at [email address elided]. If you prefer, we can be reached at
[telephone number elided] and a customer service representative will be
happy to assist you.

This, of course, completely misses the main point -- that the site will not let me buy anything. My coupon code has expired, and a new membership will not do me any good until I want to buy something again. Rather than help me buy things from, these jokers are telling me I should go to a brick and mortar store to pay for a membership, or do so over the telephone. This is asinine. I am done playing this silly game, at least until I get another coupon code. Maybe then I will go all the way to the physical store to get a membership, then come back home and use the online coupon code. Maybe I'll just buy from Amazon instead, or walk across the street to an independent bookstore near my home if the book I want is something it carries.

You see . . . I am willing to pay a little extra to get some actual customer service. I am not as willing to engage in a lengthy back-and-forth with a low-level flunky whose only job is to copy and paste canned replies when certain keywords appear in a customer service request -- if there's a human being on the other end at all -- or play telephone tag with bureaucrats.

Past Transgressions

Customer service is not the only thing Barnes & Noble fails to understand.

In An Open Letter To Barnes & Noble About Text Files, for instance, I talked about the incredibly brain-dead fact that my Nook Simple Touch Reader works with EPUB and PDF files, among others, but is incapable of reading a simple ASCII text file.

An issue that is not entirely the fault of Barnes & Noble, though the company is complicit at least, is that of ebook pricing. The majority of fiction newer than 1923 costs the same as an ebook as it does as a physical volume. If the book is out only in hardback so far, the ebook is sold at hardback prices. I have adopted a policy of not buying an ebook unless it is enough cheaper than the hardcover to compensate me for the fact an ebook cannot be sold to a used book store. Even worse, these things typically come with DRM that prevents me from sharing with a friend.

These days, I just get most of my ebooks from other sources. Barnes & Noble is obviously not interested in retaining me as a very active customer. At least my Nook is a pretty nice device, apart from that text file lobotomy.


I got an email inviting me to fill out a customer satisfaction survey following my experience with Barnes & Noble customer service. Of course I took the opportunity to inform Barnes & Noble's automated system of my dissatisfaction. The page is currently sitting open to the last page of the survey, where I am asked:

Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

I will enter the URI for this blogstrapping essay in the relevant field. Maybe an explanation of my experience on the web will make more of an impression than direct contact, and someone will fix the chronic problems of's support for customer satisfaction.

By the way, the email is in that format that indicates one of two things: either spam/phishing emails or a corporation that is totally out of touch. Specifically, it is an HTML email with no plaintext fallback. The fact I was using w3m at the time as my HTML email viewing option is a big part of the reason I did not fill out a similar survey after my experience failing to buy a Neal Stephenson novel; w3m is kind of a pain in the butt to use.

I mentioned more about that sort of thing in Use Browsers With Mutt.