Retail sites fall short on customer service –

Customers won't all experience quality customer service from online retailers this holiday season, a study released today suggests.

Customers are more likely to get a better response to inquiries by phone than via e-mail, according to Gomez Advisors Inc. in Lincoln, Mass. The market research company surveyed the customer service and performance of 79 online retail sites between Nov. 27 and Dec. 5. Customer service is one element in building a loyal consumer base and grabbing some of the $11.4 billion in online sales expected this season, said Barrett Ladd, a senior retail analyst at Gomez.

"I don't think you have to be a top performer to retain customers, but you need to be a good performer to satisfy customers," Ladd said. "Customers are not going to wait around four days for you to respond to their question. Speed and accuracy are important."

Only 14% of the companies monitored answered three out of four e-mailed questions accurately. Sixty-seven percent of the online retailers took more than 30 seconds to answer the phone, while the wait to download a home page was six seconds, on average.

Online retail bellwether Inc., long known for providing a positive customer service experience, gave a mixed performance when Gomez contacted the Seattle-based company, Ladd said. A Gomez surveyor called and was put on hold for more than a minute. Once someone was reached, the customer service representative gave answers with "fairly good accuracy," Ladd said. As far as responses to e-mail, it took Amazon a "long time" to answer questions, she said.

"They really have been known to be at the top with customer experience, and they have fallen down recently," Ladd said.

According to the "Holiday 2000 Customer Experience Audit," consumers aren't assured of an accurate answer from online retailers to their e-mailed customer service questions. Thirty percent of e-mails were not returned, while 40% of the questions were answered quickly.

Gomez deemed the wait times as "satisfactory," as most e-mail was responded to within 12 hours' time. Still, the average response time was 26 hours.

A positive review was given to Denver-based Inc., which answered daily e-mails within two hours and with 100% accuracy, Gomez said in the study. In contrast, Portland, Ore.-based electronics seller, a division of Good Guys Inc., took several days to get an e-mail back and provided a "not very accurate response," Ladd said.

On the phone, the customer service experience was better, as the median hold time was 52 seconds, from the time of the first ring to hearing a live customer service agent's voice. Sixty-three percent of the questions posed were answered correctly. Medford, Ore.-based gift seller Harry and David Inc. won top honors, as the retailer picked up the phone in a matter of seconds and answered all questions accurately.

As far as various industries go, sporting goods online retailers provided the best customer service experience. Some of the sporting goods online retailers included in the Gomez study were PlanetOutdoors, Eastern Mountain Sports Inc. and, the online site for Dick's Sporting Goods Inc.

The phone response from sporting goods stores averaged 223 seconds, while e-mail was responded to within 11 hours on average, according to the study. On the downside, general merchant, music and apparel retailers gave lackluster performances. Those industries fell to the bottom in both phone and e-mail response times and accuracy of response.

Some of the general merchants that provided marginal performances included JCPenney Co. and, Kmart Corp.'s online home. Stores like music retailer VirginMegaStores, a division of Virgin Group PLC; gift seller RedEnvelope Inc.; and general merchant Fingerhut Cos. failed to answer the phone after five minutes and the surveyor hung up, Ladd said.

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