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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, C@LL CENTER Solutions

[August 25, 1999]

E-Service: Who's Naughty And Who's Nice

These days, it seems we can't swing a mouse pad without hitting some mention of e-commerce. It's everywhere…smug companies on TV commercials offering their Web sites to consumers, print ads highlighting Web sites, news media coverage and research organization statistics about e-commerce. But what about e-service? This is the channel that should theoretically be in place to follow-up on e-sales. If I buy a green wool blazer from a store at the mall and it spontaneously combusts three days after purchase, I would take the charred remains back to the physical store and complain. But what if I'd bought it online?

Several companies and research organizations have put e-service to the test recently. Net Effect Systems, an e-commerce solutions provider, recently conducted a survey of 25 high-visibility e-commerce sites. An oft-cited finding of this survey, that 67 percent of online shopping carts are abandoned before purchase, was directly linked by Net Effect to a lack of service by e-commerce vendors. Other dismal statistics included that less than 10 percent of purchasers return for a second purchase, 75 percent of vendors have no real policy for online customer service, 90 percent of vendors do not have a Web-based customer management system and 90 percent of the sites have no real-time online assistance. The most appalling finding, however, was that 80 percent of the sites had no immediate future plans for implementing an online customer service and support process.

Additionally, Jupiter Communications conducted a study recently on e-service and concluded that 42 percent of top-ranked Web sites either took longer than five days to reply to customer e-mails or never replied at all.

So what gives? The 1998 holiday selling season for e-commerce was estimated at $3.1 billion, and we can be assured that 1999 will be even bigger. My question is, what happened to those people who bought online during the holiday season last year and had to return items? What happened to the customer who ordered The Three Tenors CD and received Tom Jones' Greatest Hits: The Double Live Album From Las Vegas? Is that customer gritting his teeth listening to "She's A Lady" when he had hoped for arias from "La Traviata"? Will these consumers who got burned return for another round when it's clear that little has been done to improve service? Not likely. However, a whole new round of victims is probably clicking away as I write, getting ready for the 1999 holiday gift season.

Not one to take other people's research at 100 percent face value, I formulated an abbreviated test of my own. I visited the sites of 23 companies, both small and large, that either sell or offer service off their Web sites.

My inquiries were basic. To the clothing retailers, I directed questions about sizing. For books and music, I asked about shipping options. To companies offering food items, I posed questions about their use of cottonseed oil, a common food allergen. To two skincare/cosmetic companies, I queried them on the availability of sensitive skin products.

My thoughts were, "Surely e-service can't be all THAT bad. With the billions of dollars being spent online each year, at least half of e-businesses must have good Web-based customer service in place. Even the dimmest companies would realize that people won't buy over a channel that has been consistently proved to be one-way, to the customer's disadvantage."

Mea culpa, I was wrong. My e-mailed questions turned up a few personal responses, a couple of useless auto-reply messages which seemed to imply, "Thanks for visiting our Web site…now PLEASE go away," and a majority of non-responses, leading me to entitle my experiment "the good, the mediocre, the bad and the ugly." One might think that companies falling into the "good" category were those with fast response times, but in relative terms, I ranked them as the companies that actually responded to my question, even if it was four days later.

The Good And The Mediocre

  • A small, specialized clothing site sent me a personalized response in seven minutes. This company needs to start offering lessons to other e-tailers.
  • Staples not only sent me a personal response within two and a half hours, they asked for clarification of my question and asked how they could be of further assistance.
  • L.L. Bean sent me a personalized response in four and a half hours.
  • Avon sent me an auto-reply about nine hours later, informing me that they would be slow to answer e-mails due to volume, but sent me a personalized response about seventeen hours after my initial e-mail.
  • Levi's replied to my question, albeit four days later. Hey…still better than the bad and the ugly!

The Bad And The Ugly
Even if you didn't do well in math in school, you can figure out that if only five companies ranked acceptable, that leaves 18 companies in the online customer service abyss. One of these, I might add, is a huge book and music chain that prides itself on its online presence. Problems that occurred fell into the following categories: no visible means of contacting the company via e-mail; a process theoretically in place but resulting in a string of error messages when I attempted to send an e-mail; or finally, a total lack of any kind of response after six days. The companies that really irritated me (the "ugly") required me to fill out a form with all sorts of personal information before I could send my question. To add insult to injury, these two sites never responded to me. Yet they still captured my demographic information so they can pepper me with e-mail, telephone and snail mail promotions. Grrrrr.

It's hard to feel sorry for the companies that are failing dismally in the e-service arena. Business often follows the principle of survival of the fittest, and the natural course of action is that no matter how hip your products, your Web site, your logo and your advertising, if you don't have the e-service in place to accommodate online shoppers, you're eventually going to crash and burn. For companies needing help in this arena, there are products showing up on the market designed to help improve the speed and quality of e-service and the integration of e-mail into the contact center: Silknet's eService product, Hewlett-Packard's WebQoS technology, Siebel's eService and Quintus' eContact, just to name a few.

E-tailers may be wrestling with Y2K plans at the moment, but there's another specter on their horizons. E-Santa is coming to town soon, and he'll be much less lenient than last year in determining which e-tailers have been naughty and which have been nice.

Tracey S. Roth welcomes your comments at troth@tmcnet.com.

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