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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com.