09/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I Trusted You

Isn't it great that our kids are stuck with us for a fairly lengthy period of time? If we screw up and say something that perhaps wasn't the best possible parenting expression, they're going to be around tomorrow, too. We're going to get another chance to do better.

This is extremely important in the realm of parenting. Most of us have absorbed the wisdom that our kids will perceive negative comments about themselves so powerfully that it will take from 10 to 20 times the number of positive remarks to create a perception of balance. That's why we need to hesitate when we tell our kid that maybe they could have tried a little harder on that quiz. Have we already told them on 10 different occasions how great they've done something?

I'm feeling the same way about customer service at the moment. Take great care of me (basically just do a good job) and I'll keep using you. But screw up, especially if it makes me look bad, and it will take a long, long time before I trust you again.

In the online book business, two giants duke it out for our business: Amazon and Barnes & Noble. If you happen to be a One-Click Prime Amazon user, you have experienced the ultimate in online ease of shopping. Say you have a sudden inexplicable urge to unravel the secrets of innovation, and Presto! -- your copy of The Genius Machine is on its way to your doorstep after only a few seconds of effort on your part. Jeff Bezos has created perfection, no question about it.

So what brought me to Barnes & Noble's website two weeks ago to order a book for my son's birthday? The book, the well-reviewed Science: A Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara was out of stock on Amazon, an unusual occurrence. Fortunately, B & N showed the book as "in stock" so I ordered it and selected a shipping speed that insured the book would arrive on time. Added gift wrapping and a birthday wish.

Within a few minutes a confirmation arrived in my email. Wonderful feeling, all's right with the world. A few days later my wife and I decided on short notice to join a family event in Los Angeles that coming weekend. We would also have the happy chance to celebrate in person with our birthday boy.

At the birthday lunch I had expected my son to say something about the book, since it suits his interests so perfectly. But he said nothing, and I knew right away: something had gone wrong.

Can anyone tell my why a late birthday greeting or present is completely different from an on-time birthday thought? "Hope you had a lovely birthday last week. Wednesday was it?" Thanks a lot. But the party's over.

I returned to my office to find an email from Barnes & Noble. Whoops! The book was actually out of stock. Would you like to sign in and authorize a 30 day extension of your order? We hope it will be back in stock during that time.

Hell no! I wanted more than that. I wanted an explanation... to know how an inventory system that can tell me if a title is in any Barnes & Noble store in the country, and that tells me if it is in the warehouse, can be wrong. I called Phylis in customer service, who was not looking forward to my call. She made a few attempts to explain that just because the system says a book is in stock and I order it and the order is confirmed, sometimes someone else will order a 100 copies of that same book and you're just out of luck. This didn't make any sense to me so I asked to speak to a supervisor. I held on the line for way to long listening to some crappy music when another person finally came on the line. She was as nice as peach cobbler, but all she could do was repeat what Phylis had said. So, I carefully stated what I was hearing: when you order something from Barnes & Noble that's "In Stock" and believe you're sending a gift that needs to arrive on time, and when you receive a confirmation that you order has been accepted and the shipping date had been confirmed, it actually means nothing at all.

Well, maybe that's not fair as to what Barnes & Noble are saying. Maybe what their confirmation really means is, "We'll try."

So now I'm feeling a little wary about Barnes & Noble. They certainly have some very nice people answering the phones over there, but there's a little something missing in our relationship. I'm feeling like they're coming home late from the office a little too often. You get my drift? I'm not feeling trust anymore. And I'm wondering how an organization ever gets the opportunity to create 10 or 20 positive customer relation experiences after they've created 1 big negative one.

That's the hard thing about regaining trust when you're not under the same roof. I may not be here tomorrow to see how really great you can be. Unlike kids, us customers aren't captive.