Online Customer Support Lags

If you're among the millions of holiday shoppers expected to hit the Web this year, you might think Santa's little helpers will answer questions online like they do in department store aisles. You'll probably be disappointed.

In an informal test of presales customer support at the top Internet retailers, PC World found one in four online merchants either don't, won't, or didn't answer basic product questions. We gave top retailers 30 days to respond to our questions through the customer service sections of their Web sites. We used "civilian" e-mail addresses that did not identify us as PC World editors. The 100 e-tailers tested are those identified as busiest by ComScore Networks.

Less-then-stellar presale online customer service may be old news to veteran Internet shoppers. But Jupiter Research estimates some 10 million holiday shoppers will go online for the first time this year, and poor customer service could send them running back to the mall.

Still Waiting

Seven of ComScore's top 100 online retailers offered no obvious way to contact them via the Internet. With each of those seven retailers, we searched repeatedly for online support references on their sites and couldn't find any. Sometimes, support is confined to committed buyers. PC maker Gateway apparently offers e-mail support only to customers who have an order number, a system number, or a customer ID.

Fourteen out of 93 shopping sites we contacted by e-mail did not respond at all to our specific questions. Three out of those 14 companies (Art.com, HSN.com, and Kohls.com) responded promptly with an auto-generated e-mail reply that promised a personalized follow-up within 48 hours, but did not deliver on it.

The other sites that did not respond to queries were 247Malls.com, AbercrombieandFitch.com, AllPosters.com, Fandango.com, Hotels.com, Magazine.com, McAfee.com, OfficeDepot.com, Petsmart.com, T-Mobile.com, and TracFone.com.

Of the 21 retailers that we were unable to successfully interact with by e-mail, 20 offer telephone-based support. We couldn't find a telephone number at McAfee.com. A company representative later pointed out a toll number listed on the Web site to call for presales questions. 247Malls.com offers only a toll number in Austria.

We were unable to identify presales online customer support resources at Adobe.com, Bartleby.com, Cingular.com, Gateway.com, SouthwestAirlines.com, Symantec.com, and ToysrUs.com.

Clarification: Bartleby.com does not directly sell merchandise or accept direct payment for goods and services from its Web site visitors. Bartelby.com offers a link to its Bartleby Bookstore, which operates in partnership with Amazon.com and is supported by Amazon's customer service. Bartleby reports that it supports its customers directly as well.

Southwest Airlines was the only business to explain its policy of no online support, stating: "Call us traditional, but we elect to steer clear of the chat-style, respond-on-demand, quick casual format and focus on meaningful Customer dialogue. This is not because we don't care. It's because that style counters our commitment to Customer Service."

The Correct Answer

Of the replies we did receive from online retailers, we rated 14 as excellent and another 23 as good. Excellent replies responded in a timely manner, answered the question completely, and provided additional help. Good replies simply answered the question.

The fastest response arrived within 5 minutes. It came from the Learning Company through its Broderbund site, and thoughtfully fielded a product-related query. CompUSA was the second fastest to respond, sending an excellent response within 8 minutes of the query.

On average, it took about 36 hours to get a response. Some of the fastest responses came within 10 minutes, but speed did not necessarily mean quality. Yahoo Shopping, for example, sent an automated reply within 5 minutes. Its message didn't answer our question, but instead provided a link to the Yahoo Shopping FAQ page, which still did not contain an answer.

The longest delay was 10 days, which was from Hallmark.com. Its eventual reply included a personalized message with a detailed answer to our question, as well as an apology for the delay.

Sites that gave the best service, providing useful answers quickly, were Buy.com, Broderbund.com (sibling to The Learning Company), CompUSA.com, DoubleDayBookClub.com (a Book Span Property), Cooking.com, Gap.com, MovieTickets.com, Nordstrom.com, VictoriasSecret.com (a division of Limited Brands) and Zappos.com.

Bad Answers

Of the replies, three were unacceptable. The worst was from BuyCostumes.com, which sent a message stating it couldn't answer our question because it was too busy fulfilling orders for its paying customers. "Because all of our efforts are focused on filling existing orders we are unable to answer your question at this time," wrote a BuyCostumes.com service rep named Jim. MSN Shopping and Wal-Mart both failed to answer our queries, instead sending advertisements promoting e-commerce elements at their sites.

Nordstrom and X-10 both started sending commercial e-mail after we submitted questions. T-Mobile asked questioners to supply the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. A T-Mobile spokesperson later explained that the numbers help identify existing T-Mobile customers. Its query system doesn't accommodate general questions from potential customers, like PC World reporters.

KMart.com and X-10.com were unable to answer product-related queries; Kmart responded that it wasn't sure of the correct answer. X-10.com declined to answer a warranty-related question about video cameras sold through its Web sites. "Due to the pending litigation and ongoing legal activities, we can't comment at this time," a customer service rep named Iraine wrote.

Apple.com, BestBuy.com, BlueDolphin.com, and Dell.com all said they were unable to answer our queries by e-mail, but welcomed calls to toll-free numbers instead.

Several sites gave incomplete responses, answering only part of the question. Blockbuster.com, for example, replied to a two-part query with a form letter that offered only a partial answer.

EBay required us to register and obtain a user name before we could even send a query. While its response was quick and accurate, the site has continued to send promotional e-mail urging us to return to the site more often.

Common Problems

The retailers that failed to answer our queries offered various explanations. For example, Art.com and HSN.com both blamed technical problems.

Some queries were missed because of a "technical error," according to Nicole Benedict, Art.com's manager of customer experience. HSN.com says its e-mail was lost due to a major redesign of the Web site (both back-end and front-end systems) that launched the same week we submitted our question. (In a retest of HSN.com customer support, the site answered our query within 24 hours.)

TracFone.com blames human error. Doug Watson, a TracFone.com system developer, acknowledges our e-mail was received, but say it was accidentally deleted.

McAfee representatives acknowledged the company received our e-mail, but say it was lost between tech support and customer service staff.

Tech problems were to blame at 247Malls.com and T-Mobile. "We should have replied," says Bryan Zidar, a company spokesperson. T-Mobile is in the process of "refreshing" how it handles online presales support, he adds.

247Malls.com's owner Sylvia Sulek says her firm was receiving 3000 spam messages daily when we sent our question. She suspects the message was lost when the firm switched its e-mail customer service address.

Fandango.com says it replied to our query within 40 minutes, although we never received the message.

Magazines.com Chief Executive Officer Jay Clarke says he isn't sure why our e-mail wasn't answered. "We strive for 100 percent response rate. We don't always hit it," he says. Petsmart.com theorizes its antispam filters identified our query as spam and blocked the message.

Abercrombie & Fitch couldn't explain why it didn't answer. "I don't know what happened; it's disappointing to me. We go to great lengths to make sure our customers are serviced," says Tom Lennox, director of investor relations and corporate communications for Abercrombie & Fitch.

Hotels.com failed to respond to a query about accommodations in Colorado. Bob Diener, the company's president and cofounder, says he is surprised that we never heard back, but that it's rare for the company to receive e-mail with general questions.

Help Yourself

While customer support may be suffering, we did find that the static online help pages at most of the sites offered plenty of information, broken out by topic. In general, they were very well organized and easily accessible.

"Most sites offer customer support resources online, including FAQs, and many sites are starting to implement self-service," says Patty Freeman Evans, a retail analyst with Jupiter Research.

The reason for this is, of course, cost. It's much cheaper for companies to post help information on their Web sites--or even dole it out by e-mail--than to answer calls from shoppers. But don't expect to see phone support disappear, no matter how much companies may wish it gone, Freeman Evans says.

"Consumers are not nearly as satisfied with [FAQs and self-service help] as they are with a live person," whether that means talking to a live person, or chatting online with one, Freeman Evans says.

How important is customer support online, anyway? It depends on what the e-shopper expects.

"Customer service is not a major factor for consumers when they're considering where to shop," says Abha Bhagat, a senior analyst with Neilsen//NetRatings. "Convenience is the biggest factor, as well as the product selection."

"The real reason why consumers shop online is convenience," Freeman Evans agrees. "You can shop when you want to, when the stores are closed. You can save time and find things easier." However, she notes, "The good service they do get will predispose them to go back."

Many online shops may miss a real opportunity to attract some of those 10 million new shoppers this holiday season, she notes.

"If a consumer sends an e-mail and it takes three or four days to get a response, they may have moved on," Freeman Evans says.

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