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R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to tech firms

Customer Respect Group says tech firms have taken customer service up a notch, but still have trouble responding to e-mails.

When it comes to online customer service, U.S. tech companies only slightly outpace their counterparts in other industries and have plenty of room for improvement, according to a new survey by the Customer Respect Group.

The international research and consulting group, which published results of a new survey on Friday, said e-mail responsiveness is "surprisingly poor" at high-tech companies. What's more, the industry as a whole is inconsistent with regard to keeping customer data private.

Siebel Systems and Toshiba America ranked last among high-tech companies in the study. Others at the bottom of the list include Epson America, Affiliated Computer Services, and Computer Sciences Corp.

At the other end of the spectrum, Hewlett-Packard and Xerox topped the high-tech charts with scores indicating overall excellence. Microsoft, Dell, Gateway, Symantec, Electronic Arts, Accenture, Adobe Systems and Electronic Data Systems rounded out the top 10.

In coming up with its rankings, the

"We were pleased to see an overall increase in the industry's Customer Respect Index scores since the last report," Terry Golesworthy, president of the Customer Respect Group, said in a statement. "But we continue to be concerned that the high-tech industry, which we believe has the know-how to do even better, hasn't yet found the will."

High-tech companies scored an average of 6.4 points in the survey, which was conducted this spring. The industry showed improvement over the end of last year, when the average score was 6. The average for all industries in this latest survey was 5.9, with 10 being the highest score possible.

Poor response rates to customer e-mails were the biggest drag on high-tech companies' scores, with 45 percent earning a "poor" rating for responsiveness. Computer firms completely ignored a "staggering 27 percent" of e-mail inquiries, the report noted.

"High-tech firms overall supplied less helpful answers than other industries with 40 percent of all responses considered less than very helpful," the Customer Respect Group's report stated.

The high-tech pack showed overall improvement in the privacy category, with IBM, HP and Veritas leading the way. Yet the industry is only average when compared with other industries on keeping data out of the hands of third parties, the report said. Nearly one-third of the high-tech companies in the study were either unclear about how they handle customer data or in fact shared data with their parties. Eight percent of sites provided no means to "opt out" of future marketing campaigns.