February 28, 2001, 12:00 AM

Big stores and low scores

One study shows that click-and-mortar retailers are struggling with customer service responsiveness, with some of the biggest stores scoring the lowest.

Brick-and-mortar retailers expanding online may bring established brands and customer bases to the table, but when it comes to communicating with shoppers, they’re little better than many of the pure e-retailers. So says a new study by San Mateo, Calif.-based CustomerAsset, a provider of CRM software and service.

In a survey of customer service responsiveness of the web sites of nine leading brick-and-mortar retailers, the average score for overall customer service was only 38 on a scale of 0 to 100. Three of the best known retailers scored at 11 or below, while only one retailer made it into the top quartile and two made it into the second highest.

Raghu Krishnaiah, head of U.S operations for CustomerAsset, won’t disclose the names of the survey’s low-ranking retailers, but said those in the top two spots were the web sites of Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney. “A major high-end retailer known for its in-store attention to customers’ needs actually scored below one of the larger mass market discounters,” he says.

The study reached its conclusions by sending standard customer queries on subjects such as navigation, sales tax and shipping, contacting each company electronically 30 times from different e-mail sources. Responses were rated as to promptness, relevance, and tone ( friendly or unfriendly) and then assigned a number on the 100-point scale and weighted to come up with an average.

Response time played the biggest role in dragging down average scores. “The quality and tone of response were consistently good,” Krishnaiah says. “But I would have expected a much faster turn around. Twelve hours is not an unreasonable expectation. But the majority of responses came in two days or later. Quite a few didn’t respond to all the queries, and in the case of one retailer, only 10% of the queries got answers at all.” Responses that came in after four days were counted as no-shows.

While the survey didn’t track reasons for slow response time, Krishnaiah knows enough from his earlier work in retail’s offline world to speculate: organizational and operational issues. For some companies, he says, it’s simply a matter of focus. “It’s surprising that the bar at which customers set their expectations for response time is much higher than the retailers have set. But this is not hard to do,” he adds. “You just have to focus on it and make it a priority in your business.”

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