January 19, 2001, 12:00 AM

40% of Web retailers fail e-mail response test

Don Davis

Editor in Chief

With customer service entering its most important time of the year, Internet sites are increasingly failing to respond to customer e-mails, according to a new study from Jupiter Communications Inc. Though more than half of surveyed Web retailers responded to customer service e-mails in a day, another 40% failed Jupiter's test, up from 28% in third quarter of 1998.
     Jupiter's quarterly online customer service survey targets 125 top sites in five categories--content, consumer brands, travel, retail, and financial services--to gauge response time to e-mails requesting simple support. Overall, 46% of sites either took five or more days to respond to a query, never responded, or didn't post an e-mail address for customer inquiries. The failure rate is up from 38% in an identical survey in third quarter 1998.
     "Despite Web ventures' claims last year that they were going to focus on customer service as a primary investment and implement major advances in automated assistance packages, the state of online customer service continues to decline," says Cormac Foster, an analyst with Jupiter's site operation strategies practice. "Many Web ventures are ignoring the opportunity to communicate with existing and potential customers, discouraging brand loyalty, and opting out of a user-initiated, one-to-one relationship by delaying, eliminating, or not offering responses to e-mail."

In research released this fall, Jupiter estimated that high-trafficked commerce sites could experience 58,000 transactions per day on average. But many commerce sites had not prepared the proper fulfillment system for handling that volume, the firm added, putting a strain on their customer service systems.
     "Considering the number of highly publicized customer service problems that sites experienced last holiday season, it's very troubling to see a further decline in the overall failure rate," said Ken Allard, vice president of Jupiter's technology and operations research. "This declining service rate may signal much bigger problems during peak holiday traffic, but it offers a chance for Web ventures to differentiate their efforts based on customer service performance."
     Jupiter recommends a multichannel, automated customer service strategy. The new research shows that only 37% of Web ventures combined three or more customer service channels of their Web sites. In addition, businesses adopting these new technologies often implemented them inappropriately, reducing the overall value and compounding customer support problems.
     Retail sites should offer live chat and possibly phone service to qualified users who intend to make a purchase, Jupiter says.

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