Future of E-Commerce May Rest on Customer Service

Now that the shopping has been done, the real fun starts. Returns, exchanges, gifts that didn’t make it home for the holidays, it’s time for e-tailers to flex their customer service muscle, and their future may very well depend on it.

Research done by both Forrester Research and BizRate.com has explored the role customer service plays in e-tail operations, and found it’s the key to consumer loyalty.

According to Forrester, 37 percent of online consumers use customer service more from Web retailers than traditional retailers because of its potential for ease of use and quick response times. These consumers also appreciate the ability to seek customer service from their homes. The preferred method for consumers to resolve their customer service issues is email, Forrester found, with the telephone the favorite best method.

Forrester also found that 37 percent of all online buyers (4.8 million shoppers) have requested customer service online. Ninety percent of online shoppers consider good customer service to be critical when choosing a Web merchant.

“Once excellent proactive customer service is in place, merchants must build their brands around the promise of a satisfying experience,” said Forrester’s Christopher Kelley. “This means not only advertising a call center but also bragging about speedy response times and knowledgeable service reps.”

Web shoppers expect customer service at each step of the transaction process, according to Forrester. Exceptional service, as might be expected, increases buyers’ total satisfaction, which encourages repeat visits and word-of-mouth recommendations.

The three most critical components to solid reactive services are a well-staffed, responsive service organization; a simple return process; and easy order tracking. Speaking of returns, BizRate.com’s research found that 89 percent of online buyers say return policies influence their decision to shop with an e-retailer, according to a survey of 9,800 consumers. BizRate also found that at least 5 percent of the 36 million orders it expected to be placed online for the holidays will be returned.

“If online shopping is to continue the promise of convenience, merchants will need to pay close attention to building return policies that are customer friendly,” said Paul Bates, VP of Information Products Group for BizRate.com. “Online buyers tell us every day that the key to winning their loyalty is the level and quality of customer support.”

Certain attributes of return policies can actually drive potential customers away, according to BizRate. These include the inability to receive credit on a credit or debit card (85 percent) followed by a time limit to return products that is “too short” (68 percent). Other attributes that online buyers consider important are whether the merchant allows products to be returned by mail (66 percent) and the ability to exchange a product for another item (58 percent). Sixty-two percent of consumers said they would prefer to return products by mail instead of traveling to a brick-and-mortar store.

Other findings from BizRate include:

  • Refunds (59 percent) ranked as the leading form of action taken on returned products followed by exchanges (27 percent) and credit at an offline or online store (11 percent)
  • The three leading products returned were clothing (27 percent), computer software (20 percent), and books (15 percent)
  • An overwhelming majority (92%) of respondents would be inclined not to do business with online merchants who imposed a service charge to return a product to an offline store
  • 71 percent said that if they purchased a tax-free item online, they would not exchange it at a retailer’s offline store if a sales tax were imposed on the exchange
  • 94 percent of returns were mailed back to the online retailer versus returnedto an offline store
  • 73 percent of those surveyed said that return policies for online stores are comparable to returning items purchased through a catalog.

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