Retailers Struggle With Online Customer Service

By Heather Baldwin

Imagine leaving a customer who calls in to your company on hold for more than three days. Sound crazy? In essence, that’s what 40 percent of online retailers did during the 2001 holiday season, according to a study by Jupiter Media Matrix. The New York-based firm, a leader in Internet and new technology analysis and measurement, scrutinized response rates to customer emails and found that a whopping 40 percent of online-only retailers took more than three days to respond, or, even more startling, they did not respond at all. Talk about killing customer relationships!

The data tracked customer-service response to emails coming in to 250 leading brick-and-mortar and online-only retailers in December 2001. Only 28 percent of brick-and-mortar firms and 33 percent of online-only retailers responded to emails within six hours; another 28 percent of brick-and-mortar companies – nearly one-third of those analyzed -took more than three days or did not respond at all to customer inquiries via email.

The findings are particularly significant when placed next to the results of a November 2001 Jupiter Consumer Survey. In that poll, 57 percent of consumers said the speed of a retailer’s response to customer-service email inquiries would affect their decision to make future purchases from that retailer’s Website. And companies with both a brick-and-mortar and online presence would be hit doubly hard: 53 percent of consumers said they would be less likely to buy again from a retailer’s off-line store if they had an unsatisfying experience with the online store. Only 3 percent of those polled professed not to be influenced by the speed and quality of online service – that tiny fraction said they would continue to buy from their favorite stores regardless of slow online customer service.

Jupiter’s message: “It’s time for retailers to focus on the basics and invest in critical email customer-service automation systems,” says David Daniels, a senior analyst with Jupiter. “Retailers must scrutinize online customer-service response times, contact-center service levels and staffing resources. The implications of unsatisfying online service remain particularly harsh.”