Help me? No, drop dead

If you've put in a Web site inquiry, consultant Terry Golesworthy explains why you shouldn't hold your breath waiting for a response.

3 min read
Why don't more corporations respond to online inquiries? That's one of the questions that continue to puzzle me as I analyze Web sites.

Given the efforts marketing departments make to collect customer data, one would think they'd see an incoming query as a gift. But too many corporations don't see it that way, including the financial services firms my research firm recently surveyed in our First Quarter 2005 report.

Increasingly, prospective and existing customers are interacting with corporations electronically, both for research and purchasing purposes. Those that ignore online inquiries are alienating consumers--especially young "affluents," the 24- to 33-year-olds earning $75,000 or above who are the heaviest Internet users (and most likely to be asking the questions). In fact, our research indicates that 70 percent of consumers go to a competitor's site if they don't receive a timely response to an online inquiry. And losing those customers is a faux pas few companies can afford.

An amazing one out of five inquiries never receives a reply.
Beyond loss of business, there is another reason companies should answer inquiries: Incoming e-mail can provide a great opportunity for cost reduction. A self-service approach can slash the cost of a customer interaction from as much as $35 on the phone to 75 cents online--a potential savings of 98 percent for just one transaction. Some 37 percent of online customers have used customer support on a site, and support costs can be reduced by $5 to $25 per incident by providing good online support facilities.

Our research indicates that users expect both a timely and helpful response from online sites. Timely, according to users, is within a day--and that window is decreasing.

Unfortunately, most customers dealing with financial services firms are likely to be disappointed. In fact, only one in three have any chance of receiving a helpful and timely response. And within the securities industries and credit card companies, the chances are even lower.

So what happens to the people who don't get an answer within a day? Some get a response the next day, but a third receive messages that deemed unhelpful, often involving canned text and stock answers directing users to the Web site. An amazing one out of five customers never receives a reply.

The rest get replies that dribble in over the next three to four days, and they often ignore them, having since moved on. The issue of responsiveness transcends industries. In discussions with major corporations, I am often told they receive far too many e-mails per day to send replies to each inquirer. My response is to ask them whether online customers are as important as the ones that walk into a business branch or call on the telephone. Would it be acceptable to say, "Look, we get so many calls per day that we sometimes let them go to voicemail, answer what we can and delete the rest"?

Some companies are already responding quickly and fully to inquiries, particularly "new age" companies that depend on the Internet as a fundamental part of their business.
Some companies are already responding quickly and fully to inquiries, particularly "new age" companies that depend on the Internet as a fundamental part of their business.

Not surprisingly, these companies respond to e-mails quickly, often in less than four hours, and sometimes within the hour. For example, Amazon.com leads the way for responsiveness in retail, Dell in computer products, E-Loan in financial services and Orbitz in the travel industry. Through their Web-focused approach--which treats e-mail communications as part of the business process, integrating fully with back-end systems--these companies have begun to take significant business away from traditional players that haven't seen the light.

The good news is that in response to competitive pressures, some mainstream companies have re-engineered their own business processes to increase online responsiveness. That's important because e-mail responsiveness is a key litmus test for companies to determine whether they are structured to attract and service online consumers.

Think of a corporation's Web site as the front door for its most demographically desirable customers. If companies don't respond to the knocking on the door, they're effectively giving away that portion of their online business. And since more than 10 percent of all purchases in the U.S. are either researched or consummated on the Web, they had better open the door.