Win Some, Lose Some: Gains and Losses in Customer Service

Since my articles are never the last word on any topic, I often come across new information about something I’ve written, as I did recently. New ground has been won –and lost — in the battle between consumers who want to be served and the companies which, inexplicably, still cannot serve them in the way they should be served. From the front lines, here are the latest dispatches.

A while ago, I wrote an article about customer service in which I discussed some elements of good online customer service. A recent report by the META Group provides some evidence that online customer service is starting to look up.

I had written that “the most popular use of online customer service is searching for offline customer service,” as “86 percent of U.S. consumers have visited a Web site to find a company’s customer service phone number.” The new data suggests that 93 percent of Web sites studied publish a toll-free number. In an ideal world, it would be 100 percent. It’s better than it used to be, though, so hooray for the positive step.

The report also found that 87 percent of sites had FAQs or “self-service knowledge bases.” Good. As I wrote earlier, “62 percent of consumers used a Web site’s frequently asked questions (FAQs)… The beauty of (good) online customer service is that it allows those who wish to do so to solve their own problems.” The tide here seems to be turning steadily in favor of consumers and their needs.

I had also penned an article about the positive uses of the Internet in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The article examined, among other things, the power of the Web to deliver news. Harris Interactive investigated consumers’ use of a variety of news sources to learn about the attacks. The day after the attacks, only 3 percent of consumers considered the Internet their primary news source, while 8 percent did so three weeks later. At first, 64 percent of consumers used the Web as one of their news sources, but 80 percent considered it a news source later. Thirty-five percent of Internet users said they visited news sites “more often since the attacks,” and 47 percent spend more time on news sites.

Consumers are beginning to stand up and demand what they want. Sixty-three percent of Net news users said they went online because “they could get the information at times that suited them” rather than passively waiting for television commentators to pass along information when it suits the program schedule. Forty-three percent believed that they could get more detailed information online (where it doesn’t have to be watered down for the viewing public and where one can follow a hyperlinked trail of information to one’s own satisfaction); and 42 percent thought the information online was more up to date (now that networks have stopped around-the-clock coverage, Web users don’t have to wait for the 5 o’ clock news).

In another recent article, I examined consumer attitudes toward spam and permission-based email. I wrote, “the opt-out procedures for many companies are difficult, and that too many companies send too many emails.” The META Group’s research on email opt-in found that of the 91 percent of survey sites that use email for promotions, only 40 percent are truly opt in. Moreover, only 13 percent are “opt-in for newsletters and truly personalized email correspondence.” This is not a consumer-friendly sign. Online marketers must be vigilant about respecting our consumers’ in boxes and preferences.

This recent information, some positive and some not so positive, offers some insight into the continuing struggle between consumers and companies that position themselves as adversaries. The consumers should eventually win (they wield the credit cards), but it will take time. Meanwhile, we can monitor the dispatches from the battlefront.

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