E-Tail Customer Service: Finally Working?

E-tailers have come to the costly understanding that providing a general e-mail address ona Web site is no way to handle customer queries, especially when many of those queries arenever answered.

In fact, countless online sales have been lost because a company did notrespond in a timely manner to customer concerns that arose in the middle of thetransaction process.

“If you’ve gone to all the trouble to bring people to the point where they want to buysomething from you, why would you just let them slip away by treating them like that?”Gartner analyst Adam Sarner asked.

Still Too Slow

Sarner told the E-Commerce Times that companies are turning to high-tech e-mail managementtools and shifting strategies in a bid to curb instances of neglect, though mostbusinesses are still far too slow to answer e-mail — if they respond at all. At manysites, Sarner said, response times of two days or more remain the norm.

According to Giga Information Group vicepresident Steve Telleen, retailers as a group are slightly better than other types of companies when it comes to turning around e-mail, though there is still ample room for improvement.

A recent Giga study of 50 companies, most of them involved in retail, found that while twohours was the most frequently seen response time to Web site e-mail sent in the secondquarter of 2002, average response time was closer to 12 hours.

Telleen noted that staffing patterns often determine response times. For example,e-tailers often hire extra personnel to handle holiday sales in the fourth quarter, thenretain those employees for much of the first quarter of the next calendar year to handlereturns and exchanges.

Clothiers are Fastest

Generally, Telleen added, the businesses that are best at responding to e-mail — such asLands’ End, Old Navy and Eddie Bauer –have experience in catalog and clothing sales. “Lands’ End, for example, has a policy ofresponding to e-mails in one hour or less,” he said.

In addition, the most responsive e-tailers are making savvy use of a combination oftechnology and strategically placed personnel to answer customers’ questions as soon as possible.

Giga research associate David Alger told the E-Commerce Times that e-mail managementsoftware allows many companies to turn around responses quickly, sometimes by scanninge-mail for keywords and responding via templates that convey answers to frequently askedquestions. In cases in which no similar responses can be found, the system determines whento escalate the query to a human.

Specialized Responses

Telleen and Alger both said retailers would do well to emulate the strategies ofNational Semiconductor andIntel, which use automated e-mailprograms to route queries to the appropriate engineers, and which provide fast,personalized responses, even on highly technical queries.

In the retail arena, the analysts said, this tactic is most effective when customerexperiences are generally uniform, and less effective when customers have more specializedneeds.

In addition to technology, some e-tailers are using common-sense strategies that may be asuncomplicated as devoting more personnel to answering e-mail.

Low-Tech Answers

Many companies also are looking beyond e-mail to make internal improvements and stem thetide of concerns about certain issues.

Gartner’s Sarner noted that TiVo, forexample, has a link on its site to a third-party forum where users of the personal videorecorder can post gripes and compliments. He said that this method, also used by companieslike Sony, allows users to offer commentsfreely in a community environment that is not manipulated by sellers.

Companies, in turn, can use feedback from such forums to make needed changes and head offproblems that are generating e-mail volume. In so doing, Sarner said, businesses also canbenefit from valuable feedback that otherwise would need to be obtained through costlymarket research.

Some e-tailers, such as Amazon, have evenfound ways to conduct useful customer surveys as part of the transaction process.

“Amazon has been good about asking the type of questions that could make the next purchaseeasier — how was the service, what could have been done better, et cetera,” Sarner said.”The good online retailers take the initiative to get the customer feedback at the pointof sale, when the buyer is most ready to interact with the company.”

Follow-Through Counts

Sarner added that Amazon also makes a habit of keeping consumers informed during allphases of the transaction process — from credit card confirmation to tracking shipments– so that customers know what to expect at different points without having tosend e-mail queries.

Experts noted that many recently touted service technologies, such as chat andinstant messaging, remain too expensiveand cumbersome for most companies to deploy effectively on a mass scale. But othersolutions to the non-responsive e-mail problem are decidedly non-technical and lessexpensive.

For example, according to Giga’s Telleen many e-tailers achieve better results simply bysplitting the customer contact address into several addresses based on the type of concernbeing raised. This helps route e-mail to the correct department and increases the chancethat a knowledgeable person will see it and respond within a reasonable time frame.

Other companies use a Web form to let users spell out their concerns, though Telleen saidthat those who do so must provide customers with a way to e-mail themselves a copy of thequery; otherwise, senders will have no permanent record of the correspondence.

However companies decide to respond, all the analysts agree that follow-through is key to ensuring that the customer returns to the Web site for future purchases.


  • Agree. Where I work we use some tools which allow instant notifications to an agent device, so that if a customer has an interest in buying, the customer’s click will trigger an SMS message or a phone call to the appropriate agent.

    • Where do u work, Nick? What are the tools you are using? Can you give me some ideas on that? I work for an e-commerce company and we are looking for new tools on customer management.
      Your suggestions will be welcome.

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