January 19, 2010, 12:00 AM

Few e-retailers make customer service cut

Only 10 of 100 online merchants made the cut for stellar customer service in the latest Annual Mystery Shopping Study, conducted during the fourth quarter by The E-tailing Group Inc.

E-retailers still have a lot of learn about customer service. Only 10 of 100 online merchants made the cut for stellar customer service in the latest Annual Mystery Shopping Study, conducted during the fourth quarter by Chicago-based consultants The E-tailing Group Inc.

Even those 10 had significant gaps in service: Two took 20 hours to reply to e-mail inquiries and four rated 2.0 on a three-point scale in their call center agents’ product knowledge.

“Ten of 100 merchants exceeding expected customer service requirements certainly leaves room for improvement,” says Lauren Freedman, president of The E-tailing Group. “Stellar service should be non-negotiable and merchants shouldn’t hide behind self-service tools and technology when it comes to knowing their products and taking care of their customers.”

The 10 sites that The E-tailing Group recognized for good customer service are:

  • Blue Nile
  • Brooks Brothers
  • Coach
  • Crutchfield
  • Green Mountain Coffee (GMCR Inc.)
  • MoMa
  • Lands` End
  • REI
  • Saks Fifth Avenue
  • Zappos
“Always keep in mind the old retail adage: Customers remember the service a lot longer than they remember the price,” Freedman says.

The E-tailing Group assessed sites for these criteria (in order of importance):

  • Keyword search
  • Four or fewer days to receive package
  • Adequately and correctly answering e-mail question within 24 hours; providing a specific, rather than automated, answer
  • On-site home page accessibility of a toll-free phone number, with an assigned score by researchers of 2.0 or higher on a three-point scale
  • Customer service agents’ product knowledge when calling the toll-free number, with an assigned score by researchers of 2.0 or higher on a three-point scale
  • Five or fewer clicks to checkout
  • E-mail shipping confirmation sent
  • E-mail order confirmation sent with order number and customer service information included
  • Real-time inventory in shopping cart or on product page
Among the 10 sites rated good in customer service:
  • E-mail response time ranged from 12 minutes (Blue Nile) to 20.48 hours (Museum of Modern Art), with an average of 20.69 hours across the 100 sites surveyed.
  • Customer service agents were knowledgeable-all sites scored 2.0 or higher out of 3.0 (four scored 2.0, one scored 2.5, five scored 3.0). The average across the 100 merchants was 2.24.
  • Clicks to checkout ranged from 3 (Zappos) to 5, with a 100-site average of 5.42.
  • Business days to receive an item ranged from 1 (Zappos) to 4, with a 100-site average of 4.05. 14 of the 100 sites delivered orders within two days, and four (Amazon, Office Depot, RedEnvelope and Zappos) delivered orders the next day with no extra fees.

On the customer service e-mail front, the 20.69-hour average response time was up from 20.15 hours a year earlier. Four of the 10 outstanding sites responded in less than an hour: Blue Nile, REI, Saks Fifth Avenues and Zappos.

The rate of personalized salutations also declined among the 100 sites to 75% from 82%, and fewer gave correct answers, 72% in 2009 compared to 77% in 2008. “The obvious implication here is that while automation can be expedient, the resulting impersonal tone and risk of poor information are formidable,” the report says. “Most importantly, merchants are missing an opportune moment to connect with current and prospective customers.”

The E-tailing Group also reports longer wait times for calls to be answered, an increase in sites offering live chat (38% compared to 32% a year ago) but fewer knowledgeable answers via live chat (average experience rated at 1.7 compared to 2.5 a year ago on a three-point scale).

Adding to call centers’ stress is the decline in self-service information at sites, the E-tailing Group reports. Just 78% of the surveyed sites provided FAQs, compared to 84% last year, and the presence of real-time inventory dropped to 88% from 91% in 2008.

The E-tailing Group based its customer service rankings on analysis of 125 metrics in five groups: speed, efficiency, effectiveness, accessibility and customer control. "Analysis of 125 customer service metrics revealed trade-offs that merchants face based on logistical or infrastructure choices and challenges," Freedman says. "The merchant thought -process has far-reaching cross-channel implications that must be considered as each decides how to deliver those five essential elements.”

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