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While a study of 46 leading e-commerce sites found overall performance to be satisfactory, with average scores ranging from 76% to 90%, many etailers still need to improve on customer service.

The eRetail Benchmark Study from eDigital Research used mystery shoppers to assess the usability of leading online retail sites in the UK. Customer contact by email and phone are two areas where some retailers performed poorly.

The study looked at various aspects of website usability from the mystery shopper's perspective, and scores for each category rarely dipped much below 70%, expect for customer service.

Telephone customer service

Praise is due to Waitrose and House of Fraser, who scored 94.7% and 94% respectively. However, Game performed poorly with a score of just 50%, while River Island and ASOS didn't score at all, since they don't offer customers the option of contacting them by telephone.

Email contact

Email offers an opportunity for providing convenient customer service for customers who would rather not use the phone, but several online retailers were found wanting in this area.

While Next (92.3%) and House of Fraser (91.3%) topped the survey, 13 of the retailers scored less than 50%. Play.com and BHS don't even provide email contact options, while ASDA, Carphone Warehouse and OneStopPhoneShop are joint bottom on 33.3%.

In the case of Carphone Warehouse, an email option can be found, but responses are only promised within four working days, which would be too slow for many customers.

Also, it's necessary to fill in a form with name and address details before you are allowed to submit the form: 

At least you can actually find the email contact option on Carphone Warehouse, with OneStopPhoneShop, the contact page invites customers to email, but there is no link or email address provided, which makes it pretty useless.

On the ASDA site, there must be an email address somewhere since the study awarded the site a mark for this, but good luck to anyone trying to find it. I gave up after a few attempts. It really shouldn't have to be that difficult.

Top performing websites

John Lewis, M&S and Next all scored over 90% overall in the survey, with Amazon, House of Fraser and New Look close behind. Occupying the bottom three places were e2save, very.co.uk, and Dixons.

Best shopping basket

New Look was praised for its 'best in class shopping basket' and its worth looking at as a best practice example:

The essentials for shopping baskets are all there, and What New Look does well to provide all of the information that customers need to know before entering the checkout process.

Reassurances about site security and returns are shown clearly, as well as the delivery charges and accepted payment methods, while the contents of the basket can easily be edited. A good example of how this should be done.

Graham Charlton

Published 5 November, 2009 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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Comments (3)

Guy Stephens

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

You raise some excellent points about the use of email and telephone to provide customer service. Here's some further thoughts for consideration.

Before I do let me declare my hand by saying I work for The Carphone Warehouse and am part of the team responsible for the help and contact us part of the web site.

1) Four day response time to emails: We're working hard to improve this and bring our process around answering emails to be more in line with customer expectations. In line with this, we're also trying to ensure that we get the information a customer is after to them as efficiently as possible. If it's a sales-related query, provide the customer with a phone number, if it's about setting up picture messaging on your phone, then direct them to the web site or simply email the instructions to them. What' important is to try to bridge the gap between a customer looking for an answer but not knowing where it is or what question to ask, and a web site or customer service agent knowing the answer or where it is on a web site, but not knowing the question.

2) Asking for name, address etc on an email form. Much of this is driven by the need to fulfil Data Protection Act requirements. We're not permitted to go into a customer's account without certain information. The assumption we make is that every person who emails us is a customer. We are looking into creating email forms which recognise someone who is not a customer but has a query. We are patently aware that we ask a lot of questions upfront, but we've made the decision to adopt that approach rather than enter into an email exchange asking for a bit more information each time. What we could do is explain why we need this information and let the customer know that by giving it to us it actually allows us to respond to their query more quickly.We've noted the 33.3% rating and we'll be doing what we can to improve on that over the coming months.

3) The fact that some companies do not provide telephone or email options cannot, I feel, be viewed as a positive or a negative thing. It is simply the approach they have adopted. What the company has to ensure is that whatever approach they do adopt, it is the right one for them and their customers. If it isn't, their customers will let them know and they may need to rethink their approach (or not).

almost 7 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Hi Guy, thanks for the clarification.

almost 7 years ago

Nigel Cooper

Nigel Cooper, Director at Qube Media

I wonder how companies will cope with adding social media into their customer service.

We are already seeing big brands like Dell use Twitter to interact with and help their customers.We all need to interact with our companies and service providers. As we move forward and the differences in competing services becomes slimmer (such as in the mobile phone industry) customer service will play a HUGE role in where customers choose to spend their money.

almost 7 years ago

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