Wow, what a week for customer services. First we had the now-infamous Vincent Ferrari call to AOL. Then we noticed a press release on E-consultancy that painted a bleak picture of online customer services among retail companies.

Vince wanted to cancel his account and having heard “the nightmare stories” decided to record his phone call to AOL Member Services. Some 21 frustrating minutes later he finally managed to achieve his goal… not entirely helpful.

International fame followed after the AOL tape went viral – the combination of Digg and the New York Times channelled 700,000 visitors to Vince’s site in rapid succession, forcing him to temporarily remove the recording (still offline).

If you didn’t hear it you can watch him being interviewed about his AOL experience on TV via YouTube – the interview has excerpts from the cancellation call. Too funny, unless you’re an AOL executive…

Back in 2000 when I ‘cancelled’ an old AOL account they continued to bill me for months, thereafter claiming that I needed a cancellation number before they’d stop taking money from me. Amazingly they’re still at it, despite being warned in the past from Elliot ‘comingtogetcha’ Spitzer about their anti-consumer behaviour, according to Consumerist.

Consumerist also has a bunch of hilariously bleak internal memos that were sent to the customer retention team in the wake of this PR catastrophe to boost morale, etc. I wonder what user-centric Google makes of it all. Google of course invested a billion bucks into AOL last year, for a 5% stake.

Given that AOL’s customer retention initiatives are so sucky, who else can we look to for some nuggets of best practice wisdom?

online retailers, it seems. Not according to research published earlier this week by Transversal.

Here are some of the more terrifying facts and figures that were released…

The average retailer can only answer five out of the ten most often asked questions online

One online grocer took almost 100 hours to reply to an email

Grocery and fashion companies were the slowest at answering emails, taking 23 hours on average

The fastest replies came from online music and bookstores, which still took 8 hours on average

One in four replies did not bother to answer the original question

Less than 10% of online retail companies have invested in customer service tools

It gets worse. Transversal compared the results from the ill-equipped online retail sector and found that despite the shocking performance, retail actually fared better than (in order) utilities, banking, telecoms, consumer electronics, travel and insurance. None of those sectors could answer any more than 5 out of 10 of the most frequently asked questions on the website. Ugh! Rubbish!

Folks, you know that we really need to lose this weird view of the internet being a channel purely for customer acquisition (which it is, but it is way more than that…). We also need to understand that online customer services should not be filed under ‘customer retention’. It might work a little bit like that offline, but online many consumers want answers to questions before becoming your customers. Think of it as pre-customer service.

Online, intelligent / accessible / comprehensive customer services tools play a huge role in acquiring new customers – people need to be able to easily find out about delivery options and costs, returns policies, payment options, and so on. If they can’t quickly find what they’re looking for they will most likely move on.

I know customer services software doesn’t sound particularly sexy to the marketing department (which often controls the biggest share of web budget, and often leads web strategy), but when you realise that without these tools you are losing prospective customers to your dastardly competitors, you start to see their value / sex appeal. And yes, you guessed it, they are good for encouraging repeat business too…

‘Customer experience’ is everything these days (if you have an offline presence then please add the obligatory ‘multichannel’ prefix to that phrase). Multichannel customer experience means being able to manage and fulfil consumer expectations, regardless of the channel that the consumer chooses to interact with your brand. Being able to service a customer on the high street is one thing, but you need to match that level of service online, as best you can (or better).

One interesting fact about online customer service tools is that they can also help your offline staff. Call centre-based customer service reps can use knowledgebase tools and intelligent FAQs to help them quickly find the right answers for customers, like they would with an intranet. Think about these side benefits when you’re making the business case for an investment into these tools.

And think about AOL’s major faux pas too, because chances are your website also has a customer service problem. AOL deserves this sort of bad PR, but if it had an easy mechanism for cancelling accounts then none of this would have happened.

It could happen to you…


Related reading:
E-consultancy has published a

buyer’s guide to online customer service tools

, featuring Transversal and another 10 suppliers, along with helpful advice and market research.