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Top Online Merchants, Questionable Customer Service: Study

January 21, 2010

There is good news and bad news for e-retailers in the e-tailing group's 12th Annual Mystery Shopping Study. Conducted during 4Q 2009, it recognizes ten merchants out of the 100 benchmarked for excelling at online customer service. These are: in alphabetical order:

*          Blue Nile
*          Brooks Brothers
*          Coach
*          Crutchfield
*          Green Mountain
*          Land’s End
*          MoMa
*          REI
*          Saks Fifth Avenue
*          Zappos

To qualify as ‘top performing’ each of the 100 merchants was ranked using benchmarking criteria extrapolated directly from results of the survey. The top retailers for online customer service were revealed via a process whereby sites were systematically eliminated for not possessing 'must have' criteria in the following order of importance:
1.         Keyword search
2.         Four or fewer days to receive package
3.         Adequately and correctly answer e-mail question within 24 hours; providing a specific (rather than automated) answer
4.         On-site home page accessibility of toll-free phone number 2.0 or higher on a scale of 3.0
5.         Agent product knowledge when calling toll-free numbers 2.0 or higher on a scale of 3.0
6.         Five or fewer clicks to checkout
7.         E-mail shipping confirmation sent
8.         E-mail order confirmation sent with order number and customer service information included
9.         Real-time inventory in shopping cart or on product page
Four metrics from the survey are charted here to demonstrate the exemplary performance of these top sites for customer service versus the average of the 100 sites shopped.

“These merchants clearly went beyond the call of duty to fulfill customer expectations,” says Lauren Freedman, President of the e-tailing group. “Notably three of the ten who met our criteria were also recognized last year - Brooks Brothers, Crutchfield, and Lands' End. We believe service should be the differential that defines best-in-class retailing and as such we will continue to reward stellar merchants for exceptional performance. We congratulate them all.”
The bad news is that merchants have too often made tradeoffs to achieve success, and the big loser there is customer service.
The e-tailing group reported that e-retailers “upped the ante” on faster deliveries resulting in fewer days for orders to reach customers i.e. 4.05 in 2009 vs. 4.76 in 2008. This trend continues to impact the desire for consumers to shop at retail for urgent and immediate needs when orders placed at night are delivered the next business day. This turns first time buyers into loyal customers and influencers.
“Unfortunately the cost to maintain such a delivery standard may only be possible for the largest merchants making competing more difficult for others,” says the report. “While 14 out of the EG100 merchants delivered in two days, four provided expedient delivery in one day without extra shipping fees: Amazon, Office Depot, RedEnvelope and Zappos.”
Merchants have been wisely investing and accordingly several new metrics were added to this study which it says will be important for benchmarking going forward. Among those to watch are: pre-populated customer information in the shopping cart (89 percent, single cart checkout from multiple merchants under one umbrella brand (50 percent) and the ability to reorder from order history (10 percent).
The report also found increased penetration year over year for fast buy/direct to cart buying from multiple site locations (62 percent versus 39 percent). Expanded tracking included pages where this could be initiated which was most often the cart (69 percent) followed by the category page (63 percent). Mini carts/perpetual shopping carts also added to site efficiency on 92 percent of the EG 100 in 2009 compared with 77 percent in 2008 as did pop-up/mouse-over-carts resulting in full cart displays (39 percent versus 30 percent).
To be effective merchants must stand behind their products, says the report, giving the customers the confidence to buy. 57 percent did offer product guarantees, 60 percent of which were wisely merchandised: both new metrics introduced this year. However, these guarantees could be stronger with dedicated placement on the customer service pages and in the shopping cart to be truly meaningful.
Yet too many merchants have been overlooking their service. They took slightly longer to respond (20.69 minutes in 2009 versus 20.15 minutes in 2008). When a response was received it was less likely to have a personalized salutation (75 percent versus 82 percent) and fewer gave correct answers (72 percent compared with 77 percent).
“The obvious implication here is that while automation can be expedient, the resulting impersonal tone and risk of poor information are formidable,” says the report. “Most importantly, merchants are missing an opportune moment to connect with current and prospective customers.”
Contact center performance also suffered with longer wait times. Offsetting this situation, more sites provided click-to-chat (38 percent in 2009 versus 32 percent in 2008) and overall chat times were shorter but service declined (1.7 versus 2.5 on a 3-point scale with 3 equaling best).
“These substandard experiences were likely the result of staff reductions and/or reduced training funds,” said the survey. “We caution merchants to closely monitor such decisions as their short-term savings may not be judicious in the long-term.”
Cost cutting efforts appear to have decreased the amount of essential information and tools that are “always available” or shown at timely points throughout the shopping experience. Just 78 percent of the surveyed sites provided FAQs compared with 84 percent last year, and the presence of real-time inventory dropped to 88 percent in 2009 from 91 percent in 2008. Unfortunately without these features, says the survey “customers cannot self-manage their shopping experiences as easily which may ultimately increase call center and e-mail agent load-demand.”
Moreover, post-purchase, 7 percent fewer merchants (68 percent versus 75 percent) provided a customer service phone number within their e-mail order confirmations.  When this critical information is unavailable, said the report “it is a major frustration for most online shoppers and sends a message that the merchant does not wish to be bothered with individual concerns.”
At the same time though merchants have been empowering customers so that they can self-manage elements which it says is a viable merchant option for cost containment. Requiring membership was a factor on 24 percent of sites in 2009 versus 16 percent last year. A new self-service metric found 32 percent providing the ability to move items or an entire cart to a wish list.
Payment plans are another way of giving customers control. This accounts for an increased penetration of deferred payment (47 percent in 2009 versus 40 percent in 2008) as well as PayPal (34 percent as compared with 23 percent).Post-order, customers can also share their thoughts as evidenced by two more new metrics: post-order targeted e-mail to review/rate a purchase (22 percent) and post-order targeted e-mail surveys (26 percent).
“The caveats to such customer service initiatives are that they be skillfully implemented, extremely accessible, creatively promoted, and cautiously managed with an eye toward what really nets out as cost containment without negatively impacting the customer experience,” said Freedman. “They should be effective for the customer yet bottom-line oriented for the merchants.”

Brendan B. Read is ContactCenterSolutions’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi