Customer service paramount in online business

It takes time to convince marketers quality’s better than quantity where customer databases are concerned

How long should a website customer wait for a response to an e-mail enquiry – an hour, a day, a week?

With so many online brands fighting for our attention, why are the majority of e-mail services so poor? What incentive are websites giving consumers to use e-mail when they could pick up the phone instead?

On the one hand, e-mail offers customers 24-hour contact with a company. Targeted e-mail marketing can also be used to build sales and loyalty. In these respects, the telephone can’t match e-mail’s versatility and economies of scale.

On the other hand, e-mail doesn’t lend itself to every type of enquiry and it is creating service expectations that many companies simply cannot live up to.

You might expect high levels of call centre service to be matched online by established brands. However, the latest survey by Rainier showed that only 71 per cent of FTSE 100 companies could be contacted by e-mail and 20 per cent of those still hadn’t replied to an e-mail enquiry after three months. Yes, you read that correctly: three months.

The problem lies in the lack of effective e-mail management strat-egies. It is taking a long time to convince marketers that quality is more important than quantity where customer databases are concerned. And top management still needs to be persuaded of the need to throw its weight behind customer service – even more so online.

Many call centres do have some sort of e-mail facility, but all too often this is kept isolated from the “bread and butter” work which is focused on the phone. It is not surprising, therefore, that most online consumers feel they’ll get further, and quicker, by going straight for the phone.

After all, if clarification is needed, an e-mail dialogue can take an age. You can outsource e-mail to a third party but this only really works if your product offering is simple or if you invest heavily in training.

As e-mail becomes the preferred method of communication at home, work and on the move, companies implementing a soph-isticated e-mail management strategy will take the lead in the battle for e-loyalty.

Meanwhile, the majority of customers will be left waiting and it won’t be the phone they turn to if their expectations aren’t met. It’ll be the nearest competitor.

Peter Burns is marketing manager for ITN New Media, whose websites include

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