January 10, 2006, 12:00 AM

Online customer service fell short during the holidays, says new study

A fourth-quarter 2005 study of 100 online retailers found an overall decline in the level of customer service compared to a year earlier, The E-Tailing Group reported today in its 8th Annual Mystery Shopping Study.

A fourth-quarter 2005 study of 100 online retailers found an overall decline in the level of customer service compared to a year earlier, The E-Tailing Group reported today in its 8th Annual Mystery Shopping Study. “We found the quality of customer service online less satisfactory than last year,” said president Lauren Freedman.

Among the shortfalls were a drop to 93% from 95% in the number of sites offering a toll-free customer service telephone number, which The E-Tailing Group lists as the most important customer service feature.

The study also found declines in service among most of the other customer service features that E-Tailing Group considers the most important. “Overall, merchants appeared to be less vested in customer service as more drill-down was required to find answers to questions on-site; contact information was not readily available; FAQs and guarantees were less visible,” Freedman said. “Address-checking tools and return registration log-ins were not always correct, shipping deals were more qualified and it took longer to receive products.”

An exception was keyword search, which was available on 97% of sites in Q4 2005, up from 95% a year earlier. In addition, 64% of queries with misspelled search phrases delivered the correct results, up from 54%.

In responding to customer e-mails, which E-Tailing Group notes should be done within 25 hours, the average response time was 30 hours, compared to 26 years a year earlier.

Customers should receive their packages within four or fewer days, the firm says, but its study found an average of 4.4 days, virtually unchanged from 4.5 days a year earlier.

Online shoppers should have six or fewer clicks from product selection to checkout, the firm says. The study found an average of 5.3, but this was up from 4.8 a year earlier.

Real-time inventory status was shown on 76% of sites in the study, down from 79% in 2004, although among retailers deploying this feature, 80% offered it on product pages as well as in the shopping cart, up from 71%.

89% of sites e-mailed shipping confirmations, down from 97%. On a more positive note, 96% of sites provided online shipping status, up from 92%.

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