The Customer Service That E-tailers Forgot

Online shoppers have to hand it to some of the big retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom who have managed to bring the same stellar level of customer service they provide at the brick-and-mortar stores to the newest trade channel, the Internet.

Both companies’ online divisions include extensive customer service options, including live representatives who communicate with customers in need via pop-up windows and chat.

Seeing how well that can be done makes the latest report from Jupiter Media Metrix about online customer service all the more disturbing.

Slow Going

According to Jupiter, even though a number of online merchants met or exceeded their holiday sales projections, some of the best and brightest failed to make the grade in responding to customer service needs.

As usual, the numbers tell the story: Jupiter tracked all-important customer response times at 250 Web sites last month. Of those, less than one-third answered customer service requests (usually e-mail) within six hours (*correction). Eighteen percent took six to 24 hours. And another 18 percent responded within one to three days.

And what about the one-third of those surveyed that took more than three days or simply did not respond at all?

Need For Speed

How many of those customers who had to wait one to three days to find out what the lining of a coat was made of, or how long the warranty for a DVD player lasts, waited patiently for a response?

It is likely that most customers simply moved on to make their purchase at another site, or even at a brick-and-mortar store in which they could speak face-to-face with a store employee.

What makes the e-mail failures of e-tailers so frustrating for industry observers is simply that most customer inquires have to do with questions about things that are not clearly communicated on the Web site.

So, not only do many merchants do inadequate jobs of online merchandising, to add insult to injury, many of those same merchants have no sense of urgency about responding to online inquiries that could have been avoided with more carefully worded product descriptions or better visual images.

Big Names

Call it a sign of the times.

Consider this: the biggest retailers in the United States, those that have occupied the same street corners for decades, built their businesses on customer service. That was a sign of their times.

Our own times have more to do with futuristic electronics and dazzling graphics, often at the expense of human contact.

The unfortunate joke may be on e-tailers. In the end, humans still want humans. When the online experience becomes too impersonal and frustrating, it is not that tough to drive to the local Target store.

To Do List

The good news is that this is a solvable problem. Here are some clear customer service goals e-tailers might shoot for this year:

  • Put an e-mail response time system in place. Jupiter found one-third of online consumers expect a response to an e-mail inquiry within six hours, and almost all shoppers expect a response within 48 hours.
  • Improve photo and graphic quality. Studies consistently reveal consumers want and need e-tailers to pay more attention to how they present their merchandise photographically. Clear images with technology to show various angles, and the ability to zoom in have been shown to increase sales of some products.
  • Bring back human beings. Customers who can get both instant gratification and the reassurance of human contact through live online service are likely to come back.

Open All Night

Online industries sold their concept to a skeptical consumer based largely on 24/7 availability for shopping and service.

That was the easy part. Following through and closing the sale is all about proving to the public that customer service is alive and well.

Online merchants that get to occupy their own electronic street corner for decades are likely to be the ones that recognize the importance of building relationships with their customers and inspiring loyalty to their brand.

What do you think?

Let’s talk about it.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

*Editor’s Correction Note: In the original version of this article, we incorrectly reported that among the e-tailers that did not respond to e-mail inquiries within six hours were Target, QVC, Compaq, Lands’ End and 1-800-Flowers. In fact, those were the companies that did respond within six hours.

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