Online Customer Service Still Has Work to Do

The majority of online shoppers are satisfied with the level of customer service they received in the last three months, according to a survey by International Communications Research (ICR).

The “Excellence in Customer Service Survey” was sponsored by Witness Systems and was conducted early in January 2001. It found that despite consumer spending for online purchases coming in under projections for the 2000 holiday season, it did not impact the level of customer service e-tailers provided. The statistical model of the survey covered 50 million US adults and found that 74 percent who made online purchases over the three months prior were very satisfied with their experiences — a significant increase over similar studies done last year.

The survey results also indicate that the number of repeat purchases will increase as online customer service improves. Three-fourths of the online purchasers in the survey reported that they are very likely to make additional purchases from the sites where they received customer service. The survey also found that the main challenge facing e-tailers is order fulfillment. Nineteen percent of online purchasers received an item late, and one in six plan to or have returned their purchases.

Customers also value the ability to choose the communications media in which they interact with companies, the surbey found. E-mail was cited above the telephone, live text chat, and fax, which is good news for retailers since email is one of the most cost-effective channels available.

Accenture’s second annual US E-Fulfillment study, which examined Web sites operated by traditional retailers, “pure-play” e-tailers, and mail-order catalog companies, found that 67 percent of deliveries were not received as ordered and 12 percent had not been received in time for Christmas. Delivery of orders in time for Christmas was seven percent higher for Web sites operated by traditional retailers and mail-order catalogers than for “pure play” e-tailers. They also did a better job than e-tailers of simplifying the return process.

The Accenture study also found that proactive communication with the online shopper significantly improved from 1999, and shipment confirmation increased to 45 percent from 21 percent in 1999. But the most common shortcoming was the lack of a promised delivery date.

“Companies often provide minimal and vague delivery information, either because they aren’t confident of their ability to keep a promise, or because they fear the consumer will balk. If they had simply given a lead-time of 10 days (last year’s average), 76 percent of the orders would have been considered on-time and, therefore, perfect,” said Robert Mann, an associate partner at Accenture. “Though some consumers want speed and they should have that option, most consumers seem to want predictability even more. That means companies need to make a delivery promise for each order, and then keep it.”

Another key finding of the Accenture study was the significant difference between e-tailers and traditional retailers with respect to the time it takes to return an item. For e-tailers, the process was more time consuming and complex. On average, it took 2 minutes longer (35 percent) for an e-tailer than for a cataloger and over a minute longer than for a retailer. This is due, in part, the survey found, to the fact that e-tailers fail to provide the tools to help in the return process. For example, only 51 percent of e-tailers provided pre-printed labels, which were provided by nearly 80 percent of retailers and catalogers.

A study by CustomerAsset, an eCRM services company, tested the Web sites of nine brick-and-mortar brands on their response to 16 standard inquiries and found traditional brands are not without their problems online. On a scale of 0 to 100, the average was only a 38.

While most of the studies during the post-holiday period agree that online customer service has made improvements but still has a long way to go, research into how much money was spent online during the 2000 holiday season has been inconsistent at best. eMarketer found 14 different projections from 14 different research firms before it reported consumers spent $12.5 billion online during the fourth quarter of 2000, a 71 percent increase over the $7.3 billion spent online during the 1999 holidays.

Looking ahead, eMarketer estimates that $13.5 billion will be spent online during the first three months of 2001, up from $8.3 billion in the first quarter of 2001. For the year, eMarketer expects online sales to increase by 57 percent in 2001 to $65.9 billion, compared to 2000, when $42 billion was spent online.

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