Customer service a Net oxymoron

Customer service on the Web leaves much to be desired, Jupiter Communications reports, based on a survey of 125 major Web sites in five categories.

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Customer service on the Web leaves much to be desired, Jupiter Communications reported today, based on a survey of 125 major Web sites in five categories: content, consumer brands, travel, retail, and financial services.

The research firm said 42 percent of the sites surveyed either never responded to customer inquiries, took more than five days to reply, or didn't offer email responses to reported problems.

Jupiter's survey found that online retailers had the best customer service, with 54 percent responding in less than one day to emailed questions from a Jupiter researcher. Among other e-commerce sites, those of financial services firms and online travel agencies fared better than average, although 19 percent of the travel sites queried took at least three days to reply or simply never responded.

"A lot of sites don't recognize it's a problem they should be servicing, and we found a large number were failing entirely," said Ken Allard, group director of Jupiter's new site operations group.

"They were basically entirely unprepared for it," he added. "They didn't plan that when they put up a Web site with an email response that suddenly they would get bombarded by hundreds or thousands of emails a day. They had no process in place to respond, no business rules, and no way to route incoming email."

When the Internet was still in its infancy, Webmasters and online business managers didn't have the tools or applications necessary to help them handle the deluge of online customer inquiries. Today, however, a plethora of companies offer software to meet that demand.

Responding to customers inquiries is key for Web sites, Allard said, because it is far too easy for a customer to click over to a rival's home page if his questions go unanswered. Jupiter recommended an immediate automated response to all incoming requests to at least acknowledge that an inquiry has been received and to offer an estimate of how long a full response will take.

One site surveyed by Jupiter hosted 18 separate email addresses for various kinds of specific customer questions, relying on users to select the right email queue to receive a response--hardly an efficient set-up.

But based on Jupiter's interviews with managers of travel, retail, and financial services sites, Allard predicted that there is reason to be hopeful going forward. Between 85 percent and 90 percent of sites in those high-service categories will be equipped to respond to questions within one business day by the middle of 1999, he predicted.

"Email is becoming a very common way of contacting people and companies," said David Ferris of Ferris Research. "Five years hence, you'll be placing advertisements and giving an email address; and the replies will often come in in the tens or hundreds of thousands. To respond, special processing software will be needed--think of an email version of call centers."

Among technology vendors, Jupiter's Allard named the automatic response systems of Brightware and Aptex Software as most effective, an opinion shared by Ferris.

Allard noted that companies with existing call centers already have expertise in house and should leverage it to boost their online customer support efforts.

The top management software vendors for tracking and prioritizing inquiries are Kana and Adante, Allard added, noting that Mustang Software also offers a solution.

In addition, a multitude of chat vendors have adapted their technology for customer support.

"There's just no barrier to entry in that segment," Allard said, naming Acuity (formerly ichat) and Business Evolution as leaders in a crowded field that includes SiteBridge, eShare Technologies, and ValiSoft.