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Getting help is easy--when you have money

The cost of doing business online has created a new digital divide: between wealthy customers who get exceptional service and the masses who struggle to reach the help desk.


Getting help is easy--when you have money

By Stefanie Olsen and Rachel Konrad
Staff Writers, CNET
September 14, 2000, 8:30 a.m. PT

The cost of doing business online has created a new kind of digital divide: between wealthy customers who get exceptional service and the masses who struggle just to get through to a help desk.

Many companies have weighed the expense of staffing a phone bank--which can cost up to $4 for each incoming toll-free call--and have decided that it's just not worth it to offer those services to everyone.

Except when they're dealing with a big spender, that is. Then the customer gets special phone numbers, personal shopping services and live one-on-one transactions with optional Webcams and chat boxes.

Know your rights:

• The Better Business Bureau is voting this month on new standards, called codes of online business practices, for Internet companies that want to carry its trusted seal. The codes emphasize disclosure on Web sites so that consumers can easily find such information as physical and email addresses, phone numbers, names of people to contact, and return information and privacy policies.

•, develeped by the American Bar Association, gives consumers tips on safe shopping online, including info about their privacy rights and how to find out whether the retailer is trustworthy.

To file a complaint:

The Federal Trade Commission has an online form for consumer complaints.

The Better Business Bureau also lets consumers file complaints online.

Consumers can also file grievances with the Office of the State Attorney General in their state or the state where the seller is located. Find this office through the National Association of Attorneys General.

Most online retailers offer phone services for all customers to strengthen their brand name and give people a reason to return. But many other types of Internet businesses provide special services to special clients.

Financial services companies such as Charles Schwab and Fidelity roll out the red carpet for valuable customers by offering the equivalent of a toll-free hotline that reaches a team of experts quickly. Clients with assets of more than $100,000 can expect this service from online brokerages, while patrons making bare-bone trades at $7.95 apiece wind up with a generic service number.

special report: Customer disservice "Premier customers are starting to get premier service," said Dan Burke, a senior brokerage analyst at Gomez, while others "are getting dumped into mainstream customer service phone lines."

This may be a product of the growing mass-market popularity of stock trading. "If a company hasn't made much money on you, they need to do something like that in order to control costs," said James Vogtle, director of e-commerce research at The Boston Consulting Group.

Such costs can rise exponentially when the service is free. For example, publishing a toll-free customer service number could be economically crushing for Internet giant Yahoo. But the company said customers of their premium services, such as Yahoo Wallet, get a toll-free number for questions.

"You can't treat every customer the same because their profitability to the company is not the same," Vogtle said. "It's not something that's new. It started at the general store, and it continues in the online store."

Special Report: Customer disservice Another increasingly popular approach is to charge for telephone help. Starting this month, Microsoft is putting a price tag on telephone support for various software products, including Microsoft Office and Windows 2000. The company, which has given Office customers unlimited assistance with no charge, will give free support for only two "incidents," or problems; beyond that, it will charge $35 per problem.

Netscape gives free customer support through email, promising that a tech person will respond within 24 hours. But for phone help, it charges $29 per call, or customers can buy a support package of calls for around $100.

Many analysts say such practices make sense for the computer industry, which has long struggled to prevent the high cost of customer service from eating profits. "It's difficult to compete on cost and service at the same time," said Cormac Forster, an analyst at Jupiter Communications.

He said almost every site may need to start breaking out customer communications just as airlines do with frequent-flier programs. "To the degree that your margins and profits allow you to spend on customer service, then it's typically a wise investment," Forster said.

Some businesses make customer service a priority to stand out from their competition. Computer maker Dell has used online forums with technicians, Q&A with experts, and toll-free phone lines to build its brand and keep customers coming back.

At the extreme end of customer service is "telepresence" technology, which uses Webcams and digital photographs for one-on-one shopping guidance. Chicago-based Perceptual Robotics, which developed the technology, expects it to become widely available on the Web.

At Neiman Marcus Online, the technology allows customers to shop for, say, red dresses in a size 10 with matching accessories. A store employee photographs the possible selections and emails images to the customer, who can choose to shop further at a private site for viewing.

"Personal shopper is the cr?me de la cr?me, the best of the best," said Gayle Tremblay, vice president of Dallas-based Neiman Marcus Online. "Everything we sell in the store we've sold online that way, from cosmetics to jewelry to home d?cor to fashion to handbags."

But analysts note that not all companies can afford to offer this service: Employees must be given the time to gather, photograph and email the images. And on the other end, the customer needs a fast Internet connection.

"It's pretty high end. I can't particularly see it being used at J.C. Penney," said Ben Dyer, chairman of Atlanta-based Intellimedia Commerce, which manages email customer service requests for companies.

The bottom line: The "customer is always right" adage of the old economy applies to e-businesses too.

"As the online population becomes more of a mass-market population, e-commerce companies will need to deal with consumers whichever way they're most comfortable, which is usually through the phone," Vogtle said. "The mass market expects a seamless process."  

Back to: Customer disservice 

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