January 9, 2007, 12:00 AM

Nine sites earn top customer service ranking in new study

Ann Taylor, Crutchfield and Nordstrom were among winners meeting all 12 criteria for customer service and communication in the 9th Annual Mystery shopping study by The E-tailing Group.


The repeat-winner web sites of Ann Taylor, Crutchfield, and Nordstrom were among the nine sites ranked highest for customer service in the 9th Annual Mystery Shopping study by Chicago-based consultants The E-tailing Group. Other top-ranking sites in this survey who have also won previously included the web sites of Bluefly and J. Crew. Rounding out the top nine were the web sites of first-time winners Babystyle, Golfsmith, J. Jill and Williams-Sonoma.

The nine merchants who qualified as “top ranking” in the survey all met 12 must-have criteria for customer service and communication. “We took a three-pronged look at customer service in 2006 by benchmarking call center contact in addition to auditing online metrics and e-mail to the merchants. Live chat, where available, was examined as a fourth communication option,” says Lauren Freedman, president of The E-tailing Group.

100 sites were shopped in the fourth quarter to come up with the top nine. Criteria met by winners, in order of importance, started with having a toll-free number on the site, a keyword search function, and correctly answering an e-mail query, providing specific information, within 25 hours.

Other criteria ranged from completing delivery of an order within four days and requiring six or fewer clicks to complete checkout; to displaying customer service hours and a shopping deadline for holiday delivery on the site.

For the first time, this year`s survey found that all of the sites shopped listed a toll free telephone number–though on some sites it was less prominent than on others–and most offered additional contact information. In reviewing call center communication for the first time this year, the survey found that the 97 sites offering call center support averaged a score of 4.0 on a scale of 5.0. However, overall customer experience averaged only 3.5 on the same scale as customer service reps were “too often simply computer operators reading information from pre-formatted scripts,” according to the survey report.

In the survey, the average time to respond to e-mail queries dropped to just under 24 hours from an average 30 hours last year. Shopping cart technology also was rated for the first time in this survey, with perpetual shopping carts found on 55% of the sites and 7% of sites offering Google checkout. Deferred payment options were found on 35% of the sites, up from 15% in the previous year`s survey. Additional metrics in the survey included real-time inventory on a site, number of clicks to checkout and post-order e-mail confirmation.

Overall, Freedman identified eight areas of improvement for online merchants in terms of customer service, based on the results of the survey. Among them, she notes that toll free numbers alone aren’t enough; merchants must make them easy to find starting with placement on the home page. Additionally, she recommends that call center agents be trained on products and that, if all agents can`t be trained on all products, specialists be designated.

Finally, Freedman stresses that while online merchants are embracing the economies of self-service, "It’s imperative that self-service should not replace customer service to fully maximize the capabilities of the web as a sales channel. Efficiency is not always effective,” she says.


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