If you have ever paid for anything online you will know that web customer service sucks.

As soon as anything goes wrong and you need support, the quality of service almost always takes a turn for the worse.

It’s hardly surprising that, according to this post, 80% of consumers have quit a transaction part way through and 60% have lost their temper with a customer service representative.

This infographic published on Econsultancy last year drive home the problem with customer service.

This infographic published on Econsultancy last year drive home the problem with customer service.

Before we look at the cause of this horrendous state of affairs, lets first look at the symptoms.

Common issues

I am constantly surprised at the imaginative ways companies screw up customer service. Only today I worked from home so I could receive a package that I purchased online. When the package hadn’t been delivered I checked the site only to discover I had been given a tracking number for somebody else’s package.

There are certain reoccurring problems that really should have been address by now. These include:

Limited contact

So many online retailers and web services seem determined to make it nearly impossible to contact them. At worse there is no contact information at all, while others rely solely on email.

The problem is that email means waiting for the customer service agent to reply. When you have had something go wrong with your transaction, waiting is the last thing you want. You want instant reassurance that the problem will be fixed. Waiting just causes more frustration.

If you are only able to provide email support, at least let the user know how quickly they will get a response. This will help limit their expectations.

Basecamp customer support is lightening fast, available through a variety of methods and they tell you exactly how long before they will reply.

Basecamp customer support is lightening fast, available through a variety of methods and they tell you exactly how long before they will reply.

Mixed messages

Even when you do get to speak to somebody, you often get contradictory information. The information you receive on Twitter could quite easily be different to that received via email support.

Also if a problem cannot be solved instantly, you can often find that advice varies on subsequent communications with the company.

This problem seems to stem from inconsistent communication across the organisation and poorly implemented backend ticketing systems.

Useless FAQs

One of my biggest personal bugbears is FAQs. Many believe that the entire idea of a FAQ section is fundamentally flawed, but I wouldn’t go that far.

However, what is frustrating are FAQ sections that actually do not contain any FAQs!

Too often FAQ sections are stuffed with fictional questions like “How can you deliver such excellent products at such a low price?” These are more to do with promoting the products than answering user questions.

There are also sites that force you to laboriously navigate a FAQ section before being able to send an email. I understand that companies want to reduce workload, but how much hassle is it to point a user to an FAQ if they email you?

Apple force users to navigate their FAQ before allowing you to contact a human being.

Apple forces users to navigate their FAQ before allowing you to contact a human being.

Hidden catches

While some sites provide poor customer service out of ignorance, others seem intent on purposely deceiving the consumer.

Take for example sites that make you go all the way through the checkout process before confessing they are going to slap you with a big delivery charge? I am sure they believe that if they make users complete the checkout process they will be less likely to drop out when they discover the delivery cost. In reality they just annoy people.

Other examples of this practice are sites that make you hand over personal information to view a demo, or automatically tweet advertisements the moment they get access to your twitter account.

Only after filling in their registration form does Twenty Feet tell you that you cannot try their service unless they can tweet to your account.

Only after filling in their registration form does Twenty Feet tell you that you cannot try their service unless they can tweet to your account.

This kind of behaviour does nothing but alienate users and undermine the reputation of your website.

Painful returns

Probably the biggest drawback of purchasing online is that you are buying sight unseen. Because you haven’t actually handled the product there is a higher chance you may wish to return it. Unfortunately that is not easy online.

Many organisations seem determined to make returning items as difficult as possible. Not only are you expected to pay for return postage, but you also have to jump through numerous hoops with customer services first.

Zappos recognise that returning items bought online is painful and have done their best to improve the customer experience.

Zappos recognise that returning items bought online is painful and have done their best to improve the customer experience.

This is in stark contrast with a company like Zappos that makes returning items easy. They pay packaging both ways and give you ample time (up to a year) to decide whether you want to keep an item.

The heart of the problem

The chances are that if you read Econsultancy you are all too aware of these kinds of issues. However being aware of something, and solving it are different things.

These problems have complex and deeply routed causes. There are two areas that are particularly challenging; management and legacy.

The way websites are managed

Part of the problem is that the majority of websites are seen as a marketing tool. They are therefore managed by the marketing team.

Although there is no denying that most websites have a substantial role as a marketing tool, that is not the only thing they do. Among other things they are also a customer support tool.

Marketing are great at what they do but they can’t do everything. They do not have a customer services mindset, which is why FAQ sections read more like sales copy than answering real issues.

In truth a website does not fit nicely into existing departmental structures. Providing a great user experience from the beginning to the end of the purchase process involves all kinds of people from every department across the organisation.

A user requires all the following departments to work seamlessly together in order for them to have a good experience:

  • Marketing to explain the product and how it meets their needs.
  • IT to ensure the website ties in with stock control systems and is working when the user wishes to purchase.
  • Accounts to process their payment and invoice if necessary.
  • Fulfilment to send the item out.
  • Customer support to answer any queries along the way.

If the website is solely owned by one of these departments it is naturally going to be stronger in that area and weaker in others.

The reason that the site does end up being managed by marketing is as much to do with legacy as anything else.

Overcoming the legacy of the past

The web is still a young medium and many of the organisations who trade on it pre-date it by a number of years. These companies were formed in a pre-web world.

This means that the way they are structured, work and think just aren’t compatible with a web driven world.

When they were first faced with the web they tried to fit it into their traditional thinking. That is why early websites were often referred to as online brochures.

Although times have changed and organisations don’t think like that anymore, the legacy still remains. Websites are still often owned by Marketing. Departments still work primarily in isolated silos, despite the fact that an effective website requires otherwise.

So where does this leave us? How do we ensure better customer service and a more effective website?

A painful conclusion

Unfortunately, looking at the subject of online customer service just highlights a bigger issue; many companies are not designed for the web. The web is too multi-disciplinary and requires a different business structure.

The problem is that you are fighting a company culture that probably predates the web. For a website to work effectively and customers to get good support means rethinking the whole structure of your business. This is something that involves a lot of challenges, not least getting senior management to recognise the need.

If you are looking for easy answers I have none. The truth is that as I work with organisations over this issue it is a long and hard road. For some organisations it is just too big a cultural shift.

But despite that we need to try. If we do not, new younger companies that were born in the internet era and put the web at the heart of their business will surpass us.

Paul Boag

Published 25 January, 2013 by Paul Boag

Digital Strategist Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or his personal blog Boagworld.

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Comments (10)

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People want vocal human interaction, a positive friendly voice at the end of the line. Not computerised / automated live chat feeds.

over 5 years ago



"I am sure they believe that if they make users complete the checkout process they will be less likely to drop out when they discover the delivery cost. In reality they just annoy people."

Or users are less likely to drop out once they've completed the checkout process? I agree that it annoys people but I think to just dismiss offhand that leaving delivery costs until the final page or two doesn't have a positive impact on the per visit value for new customers is a little naive.

over 5 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Paul,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

I recently did a presentation for Berkshire Digital on Ecommerce Retail Trends for 2013 and a key one I pulled-out was "Delivery & returns battleground". I personally think, based on experience and how the market is evolving, that retailers who see delivery & returns as core customer service opportunities, not legal policy requirements, will triumph. Too often it's seen as box ticking - we must have a distance selling policy, 7 days, tick.

Zappos is a wonderful example - 365 day free domestic returns + if you order on Feb 29th of a leap year, you have until Feb 29th of the next leap year to return. A gimmick sure but still it reinforces the service ethos.

in my experience, a key issue with online customer service is the ecommerce team not being properly aligned with other business units. It's great to have a Twitter account to connect with customers but if it's not integrated with the CS framework, then issues raised often fall into the cracks, or don't have proper ownership.

And I do think, as you reference, that business culture can be a major barrier. If the business doesn't put customers first, then that trickles down to sub-optimal technology, processes, communication etc.

@Ben - in most of the testing I've done on ecommerce checkouts, leaving the delivery cost to the last minute actually decreases conversion. So much research to validate that throwing in additional costs at the last minute puts people off. Of course, there are exceptions, but for standard retail ecommerce I've never found throwing them up at the end before completion to have a +ve impact.


over 5 years ago


Nick Stiles, Operations Manager at The Simply Group

Glass half empty?

Admittedly there is plenty if poor customer service being delivered on the web, but there is also plenty of great customer centric companies working hard to be the best they can be. Is this really very different from the high street and service sectors in general?

I agree that the likes of Zappos are clearly committed to delivering a great customer focused experience but the example of offering free returns for a year just indicates a commercial decision based on modelling the pro and cons from a financial perspective vs customer retention/generation . Nothing about that shouts warm and fluffy customer care.

Giving the customer what they value first time is massively important, but equally mistakes will happen, balls do get dropped from time to time and its how a company responds that is the true measure of its commitment to customer service.

I'm biased as I work in online retail but here is an independent review that we received yesterday. Hopefully it goes to show that its not all customer service online sucks....


Nick Stiles, Operations Manager - The Simply Group

over 5 years ago


Zoe Bosward, Experienced Online Marketing Manager, UK at Job hunting in Derby UK

Customer service works well online when it's been considered offline too.

I think companies are gradually waking up to that fact and realising that their online marketing/website managers cannot 'do it all'.

I'm looking forward to seeing more joined-up thinking in the future.

over 5 years ago



Good article, although I'd argue that customer service doesn't suck only online, it sucks on pretty much every channel, it's just easier for businesses to hide from their customers online.

The cultural shift that's needed is about recognising that the customer is the business rather than an annoying 'mark' to be segmented, categorised, profiled and ultimately bludgeoned with sales stuff until they relent and buy - and then quickly dismissed.

over 5 years ago



Customer Service should be viewed as you would two opposing political parties. Both have a set of viewpoints ordered by what they feel is best for the running of the country.

A business will (and should) only offer a level of customer service based on what they think is best for the business, they may be wrong but it is misguided to think that all companies that offer poor or standard customer service do so because they dont realise what good customer service is. Ryanair are a prime example, they offer no frills and are an extremely profitable company, many more airlines that offered better customer service failed because it wasnt viable to keep giving the customer what they wanted.

Many businesses may view the small percentage of people that cant actually look at a product on a website and decide whether it is for them or not arent helpful in driving the business forward, therefore why should the rest have to pay a higher price for goods to cover the cost of returns for the others making the business less competitive than a standard high street shop where people just bring the item back to the shop, and cant get a refund unless the retailer feels like it. Clothing companies however will have a higher percentage of possible returns due to the nature of the goods, but also a higher repeat rate of custom from one customer, so it would make business sense to offer free returns and make this process as smooth as possible.

Many online companies can maximise profits by reducing the number of staff, email contact and FAQs is the easiest way to do this. Others have premium rate contact numbers so your complaint actually makes them money, each call keeps the money rolling in which is why the email service and FAQs and generally poor. A high st department store offers a 48hr reply, but a premium rate phone line, which do you use if you need a solution in 24hrs?

over 5 years ago

Stephen Thair

Stephen Thair, Director at Seriti Consulting

Interesting article Paul.

Re "For a website to work effectively and customers to get good support means rethinking the whole structure of your business."

You might want to look at the work of Steve Denning (e.g. http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2011/07/08/the-five-big-surprises-of-radical-management/) who is amongst a growing number of business authors who believe that a radical "new paradigm" is needed for the way businesses are structured and run.

His views are somewhat based around the concepts of what would be called "Agile" in the software world (http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2012/04/09/the-best-kept-management-secret-on-the-planet-agile/) but there are also other related models e.g. "conscious capitalism" (http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2013/01/05/the-new-management-paradigm-john-mackeys-whole-foods/) but all share common tenets like customer involvement, team focus, collaboration, decentralisation etc.

Your point about "customer service" partly being a product of Marketing "managing" the website is well made.

I know from personal experience that trying to convince management that you need to plug the website into robust Support workflows using email, live chat and service management tools like Service-now.com for tracking/escalation etc isn't easy... but when done well you really can create very loyal customers by dealing with their issues & concerns promptly, with transparent communication.

over 5 years ago


Chris Lund, Marketing Manager at PERFORM

Done well, online customer service can be exceptional! done badly, the lack of personal contact (or any contact at all) can be infuriating... 2 recent examples:

Bad: The Post Office - standard contact form which didn't accept my (correct) reference code, followed by an automated response saying a response could take 10 days. A response did come back sooner than that, but did not addressing my original complaint and expecting me to chase with the sender (which I'd explained I'd already done). result = confusion, rising blood pressure and a lasting resentment.

Good: Figleaves.com - online chat with a clearly well trained CS operative acknowledged my issue (a missing order) made immediate efforts to rectify the sitiuation and followed up with a personal email addressing my exact problems. result? Original frustration replaced by customer delight (and positive word of mouth)

Lessons? don't try and reduce all customer complaints to a set list of common problems - you kight think they fit, but the customer is likely to disagree.

Respond quickly and give solutions, not just apologies or excuses.

Take the inititaive and attempt to sort the problem out for the customer - don't push it back on them and expect them to be happy.

over 5 years ago



Customer service staff works well online as it provides with the direct technical support to them and which provide them with the maximum customer satisfaction.

over 5 years ago

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