E-Tailers Still Lacking in Customer Service

Even the most popular e-tailers have only average execution when it comes to customer service on the Web, according to a survey of the 50 most popular consumer e-tail sites by the Gartner Group.

The results of the eTail eService Functionality Study found that none of the sites achieved a rating of good or excellent — 23 percent were average, 73 percent were fair, and 4 percent were poor. According to Gartner, the message to consumers is clear: for customer service on retail Web sites, pick up the phone. This is a potentially costly situation for e-tailers. Satisfying customers on a Web site is less costly than driving those customers to a call center. With the right processes, retailers can achieve up to 15 percent of their revenues from the Web, according to the study.

“The operating cost is not the only downside to this trend. E-tailers are annoying Web customers at a time when brand loyalty is the Holy Grail,” said Carol Ferrara. “Today, most retail call centers treat Web customers like strangers. Marketers are not integrating the Web site with the call center. Customers who are disappointed at the Web site pick up the phone only to inform again all of their basic information to a representative who is blind to their Web activities and transactions.”

Half of the sites surveyed by Gartner Group were traditional retailers, and half were virtual retailers. The survey found the virtual retailers were more adept at customer relationship management (CRM) on the Web than traditional retailers. Yet, Gartner’s survey still found that CRM on e-tail sites amounts to little more than lip service. Only 6 percent offer a feature asking the retailer to call the customer. Some 24 percent have instant messaging, and only 28 percent will even acknowledge that an email inquiry was received.

Fully 90 percent of the sites feature a Frequently Asked Questions section. That static approach to CRM is merely the starting point, according to Gartner. As far as customer interaction, satisfaction and loyalty, e-tailers must implement the enabling technology that will keep their customers on the Web and out of the costly call centers.

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

Research from cPulse found that nearly one-quarter of online retail customers — 24 percent — are extremely dissatisfied when surfing retail sites. The research, done by cPulse’s Satisfaction Solutions Group, resulted from 137,160 interviews with visitors on 123 Web sites between April 1 and June 30, 2000, done using 60-second interactive interviews administered via pop-up based technology.

“Last year was a wake-up call for online retailers,” said Jody Dodson, executive vice president of cPulse. “Holiday shoppers were quite vocal in their frustration with the online shopping experience. Online retailers must listen to their customers and adjust to their needs, so the holidays can be a time of celebration, not redemption.”

According to the cPulse research, concern about security of transactions is the online retailing industry’s top reason for losing customers. Many visitors cited skepticism about security as being the main reason for not shopping online. Surprise shipping and handling costs are the second biggest driver of lost customers. Though many consumers acknowledged good deals on the Internet, they were disappointed to see these prices inflated with exorbitant shipping costs — especially when they realize of-line retailers don’t charge for shipping.

“With online commerce, a good site experience and excellent product selection can be overshadowed by bad customer service,” said Dodson. “And one unhappy customer can spread his dissatisfaction to thousands of his friends throughout the Web via email and in chat rooms. Ultimately, customers will leave that site en masse.”

The cPulse Research also illustrated that customers are demanding fresh product offerings, and easier ways to search for products online. Customers also wish to be informed throughout the entire buying process, from purchase to delivery.

Relationships with customers begin to take center stage this time of year. The holiday shopping season is quickly approaching, and loyal customers turn into holiday spenders in just a few short months. To avoid the customer service debacles that have plagued many an e-tailer at holiday season, several changes are needed, according to a report by Resource Marketing, Inc.

“Online sites need to work harder top earn those holiday gift dollars,” said Kelly Mooney, managing director of Intelligence for Resource. “Gift services, which consumers expect during the holidays, still remain one of the biggest oversights on the Web.”

According to the survey by Resource, 44 percent of the sites don’t offer gift-wrapping services; 90 percent don’t have full-featured gift registries; less than 25 percent let consumers search by more than one criteria; and only 18 percent have live representatives to aid in confused or harried shoppers.

The 50 sites surveyed by Resource Marketing are rated on 500 consumer-based measures, checking the performance on 14 key success factors.

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