The Customer Service Survey

Rigid Application of Obsolete Rules

by Peter Leppik on Fri, 2017-01-27 14:50

One of my personality quirks is that I tend to have a very low tolerance for organizational stupidity. In other words, it really bugs me when bureaucratic organizations make me do dumb things for no good reason.

As an example, this week we decided to order some custom-imprinted M&Ms as a cute item to give to our clients. We wanted to get candies with our logo and some customer experience-themed slogans, and Mars, the company that makes M&Ms has a slick website for designing and ordering your custom candy.

Except that the convenient online ordering is only for consumer orders. If you're a business you can't place an order, just download a brochure and ask for someone to contact you. And so begins the, ahem, unique process for ordering custom M&Ms as a business.

(You may wonder why I didn't just use the online form and pretend to be a consumer. The choices and pricing is the same either way, but orders placed online aren't allowed to include logos, though other pictures are permitted.)

Filling out the online form results in an email from an M&M sales rep a day later, with a brochure of product choices -- the same brochure you can download from the M&M website.

Once you've decided what you want, you need to email the M&M rep with all the order details. This is exactly the same information that the online ordering tool collects, except that as a business you can't use the online ordering tool. Except that you can't include your credit card information in the email because that's not secure. So someone from M&M will schedule a time to call you on the phone for the sole purpose of getting your credit card number.

Finally, you will need to sign and return a contract, emailed to you as a PDF file with instructions to fax or email back the signed copy.

I was already getting a little triggered by having to execute a four-page contract just to order candy. But I dutifully filled out the blanks and applied my electronic signature -- an image of my handwritten signature -- to the PDF and emailed it back.

This, I was promptly told, was unacceptable. Electronic signatures were not permitted, I needed to print out the document and scan a signed copy, and return that.

From a legal perspective this is complete nonsense. Under U.S. law, an electronic signature is as valid as a paper signature, and it's been that way since the ESIGN Act was passed in 2000. What's more, pretty much anything counts as an "electronic signature" as long as it was done with the intent of signing the document. No fancy cryptographic protocols are required.

So I printed out the already-signed contract, scanned it back in, and emailed the scanned document back. I will admit that this was a little cheeky on my part, but since the result is exactly the same as if I had signed a paper copy with a pen (remember, my electronic signature is just a scanned image of my handwritten signature), I figured this would make them happy.

It didn't. Still not acceptable, because they noticed that the signature in the scanned document was the same image I used in the electronically signed document. Busted! The only acceptable way to sign the contract was to print an unsigned copy, sign it by hand, and return a scan of the paper document via fax or email.

One other thing: After making me kill a tree to sign a paper copy of the contract, M&M would not even allow me to mail them the paper copy. Fax or email, nothing else. Apparently their offices are paperless, even if we're not allowed that luxury.

I did what I had to, because even this monumental level of organizational stupidity wasn't going to keep me from ordering custom-imprinted M&Ms. I removed my electronic signature from the document (which was not an easy task: the software I use to sign PDF files makes it very hard to remove the electronic signature once applied to a page), printed a hard copy, signed it with a pen, and scanned that copy back in to return. I even recorded me signing the paper and included an animated GIF of the momentous event.

(As an aside: After all this effort, I have not yet received a copy of the countersigned and fully executed contract from Mars Corp. I have my doubts about whether they bother going through the same process on their end that they force their customers through.)

So what's the lesson in all of this? In the end I did order the custom M&Ms, but it was a frustrating and difficult process. What would have taken under ten minutes on their consumer site wound up taking two days because of all the back-and-forth and inefficiency of working through email, and because of their excessively rigid application of obsolete rules about contracting.

While they may have gotten my business this time, in the future I'm likely to look elsewhere.

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