The Law of Averages: CRM on the Web

Gartner Group recently released the results of its "eTail eService Functionality Study" of the top 50 consumer e-tail sites, and the bad news is, despite the countless number of companies devoted to eCRM, customer service on the Net is abysmally poor.
How come nobody understands customer service on the Web? Ineptitude prevails, despite the countless companies devoted to eCRM -- offering live-chat sales help, ''click-the-button to telephone me'' services, track-my-own-shipment functions and such.

"Yeah, yeah," I hear you saying, "She''s just being her curmudgeonly self again."

Well, it''s not just me, I''ll have you know. It''s no less an outfit than Internet consulting and research company Gartner Group Inc., which recently released the results of its "eTail eService Functionality Study" of the top 50 consumer e-tail sites.

And guess what, e-commerce fans? The best anybody could do was "average."

The results show that even the most popular e-tailers have only average execution when it comes to customer service on the Web. No sites were rated excellent or even good -- 23 percent were average, 73 percent were fair and 4 percent were poor.

Now get this: Gartner said, and I quote: "The message to consumers is clear. For customer service on retail Web sites, pick up the phone."

This is not a pretty picture. And it''s going to cost e-tailers money, and it may already have created some of those dot com casualties in the e-commerce wars.

I mean, come on -- 100 percent of the surveyed e-tailers have not learned how to achieve excellent or even good customer service on the Web?

Satisfying customers on a Web site is less costly than driving those customers to a live call center, Gartner said. But if you can''t do that, make sure the call center is integrated to the customer''s Web experience.

"The operating cost is not the only downside to this trend. E-tailers are annoying Web customers at a time when brand loyalty is the Holy Grail," said Gartner''s Carol Ferrara. "Today, most retail call centers treat Web customers like strangers. Marketers are not integrating the Web site with the call center. Customers who are disappointed at the Web site pick up the phone only to (be required to report) all of their basic information to a representative who is blind to their Web activities and transactions."

That happened to me the last time I ordered flowers. It is incredibly annoying.

Of the sites surveyed for the Gartner study, half were virtual retailers and half were traditional retailers. Perhaps not surprisingly, the virtual retailers were more adept at customer relationship management on the Web than the traditional retailers.

Still, CRM on many e-tail sites amounts to little more than lip service, according to Gartner, as the survey details that only 10 percent of sites surveyed allow customers to track inquiries through to resolution. Only 6 percent offer a feature asking the retailer to call the customer. Only 24 percent have instant messaging, and only 28 percent will even acknowledge that an e-mail inquiry was received.

I guess the good news is that fully 90 percent of the sites featured a ''Frequently Asked Questions'' section. But that static approach to CRM is merely the starting point, Gartner says.

What''s the solution? As far as customer interaction, satisfaction and loyalty, e-tailers must implement the enabling technology that will keep their customers on the Web and out of the costly call centers, Gartner concludes.

"It''s easier to build CRM entirely on the Web with no off-line component," said Ferrara. "Traditional retailers that are integrating the off-line and online CRM must master their databases and streams to stay with their customers as they move between selling channels."

I think Gartner has pretty much hit the nail on the head here, but in the interest of fairness, you should know that I suspect they did do this study in conjunction with their preparation for Gartner''s CRM Summit 2000, to be held September 13-15 in Chicago. They make some money by getting folks to attend. Discussion will focus on business andIT imperatives "that enable more profitable customer relationships and leverage technology as a competitive advantage."

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