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Net Prophet - by Dylan Tweney

February 1, 1999

Online service woes dog vendor sites and hinder Internet sales

Customer service is a touchy issue -- when it's good, customers take it for granted; when it's bad, they take it personally.

That's why I wasn't surprised to hear from so many of you after my last column on the topic. (See "Online retailers: you can't compete on customer service," www.info world.com/printlinks.) What did surprise me is the range and vehemence of the responses I got.

I heard from very satisfied customers of www.buy.com, www.dell.com, www.amazon.com, and other sites. I also heard from people who had terrible experiences at www.buy.com, www.dell.com, www.amazon.com, and other sites.

Now that the numbers are in from the most recent holiday season, it's clear that customer service is the biggest single source of dissatisfaction among online shoppers. (See Ed Foster's The Gripe Line column on the topic Jan. 18, page 89, plus our feature article "Stuck in the Web," Jan. 11, page 1.) The latest study to add grist to this mill is a recently released survey of 2,300 online households, conducted by Jupiter Communications and NFO Interactive. The surveyors found that satisfaction levels among Web shoppers dropped 14 percent from July to December.

The reason there are more complaints about online shopping is simple: More people are doing it.

Let's face it, consumer shopping on the Internet still leaves a lot to be desired. Web sites take too long to download, search tools are difficult to use, comparison shopping is almost impossible, and the whole purchasing process is tedious and error-prone.

Online shoppers experience these shortcomings as poor customer service. But the truth is, what is commonly called "customer service" online comprises many things.

The primary component of so-called online customer service is usability. A Web commerce site is an application, and when you visit a site you're almost always interacting with a computer, not another human.

Web commerce site designers need to learn the basic principles of application usability and start applying them to their sites, rather than foisting the problem off on other departments as a customer service issue. After all, if you find your word processor hard to use, you don't complain about the program's "poor customer service," do you?

Another component that customers experience as a service issue is download time. Granted, you may have little control over your site's apparent speed. But regardless of the source of the problem, if your site is slow, you'll get blamed for it.

A third component is the site's "intelligence:" How well does it adapt to each customer's individual preferences, and how well does it handle unusual situations? "404 Not Found" errors are unacceptable, and serious problems should be immediately handed off to a customer service representative.

Which brings me to the final component of so-called online customer service: the human-to-human contact that is increasingly happening on I-commerce sites. A well-designed site will trim the need for expensive customer service staff, but it won't eliminate it entirely. That's why you need good systems to handle problems as they crop up, via text chat or voice over IP, for instance. And don't overlook the venerable phone system, as long as it's well integrated into your Web site.

What's the state of online customer service today? Write to me at dylan@infoworld.com.

Dylan Tweney (dylan@infoworld.com) has been covering the Internet since 1993. He edits InfoWorld's intranet and Internet-commerce product reviews.

Previous columns by Dylan Tweney

Display technologies will change the way we look at the Web
January 25, 1999

Market's love affair with Internet stocks won't end happily
January 18, 1999

Measuring Internet success: You shouldn't rely on traffic alone
January 11, 1999

Back to the future: A look at I-commerce from 1998 to 2002
December 28, 1998

Every column since August, 1997

Please direct your comments to InfoWorld Electric.

Copyright © 1999 InfoWorld Media Group Inc.

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