If you're an online retailer, offering email customer care is a best practice that few ignore. And many, myself included, believe that providing customer care by phone is very desirable. Anecdotally, I have a good friend who runs an e-commerce website and he claims that his orders dropped significantly when he (temporarily) stopped taking orders and providing assistance by phone.

But be that as it may, a new study conducted by Loudhouse Research for CRM provider RightNow Technologies suggests that when it comes to customer care in online retail leading up to a purchase, both email and phone are overrated.

Nearly half of the online shoppers surveyed as part of the study indicated that they prefer to find information about a retailer's products themselves before they make a purchase. Only 19% favored email and only 18% favored phone support.

What gives? It seems a little bit surprising at first glance, but I suppose it's not entirely illogical. Quality customer care is often difficult to find, so there are no doubt many shoppers who would rather try to figure it out themselves than deal with an agent via email or phone. Additionally, thanks to the level of product detail many retailers are able to provide on their sites and the amount of product information and feedback available through customer reviews and online communities, shoppers can often get all the information they need with a quick search or two.

Beyond this, RightNow's study also provided the following insights:

  • Chat is popular with those who try it. Of the shoppers who use live online chat to interact with a customer care agent, 69% said they'd prefer chat over email and 64% said they'd prefer chat over phone assistance.
  • Multichannel consistency is a big problem. Only 25% of the shoppers surveyed reported receiving consistent responses from agents across the various customer care channels.
  • Selling is okay. Whether receiving help from an agent by phone, email or online chat, more than half of shoppers don't mind receiving suggestions about relevant products during the interaction.

If the findings are accurate, the implications for online retailers are clear:

  • If shoppers are going to help themselves, give them the tools they need to do so. From in-depth product details and product photos to customer reviews, the more information shoppers have access to, the more likely it is that they'll be able to make a purchasing decision.
  • It's important to recognize how shoppers want to receive customer care. I wouldn't write off email or the phone but if you have no idea how your customers prefer to interact with customer care agents, you had better find out.
  • A real emphasis needs to be placed on providing a seamless customer care experience across channels. Ideally, all customer care agents should have the same training, access to information and authority regardless of channel.
  • Customer care interactions provide an opportunity to sell. To seize this opportunity, however, agents must be trained on how to sell and focus in on building trust so that shoppers perceive their recommendations to be worth considering.

Photo credit: cod_gabriel via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 22 October, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (10)

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Guy Stephens

Guy Stephens, Social Customer Care Consultant at IBM Interactive Experience/GBS/Mobile

Great article with some excellent points. Some thoughts that spring to mind in no particular order:

1) Pace: When I want to research a product I will likely follow a similar path each time. It's not to say I will go to the same sites each time, but I will likely go online each time, do a search, leave it, come back later etc. I want to research the product at my own speed and in my own way. I may be looking for specific things depending on the product and I may only stop when I find something that I want to read or to justify a purchase I want to make (impartiality of my decision-making process; that's my prerogative, right?!).

2) Channel relevance: If I am making a purchase that requires a complex set of decisions to be made I am unlikely to use email. Take the example of getting a mortgage. Practically I don't have the patience to sit down and write out all the questions I want answers to about the different types of mortgages available to me. I am also unlikely to use the phone, as I may need to write down the information I get. I am far more likely to go online to research mortgages in general and then use email or the phone to answer specific questions I have about a particular mortgage product.

3) Channel characteristics: If I am about to make a spontaneous purchase online, I am unlikely to email a company about it. If a company has an SLA of 48 hours on emails, by the time I get a response I've either made the purchase or moved on to something else. Likewise, the only reason I might call a company about a product (prior to purchasing it) is to see if they have it in stock, rather than calling them up to ask questions about the product itself. 

4) I have started to wonder why companies do not simply try to integrate their product offering with the rich and engaging content that already exists by people who own the product on sites such as YouTube, Flickr, personal blogs, Twitter etc. Instead there is this ongoing need by companies to own the online merchandising space. They create their own platforms, their own customer review functionality, they invite customers to create YouTube videos on their product pages. So much of this information now already exists, perhaps companies could also think about finding a happy medium between harvesting and harnessing what already exists out there and creating their own controlled environments. 

5) Is there a way to harness the searches customers do around a product and bring this into being part of the actual product page?

over 8 years ago


Rob Mangiafico

This drives home the point that your website must provide a great deal of detail, including unique descriptions, and definitely customer reviews as you noted. Beyond that, SEO plays a large role so that your links come up with searches your potential customers perform. A recent article described how many companies do not rank when people search for deals/coupons for a company name.

And don't neglect social media such as Twitter and Facebook. If your customers are there, then you should be as well. To help, to interact, and bring value to your offerings. Engage your customers, help them, and they'll reward you with buyer loyalty.

Rob - LexiConn

over 8 years ago


Products Online

I prefer online chatting for customer service.  It provides me with satisfaction of instant feedback.  It feels more productive results than listening to music on the phone while put on hold until someone finds an answer to your problem.

over 8 years ago


Cable Cutters

I prefer chat over phone assistance.

over 8 years ago



Q:The top reasons customers are abandoning online shopping carts? Zoomerang did a big online survey. Check the results at  http://snurl.com/shoppingsurvey

over 8 years ago


Matt Storey

If I wrote this article I would point out that RightNow technologies sells solutions that automate and deflect customer interactions.  It is no surprise that a study led by them would generate conclusions that support their product/service. 

The author is correct when noting in the first few sentences that responding to customer emails is a best practice and providing telephone support is very desirable.  I also agree with Mr. Rourke that there is some dissappointment when you try to order a product on a web site and have to call the call center to get a question answered.  However, to conclude that email and phone are overrated tools in customer service is wrong.  The majority of interactions in the contact center world take place by phone and that will always be the case. 

Thanks for the article!

over 8 years ago


Jeff Paul Portal

over 8 years ago




over 8 years ago


Call Center

Its a nice one. A good place for discussing here in a very nice way. Thanks Again.

about 8 years ago


Live customer care service

Great job......I like phone chatting or online chatting ,because instant feedback is rather good than late one.

almost 8 years ago

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