Only a third of the companies surveyed by Jupiter Research bothered to immediately acknowledge they had gotten customers' e-mail in the first place, sending an automatic response.
Most of the companies did eventually respond to consumers, but don't hold your breath; only 52 percent got back within 24 hours, while 32 percent took three days or longer.
Those response rates could come back to haunt Web sites. Earlier studies Jupiter has done found that 59 percent of high-spending consumers (those who spend more than $500 online over six months) expect a resolution within 24 hours of firing off an e-mail.
"That lack of response could drive consumers back to more costly channels such as the telephone," said David Daniels, senior analyst at Jupiter Research. "Consumers are definitely concerned about this."
Customer service has been a persistentfor Web sites. And while a host of software companies sell customer relationship management (CRM) products that are supposed to help, their effectiveness has been . Some studies find that a large number of CRM projects fail to deliver on stated goals.
Still, companies have tried to broaden their outlets for customers, the Jupiter study found. The number of respondents using searchable self-service features has risen from 13 percent to 32 percent within the past seven months, the survey found. But although self-service can be faster and cheaper, companies should be cautious about using it, the study shows.
"Self-service really lends itself to commodity goods categories (like books or CDs). When it gets up into more complicated situations, such as computing products or wireless phones, consumers absolutely said they want a real-time solution," Daniels said. "Those frequently asked-question lists are not necessarily specific enough to meet their needs. It's not a silver bullet."