Study: Online Service Levels Slipping

You’d think every e-tailer would be falling over backward to deliver the best customer service possible in these dire times. But apparently that’s not the case.

According to the E-tailing Group’s 11th annual Mystery Shopping Study of the top 100 online retailers, customer service levels slipped in the fourth quarter of 2008, compared to the quarter in 2007.

In fact, only nine e-tailers (compared to last year’s 11) passed the study’s nine main criteria requiring that:

–The e-tailer’s Website must have an 800- or toll-free telephone number present
–The site must have accurate keyword search
–It must take four or fewer days to receive a package
–Customer service must adequately and correctly answer an e-mail question within 24 hours; providing a specific answer
–Customer service rep product knowledge when calling toll free must be 2.0 or higher on a scale of 3.0
–Six or fewer clicks to checkout
–E-mail shipping confirmation sent
–E-mail order confirmation sent with order number included
–Real time inventory in shopping cart or product page

Specific areas where e-tailers’ customer service slipped include:

–Customer service hours were more limited; the number of e-tailers offering 24/7 access down fell to 27% in the fourth quarter of 2008 vs. 39% in 2007.
–The average number of business days to receive an item was up slightly to 4.76 days vs. 4.18 days in 2007.
–Fewer merchants sent e-mail shipping confirmations (84% vs. 95% in 2007).

But according to E-tailing Group president Lauren Freedman, the number-one area in which e-tailers have slipped the most is CSR product knowledge.

“There’s more outsourcing of the call centers, people aren’t as vigilant about training, and it seems like there’s less product knowledge,” she says. It appears some merchants are cutting back on agent training to cut costs. “Sure, there’s CSRs who are really confident and they’re really good – but there’s also a lot of CSRs who are only able to take an order, and that results in a lot of frustration,” she says.

She explains that today’s CSRs not only must be trained at fielding phone calls, e-mails and Web chats in a consistent manner, they also have to be familiar with the products they’re selling and they should be able to help customers make good decisions.

“Having knowledgeable people in store and in the call center is important, because that can make the difference in getting the sale,” she says. “People who can share information and hook customers up with the right product – and execute – that’s what it’s about at the end of the day.”

Not only that, today’s CSRs have to be adept at helping customers navigate through the Website and locate the products they’re looking for quickly. And that requires a certain amount of product knowledge and training. Freedman says e-tailers can close the knowledge gap if they simply raise their standards in terms of the CSRs they hire and the training they provide to them.

“There’s not enough emphasis on building a customer service culture anymore,” she says. “There’s some companies that really excel at it – and then there’s the rest of them.” If you have a bad culture, you end up with a bad e-mail experience, a bad call center experience, “and then you open up live chat and you’re bad at that too!”

The process of formulating the annual Mystery Shopper Study begins in July, when a team of researchers from the e-Tailing Group selects the top 100 merchants to be “mystery shopped.” The team of researchers then shops from all of the merchants, making actual purchases, and grades them in a variety of areas, including the nine main criteria listed above.

Who are the service winners for this year? Babycenter, Bluefly, Brooks Brothers, Brookstone, Crutchfield, Golfsmith, Hpshopping, Lands’ End and Wal-Mart.