The U.S. Census Bureau's figures for the first quarter of 2005 peg e-commerce sales at $19.8 billion (for reference, total retail sales were just shy of $917 billion in the same period). That's a significant chunk of change, but considering the results of a recent study conducted by contact center research firm BenchmarkPortal and sponsored by contact center software vendor eGain, it's not nearly as significant as it could be. American multichannel SMBs (small to midsize businesses) in the retail, travel and hospitality, financial services, and consumer electronics industries are falling flat on their faces when it comes to e-commerce customer service responsiveness. Surprisingly, the study showed that retailers score the worst in responsiveness to online inquiries.
Dr. Jon Anton, director of research for BenchmarkPortal, explained to me how the study worked. Posing as interested consumers, researchers asked questions via e-mail to CSRs (customer service representatives) in the aforementioned industries. The questions demonstrated strong intent to purchase on the part of the consumer (e.g. "I'd like to purchase some bulk coffee for an upcoming event. Do you offer special rates for large orders?").
What you're about to read might cause you to wince. In all, 147 North American companies ranging in size from $10 million to $250 million in annual revenue were studied, giving researchers statistically valid samples across industry sectors. A disheartening 60% of retailers failed to respond to consumers' online inquiries. Only 3% responded within 24 hours, and 27% took up to 36 hours to reply to the inquiry. The remaining 10% of retailers took more than two days to respond to electronic requests for more information. How many of your competitors' sites can your potential customers visit in the 48 hours they're waiting for your response?
E-Commerce CSRs Need Training
Aside from validating the market opportunity for companies like eGain, there's really no good news to come out of the study. The meager 40% of retailers who got around to responding to online customer inquiries rarely satisfied the customer with a good reply. Responses were deemed accurate and complete – meaning the reply contained everything the consumer needed to complete the transaction – only 30% of the time. Other responses directed the consumer back to the site, asked him to call a CSR on the phone, or provided a completely unrelated, canned response.
Why are online CSRs dropping the ball? The study shows that good help is hard to find. While most any CSR can stumble their way through a telephone conversation, customer service via e-mail is relatively labor-intensive and dependent on writing skills. Multichannel retailers that use e-mail for customer service face challenges hiring associates with solid written communication skills. Consumers are seeking the convenience of electronic shopping, but they still demand personalized and intelligent service when they ask for it. How big an investment must a retailer make to retrofit its CSR training program to include not only sales and application training but basic English composition as well? This is a tough reality to deal with, especially in light of the fact that 60% of retail SMBs are letting e-mails from qualified buyers fall off their radar forever.