Epic fail! How to learn from the mistakes of another

Imagine it, you spend almost $1000 to take a ferry, then drive for hundreds of miles to attend a workshop you booked and paid for online at a well-known eco institute. The irony of the petrol use is not lost on you, but it is a cause you really believe in with information that could benefit you and many others.

From the start it was a bit of a Micky Mouse outfit: questions about accommodation options via email and phone messages did not get answered until a couple of follow up emails were sent; the 10% members’ discount code (members pay an annual fee to support the work of the institute) was not working, so a promise was made that the 10% would be returned to the credit card used to make the purchase. This took quite a bit of follow up and reminding before it happened. Can you see where this is heading?

There was no reason for this to have ended as disastrously as it did. The online shop seemed to work efficiently, and newsletters were emailed, I think using world-renowned automation system Infusionsoft, which does not come cheap but is a learning curve all of its own.

But the website was not fully utilised as a means of contact or information dispersal. Fair enough that they chose to not use Twitter or Facebook, to build some kind of online community and information sharing place – social media is not everyone’s cup of tea. But since they were using a website to solicit paying customers, they should at least have used their website to serve them.

However the web page which advertised the particular workshop got taken down when no longer needed; it could have remained live, even retrospectively, to use client testimonials and images from the event. And more importantly, it could have been used to notify participants of a cancellation. It could have had a message on it, such as CHECK BACK HERE IN CASE THERE IS A WEATHER-RELATED CANCELLATION OF THIS EVENT.

So, you guessed it, after travelling hundreds of miles over a couple of days, the event was cancelled without notifying all the participants. Apparently the office lady only works part-time and the cancellation was decided two days before the event and before a major public holiday! So an email the day before (the day after they had decided to cancel) checking that it was still going ahead, remained unanswered because the office lady had not been into work to see it. So, imagine it – with the help of google maps (instructions on how to get there could also have been useful on the website), you arrive in the middle of unknown rural nowhere just after nightfall to complete darkness. By some coincidence, a couple had arrived just before you, they had been knocking on the door of a house on the property which remained unanswered, until a lit up window around the back was discovered and a young man stumbled to the door, who seemed to not know a thing about anything.

The couple you met are not fellow workshop participants, but new volunteers who had been to this place before and know to trudge across paddocks of long grass and mud by the tiny lights of your cellphones to find the guy in charge of accommodation. You tell him you are here for the workshop and he actually laughs. He laughs! Apparently you were notified of the cancellation but this did not happen by email (yes, also checked the spam folder) or cellphone. Perhaps the notification was sent by snail mail, in which case you will receive it when you return home.

Close to tears because of the effort and expense it took to get here, and fear, of the drive back to the nearest city (almost two hours away on a dark, winding, unfamiliar road) knowing it is a public holiday weekend and accommodation is scarce, you make the trek back, only to find you will have to sleep in your car as everything is booked out.

I guess it is lucky for them that they do not use Facebook and Twitter – it would be filled with complaints about them. On the other hand it could also have been used in the build up to the event, to discuss accommodation options, how to get there, what to expect, and of course, let everyone know if unforeseen events cause a cancellation.

It is lucky for you and I, that we have an insight into their business and how NOT to use the internet to run a business.

So if you are privileged enough to reach the paying public with a website, what responsibilities come with that?

Firstly, you must be able to be contacted, and people expect responses to happen within 24 hours, if not within an hour. Being based in the wop wops and wanting to live an off-the-grid lifestyle is no excuse. If you are using this fandangled modern technology to earn money, you have to go all the way and be reachable. Otherwise your online venture is as good as an online scam, and that is a terrible thing to have associated with your brand.

Secondly, if you call on the public to support you financially and there are a list of benefits, like discount codes etc, then those codes should work without having to chase them up. Yes, it is nice for people to support a cause without any reciprocation, and many people will be happy to do that, but whatever you offer should be given willingly. To have to follow up on member benefits makes them appear to be offered begrudgingly which could undo years of goodwill.

Thirdly, if you are counting on volunteers to do your internet work like managing your responses and process your business transactions, you have to find some who are dedicated enough to actually do it when it occurs, not just when it suits them or during business hours. In fact, caring for the reputation of your institute is such a big ask, that it is probably worth paying someone to do it and having the importance of responding to customers as an essential task.

The institute involved is unlikely to ever read this, it will not be brought to their attention by us and we have chosen not to name them. They seemed to have such confidence about them as they basked in the love of their transient eco-volunteers, that the experience or feedback of their paying customers was not an essential element of their cause, however it is a worthwhile lesson for anyone else who wishes to make the World Wide Web a sweet place not just for themselves as business owners, but for their paying customers.

Word of mouth happens in a nanosecond online. We really can not be this casual with an online reputation as most are more than happy to “name and shame” as they share experiences like the one above, which everyone agrees, is simply unacceptable and a terrible look for a brand, or in this case, a really important cause.

Follow up – the institute in question refunded the full content of the course and the office person left a phone message and sent an email apologising profusely.  The owner of the business also emailed offering a free place on a similar course if it ever happens in a region only 2 hours away.  After replying, nothing more was heard from them and word of the course has yet to materialise.  Obviously, this is not compensation for the money or time or effort spent getting to the first course, but these gestures help a lot.

If you have any ideas for other ways they could have improved matters, please comment below.