Room to improve

As confidence in e-commerce grows, so complacency sets in. Businesses will need to provide a far better service before they can convince their customers that it’s worth staying online

Last Christmas promised to be the time when e-commerce came into its own. But thousands of consumers were disappointed by late deliveries and customer service representatives who couldn’t even tell whether orders had been despatched or not.

Yet, in spite of this rocky start, online purchasing is booming. In the six months to August this year, consumers spent £2.5bn online – a three-fold growth on last year according to BMRB – and more than 6 million of us now shop on the Web. Ninety-seven per cent, claims BMRB, are happy with the experience.

However, many believe that such high figures are the result of low expectation and that much still needs to be done to improve preand post-purchase service levels. For example, research from Visual Insights into 200 UK organisations has found that only five per cent of businesses analyse site performance and buyer behaviour. Of those that do, few either understand, or act on, the findings of Web log reports.

“There are simple rules to successful online trading that companies have learned offline,” claims Mike Adams, chief operating officer of Internet customer relationship marketing experts Knowledge Accelerators. The biggest error that companies commit online, according to Adams, is to mistake inertia for loyalty. “They appear to be much the same thing, but just because people continue to behave in a particular way doesn’t mean that you have created true loyalty,” he insists. Adams also believes that behaviour, loyal or otherwise, can quickly be changed by poor service levels: “Consumers’ expectations are high because of advertising, but this is rarely matched by their experience,” he says. “In future, service will become more crucial because people will not be prepared to put up with what they perceive as less than acceptable.”

Ian Haynes, strategic technical partner at Cimex Media, agrees: “The Internet is a cold and lonely place and you are buying something almost entirely on trust. Most websites just don’t offer the level of customer service that is required.”

This view is borne out by research from The Yankee Group which shows that customer service is second only to price in determining online loyalty and that consumers will tell 11 people about a bad experience but only four about a good one.

Ike Veeneklaas, consultant at Banner McBride, believes that customer service is so important that companies should be brutally honest about whether they can match the levels offered by an external supplier in all areas of the operation. “Customer service is the only true differentiator that exists now, both on and offline. Everyone recognises that e-fulfilment is key to it. However, it’s not always a core competence within the business so one solution is to use a specialist supplier for the logistics only,” she says. Veeneklaas cites the example of TNT which offers a full back-end system that integrates with the company’s own IT infrastructure so that customer service representatives can, in real time, check the status of an order.

Robert Diamond, managing director of CRM practice, Impiric EMEA, agrees that customer service is often compromised by the lack of a clear proposition. “First of all, companies have to recognise that there will always be a trade-off between quality, speed and price. You simply can’t try to excel at all at once,” he says.

Over-complexity

Diamond also believes that many sites are too complex. “You should build from the simplest platform up by thinking about what is the minimum level of specification required to secure the sale. The more sophisticated the system, the more chances there are of it going wrong. Too many dot-coms are struggling because they have tried to be too clever,” he adds.

This view is confirmed by a recent study by Forrester Research which showed that two out of three shoppers abandon their online shopping trip before purchase because they cannot find answers to their queries.

A standard solution on most sites is the inclusion of a Frequently Asked Questions page (FAQ) which usually lists and answers the ten most common queries. Cimex’s Haynes is not a fan of FAQs. “They are sheer laziness,” he says. “Often they have an editorial dimension to them and they are simply what the company thinks you need help on. In many cases, they are on the site before the product has even been launched so they cannot possibly reflect real customer questions.”

Diamond points out that, even where the information is valuable, it can be hard for the site user to find it when they need it. “FAQs are frequently put on a separate page and there is no immediate access to them on the relevant page where they would be most useful,” he says.

Many companies offer an e-mail enquiry system, but most consumers report frustrations with slow and impersonal responses. A particular culprit is BOL which compares very poorly to its principal rival, Amazon. In the worst examples, many sites fail to respond to e-mailed enquiries at all.

Haynes believes that, as most problems require several replies to sort out, a more sophisticated question handling process is invariably required. Additionally, a lot of questions recur regularly – far more than the ten typically included within a FAQ section – and that, over time, as many as 50 per cent will have been asked before. Cimex’s solution is a combination of automation and human intervention to ensure that consumers receive an appropriate response quickly. Online Customer Support System is a database of the most common queries with responses. Users choose from a number of categories or topics and receive up to five possible answers to their question from a database archive. If they are not happy with the response, or there is no match, then their question is routed to an administrator who responds in person and this question and response is then added to the database.

Diamond believes that FAQs are not the only part of a site that is not always thought through fully prior to implementation. “Too few companies consider the way that people actually move through a site,” he claims. “Often it can be simple things such as recognising that Westerners read left to right and that they expect to see the menu bar down the left-hand side of the page. It’s all about reducing the points at which people fall off. For example, a customer who just wants to order a brochure does not want to wade through eight pages that are irrelevant first.”

Spencer Wright is managing director of BrandNet, an independent website evaluation agency which monitors the UK’s top 100 websites. He claims that many companies are failing even to get the basics right. “A simple but frustratingly common example of poor service is the failure of a site to recognise multiple delivery addresses,” he says. “It’s particularly critical at Christmas when people are buying gifts online yet few companies offer it. In addition, many companies will only deliver to the card-holder’s address or, like Next or GUS, refuse to offer credit online even though they will happily extend credit to an order received through a different channel.”

Poorer cousin

Wright also points out that many companies vary the range of products from in-store to website and fail to match the sophistication of their offline merchandising when designing online ordering areas. He cites the example of grocery retailers who list their own-label products first and divide products into discrete categories even though in-store merchandising has proved the effectiveness of merchandising related products such as fruit juices and cereal. He also points out that alphabetical listings discriminate against certain brands and, again, force consumers to review and select products in an entirely unfamiliar way.

Adams, however, is quick to caution against over-specification: “The issues of marginal return and investment are the real killers. You need to be very clear about what is going to be valuable to the consumer and what it makes sense to invest in. It’s the same with information. You have to decide what is going to be useful. When you have lots of data it tends, in traditional data set-ups, to take a long time to process. In many companies, there is definitely a tendency towards unnecessary over-specification.”

Even the best systems available are, in any case, worthless without the right people operating them, believes Veeneklaas. “Dot-coms have failed to realise what traditional, but switched-on, businesses realised some time ago – that it’s about ensuring your people are engaged behind the brand,” she says. “People like dealing with people, not technology, especially where money is involved.”

Technological progress

Yet technology is also under development and adapting to the need for personal service. Imagineusa.com’s customer management service allows call-centre staff to go online in the form of a secret genie to help high-value customers and ensure that they do not leave the site before transactions are completed.

Diamond believes that the key is finding solutions that are appropriate to the complexity and economics of the situation.

“A customer interaction is not necessarily a bad thing,” he says. “A complaint can be an opportunity to make a customer much more loyal. But any intervention needs to be tailored to the economics of the business. The Web is the ultimate forum where the customer is king.

“At any point in the process, your competitor is only a click away.”

Online Information 2000

Online Information 2000, which takes place at Olympia, London from December 5 – 7, is the largest information industry event in the world and is organised by Learned Information Europe.

The conference will present leading online industry commentators and vendors who will explore the major issues that have shaped the industry during the past year as well as looking at likely future developments.

A programme of free seminars on the show floor will also provide insights into new skills and approaches. These seminars will include workshops and tutorials.

Alongside the conference will be an exhibition which brings together more than 300 exhibiting companies.

At the same time as Online Information 2000, Learned Information will also launch a new expo, econtent, created specifically for managers responsible for the creation, management and publishing of content online.

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