Study: E-tailers Flunk Customer Service Test

E-tailers, even the most popular ones, are universally failing to provide high-quality online customer service, according to a new survey from GartnerGroup, Inc.

In a survey released Tuesday of the top 50 consumer e-tail sites, Gartner did not find one that rated “good” or “excellent” for online customer service.

Twenty-three percent did the best by picking up an “average” rating, Gartner said. The majority — 73 percent — rated “fair,” and four percent came out “poor.”

“The message to consumers is clear,” Gartner said. “For customer service on retail Web sites, pick up the phone.”

Once and Future Revenues at Stake

Improving online customer service could save companies money, because it is cheaper to provide answers on a Web site than to staff a call center, Gartner said. For a retailer, the right online customer service tools could boost Web revenue to as much as 15 percent of that given company’s total.

Even more is at stake than present-day dollars, according to Gartner research director Carol Ferrara. “E-tailers are annoying Web customers at a time when brand loyalty is the Holy Grail,” she said.

Ferrara added that “most retail call centers treat customers like strangers,” because the staffers who take the calls do not have access to the information the customer has entered online.

“Customers who are disappointed at the Web site pick up the phone,” Ferrara said, “only to inform again all of their basic information to a representative who is blind to their Web activities and transactions.”

FAQs Not the Answers

The vast majority of Web sites surveyed — 90 percent — featured a “frequently asked questions” section to resolve customer confusion. Gartner said such a “static” approach to customer service is not the way to win customer satisfaction or loyalty.

Rather, e-tailers should implement technology that will respond to a greater number of customers online, forestalling those customers from seeking satisfaction offline.

“It’s easier to build CRM [customer relations management] on the Web with no offline component,” said Ferrara. “Traditional retailers that are integrating the offline and online CRM must master their databases and streams to stay with their customers as they move within selling channels.”

Has CRM Been a Priority?

Most sites, the survey found, pay “little more than lip service” to customer relations. Only 10 percent of the sites surveyed allow customers to track their inquiries through to resolution; only six percent offer a feature to have the retailer call the customer and only 28 percent will acknowledge that a customer’s e-mail has been received, Gartner said.

Half of the sites surveyed operate strictly on the Web and half are traditional retailers. The survey found that e-tailers generally have been better at online customer service than their brick-and-click counterparts.

The Stamford, Connecticut-based GartnerGroup provides research and consulting services to information technology professionals.

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