Belgian Chocolate Online: Chocolaty Sweet Tale of How Poor Service Really Hurts Business

Perhaps it all started with Jeff Jarvis’s Dell Hell.  Simple story: famous blogger gets poor service > blogs about it > company faces media backlash > company wakes up to social media, turns around > eventually Jarvis praises them as a Cluetrain business.

Then there’s Comcast: everyone’s love-to-hate cable company that now actively monitors Twitter for customer complaints in an effort to improve both their image and customer service.  These companies know something that many others still ignore:

Times have changed. Using blogs, Twitter, social networks one single unhappy customer can make a business look really bad.  Poor service is bad PR, which is very costly to undo. Good Customer Service is great  marketing.

Now here’s my story of an online retailer that’s about to learn these rules.

My Dad has diabetes, and he likes chocolate – not a good combo.smile_sad There’s hardly any choice in sugar-free chocolate, what’s available locally tastes like **** and is overpriced.   Eventually I found two (only !) online sources that sell Milka, his favorite brand.  I ended up ordering from Belgian Chocolate Online,  ( owned buy CandyWorld, USA.   The site claims they ship the day after the order is placed, yet mine was only sent 9 days later, after I inquired.  The delay was actually reasonable, due to a heat-wave, but shouldn’t they notify customers?

But the real surprise came a week later, when I received a large box  of almost-expired chocolate.  True, it had a few weeks left, but given the economics of shipping, I bought 40 bars, i.e. 4 kilos, or close to 9 lbs.  I don’t know about you, but my Dad certainly does not eat that much in 4 weeks…

Two of my email complaints were left unanswered, so a week later, by the third email I was a bit antsy:

Dear Customer Service,
I don’t get it. Is your solution to Customer Service issues to not respond at all?   I’d like to know if you intend to replace the old product with fresh one, or send  refund.  This is my last request, if you continue to ignore me, I will pursue this on my own.

Finally they answered (emphasis mine):

Dear Customer:

We are not ignoring any emails. We are helping customers placing their orders or who really need customer’s service. We can’t help you in an expiration date problem that you do not like and which isn’t a problem.

The chocolates you bought are still not expired and we do not see why to replace or to refund. The expiration date is not the date for consumption, but a date to sell. We do NOT sell any chocolates with an expired date.

Ouch!  Who really need customer service… I’ve just spent $130 on old product and I don’t qualify for attention.  Expiration date is not a problem… although this obviously sounded baloney, I wanted confirmation, so I contacted Kraft Foods, Milka’s parent company, who responded within a day:

The product should be consumed by this date. We cannot assure freshness after that date because the taste and texture may have deteriorated.

(Side comment: talk about the power of brands … yes, Milka is a popular brand in Europe, and Milka is owned by Kraft, by can you imagine asking for Kraft Chocolate?smile_wink)

Anyway, I am confirmed to be right about the expiry date, and  Belgian Chocolate Online’s attempt to explain the problem was a lie .  They were right in one point though: technically, they did not sell expired chocolate.  Not until one day before expiry … then good luck trying to eat it all quickly.  It is common practice by groceries to deep-discount perishable goods a few weeks/months before expiry, and one can even find Milka chocolate on eBay at a  fraction of the original price – but eBay sellers disclose the shortened shelf-life, for fear of eBay ruling against them in a dispute.   I guess there is no such policing on the Wild, Wild Web.

Except… now every consumer has the means to get “noisy” about their problems.  I am no Jeff Jarvis, but CandyWorld USA is no Dell, either: I wouldn’t be surprised to see this post on the first page of several relevant Google searches (see update), and believe me, that will cost them a lot more than it would have cost to keep me happy.   Of course not everyone has a moderately well-read blog, but just about anyone can make noise on Twitter, and Get Satisfaction is another great resource to vent and get service.

In fact a combination of Twitter and Get Satisfaction was what brought me Comcast help a few months ago.  The attention I received from Comcast Executives from Philadelphia and here in California was quite amazing.  Comcast is becoming a hero for listening to customers on Twitter, and others follow. Southwest Airlines now even has a Chief Twitter Officer.

Are these examples PR acts or real customers service?  The individual complaints are resolved, for the customers involved, it’s real service.  But Twitter or not, the “loud” unhappy customers are still just a fraction for now – which is why companies can afford to go out of their way to satisfy them.

I trust that simple market mechanisms will force companies -large and small- to improve service in the long run.  The economics are simple:

  1. The PR damage (and potential loss of sales) caused by “noisy” individuals far exceeds the cost of helping them, so companies pull resources to put out these fires.
  2. Yet firefighting is costly, may work with dozens, hundreds of customers, but not all.
  3. Companies will reach a tipping point, where all the after-the-fact firefighting will become so costly, that it will actually be cheaper to train their support personnel and provide better service in the first place, thus the Twitter-heroism will decline.

We’ll all be better off after #3. smile_regular

Update: Just as exptected: a few hours later this post is on the first page if you search for Belgian Chocolate Online,  and comes up first, before the vendor if you search for sugar-free Milka, which is how I found them in the first place.

Update (9/16):  Following the trail from my blog referrer log I’ve just discovered this post is now #1 on Google for the “milka chocolate marketing” search.  Oops… that can’t be good – for Milka.

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  1. That’s a poor email response, every customer is worthy of response.

  2. Zoli,

    Great points and great story.

    I absolutely agree that customer service is bound to improve on the whole. Poor customer service becomes so much more visible now with all the channels and options that are open for customers to respond.

    My two-year old daughter was turned down by Chick-fil-A at one of their promotional events because she had the wrong costume on (yes, I blogged about it). Is 50 cents of chicken really worth all the negative feelings and bad word-of-mouth that they subsequently generated?

  3. Honestly, it doesn’t take that long to respond to an email. If their “customer service” group is so overwhelmed they can’t politely answer a simple email, they’re really hurting. Maybe they’ll welcome a reduction in traffic and sales as a chance to get caught up. 😉

  4. Your frustration is completely warranted. Not only are they rude, but your initiative was very warm hearted.

    I hope it works out for you, but you’re right that this company is no Dell. Their branding is awful. I particularly enjoyed the heavy-handed copyright notice at the bottom of their landing page. THOU SHALT NOT COPY ANY OF OUR WORK. — I’m looking at their website thinking… “Who in their right mind would copy any aspect of this company’s communications?”

    You might have more luck contacting Kraft about this. Technically speaking, this burden is also theirs and I’m sure they wouldn’t appreciate one of their retailers wounding their brand.

  5. subscribe

  6. Jason, you’ve got good eyes, I missed that. Hilarious… well, there copyright notice says 1989-2008, I think this looks like a decent site – in 1989 🙂

  7. What a joke. I personally will never buy their product again. Thanks for including that e-mail. They are complete fools to not understand the power of word of mouth marketing.
    Word of mouth can be devastating to your company’s image if complaints aren’t nipped at the bud. Often times complaints can be turned into a positive experience and positive word of mouth if you address the complaint in a timely manner and more importantly are polite and understanding in your response.

    It amazes me that companies will spend thousands of dollars in ad space and marketing yet refuse to invest where it really matters. TAKE CARE OF YOU CUSTOMERS!

  8. Jean Montare says

    I got no problems yesterday when I bought some Belgian pralines :), at , really tasteful, and good service!

  9. Dear,

    this is a very bad experience. And it is a pitty that a lot op e-shop doesn’t understand the importance of client service and after sales services. E-commerce demands a 200% professionel and correct service to the client as the direct and personal contact does not exist. Client service is a top priority at our e-shop. So if you ar looking for fresh and real chocolate please visit our for special demands -such as chocolates for diabetes patients- please mail us at We would be very pleased to welcome you.
    Best regards,
    Charlotte form

  10. Failed Sale says

    Belgian Chocolates Online has not yet learned their lesson. I ordered a box for a birthday present. A few days later I received an email message saying they had lost my credit card information and would I please call them. So I did. I provided the data on the phone and told the woman with whom I spoke that this was a birthday present since their problem had delayed shipment, would they please expedite shipping at no extra cost. The response was no, it impossible and the person speaking had no authority to do anything. I think I was so stunned I just let it pass, figured it might make it in time anyway.

    Of course, birthday came and went and no present, but I did not know that until two weeks later when I felt I could ask the recipient — having not heard anything. This is bad. I called the vendor. I inquired about the order. I was told this time that they had had yet another computer crash exactly after I had given them the credit card information, and they lost the whole order–including my contact information, so of course they could not contact me or send out the order or anything. I decided not to pursue the unlikely nature of this explanation. I had checked my statement and at least they seem not to have charged me.

    But now it gets really sad. I asked what they were planning to do about this since it was a birthday for which it was intended, as they knew. The person went on and on about how it was not their fault, that some other company had caused the crash, and I should appreciate how much money they had lost and how difficult it had been for them, and I finally had to say, and I was extremely polite, that in all respect I understood this was not something she had done personally, that I was not angry with her, but I thought they should do something to make up for this, since i was the customer and i had not heard anything about how they cared about what kind a problem I was experiencing.

    Oh, she said, it is not our fault, we could not do business for three days, it was terrible. I said please understand that I have no interest in your business problems, and that you should solve my problem –not tell me all about yours, because i could not really help her in fixing her business. She said, I dont know why you are arguing with me about this.

    I said I am not arguing, AND SHE HUNG UP ON ME! In mid-sentence. Wow. I know i sound like a passive idiot, since I have trained myself against getting upset and screaming at people like I used to. But this — I am speechless. How can they treat innocent people (much less customers) so rudely and harshly? How can they expect to stay in business? I did not even ask for anything, I simply asked what they proposed to do, and I got this stream of ugliness poured on me.

    OK, what can I do, I will twitter or whatever you suggest. Something ought to be done. Seriously.

  11. Peter Eisele says

    To Whom It May Concern:
    I’m really sorry my wife didn’t read this blog before ordering from Belgian Chocolate Online. Would have saved a lot of heartache.
    Here’s her story. She orders a small amount of chocolate and pays a huge, 3-day UPS shipping charge ’cause we’re leaving town in a week or so. This 3-day shipping comes with the caveat that you MUST be there to sign for it or it gets shipped back to the company at the customer’s expense. Not wanting this to occur, we sit home for five days waiting for it and it never comes.
    On the sixth day, she e-mails customer service and asks about her order. It’s not been shipped yet and they claim it’s not their fault (heard that before?) ’cause their importer delayed shipment. Wife responds that they have an obligation to inform the customer of delays so they don’t sit home waiting for something that’s not coming. She gets this response: “Your order has been updated to a status of cancelled”! Now,
    it really gets dicey.
    Somewhat peeved, my wife e-mails back to be notified when her funds have been returned to her account, followed by a polite, “It’s been a pleasure not doing business with you.” The manager of Belgian Chocolate Online then sends a snotty response in German language, probably thinking we couldn’t understand it. Wrong.
    I suggested she respond in her native tongue, Visayan
    language, which I’m sure they wouldn’t understand. She does and says (in that language), “If you want to do business in America, you should try using English”, followed by “Verstehen Sie?” (Do you understand in German to show we understood his German language message). The final resonse, again from the manager, who was stupid enough to sign it, is simply “F… Y..
    I printed out all the e-mails and sent them to the CEO of Candyworld USA who said he was unaware of these exchanges and would investigate and get back to me. Never heard another word.
    Maybe these sorts of business tactics are acceptable in Europe, but they certainly aren’t here. I’m not finished with my internet barrage against the eurotrash that apparently run this company and their foul mouths.


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