I read with interest that Ryanair was the subject of a recent EU decision, thanks to its failure to provide an email address as a customer contact option. 

While it's important that companies selling online should provide customer service by email, retailers should make sure that customers can easily find an email address, and that responses are within a reasonable time. 

Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen, and many online retailers have plenty of room for improvement in their email customer service. 

Why is email customer service important? 

If customers need to contact a company urgently, then they are most likely to pick up the phone and dial, but this can mean a world of pain when attempting to contact some companies. 

I've frequently experienced waits of ten minutes or more when contacting online retailers, which is pretty much unacceptable. 

This makes the alternative email contact option more appealing, as I can fire off a question and save time wasted in call queues. If managed properly, it can also take the pressure off call centres, and allows companies to take time to investigate issues and provide information without keeping a customer waiting on the line. 

A recent survey found that, though 41% will make a complaint by phone, 61% will use email. Significantly, 20% turn to social media to voice their frustration, which should provide an incentive for firms to improve the quality of their email and phone customer service. 

Ryanair's contact options 

Ryanair provides a lesson in how not to do it, and the airline seems to make it as hard as possible for customers to contact them.

Customers have the choice of two phone numbers, one which charges 10p per minute, the other a priority service at £1 /min (rival EasyJet also charges for phone calls, though it does have a contact form). If customers don't want to pay to contact customer services, the only other options are fax (who really uses fax these days?) and by post. 

Ryanair has justified this by saying that it responds to '99% of letters and correspondence within 7 days of receiving it' and that 'if we do implement an email address then it will probably just slow down the whole process'.

The EU regulations on email complaints

The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002, implement the EU's E-commerce Directive into UK law. The relevant part of the legislation, as explained by out-law.com, is this: 

The email address of the service provider must be given. It is not sufficient to include a 'contact us' form without also providing an email address.

This is clear enough, though the fact that a contact form doesn't fulfil the requirements of the legislation is interesting, as a number of retailers, such as Next, provide a form rather than an email address. Perhaps the EU will be after them next...

Next contact email

The dreaded contact form

A form can be useful for channelling customer complaints to the correct department, but they are often a source of frustration as users are seemingly made to jump through hoops to make contact.

I don't want to single out Next, as there are plenty of other retailers that offer the contact form option only (or I can't find their customer service email addresses). This includes Play.com and eBay, which can be a nightmare, thanks to all the various drop-down options you need to select. 

Personally, I hate the things, as they often seem to be a method of avoiding customer contact, and delaying the actual moment that you send your query. 

For example, if you select 'contact us' on eBay, you have to define the nature of your query before you can even get near the contact form. You could then have several more steps before you can explain your issue:

email contact options 2

While I can see that firms would rather customers check out the FAQs before they contact them, making them work too hard to make contact is just annoying. 

There is a balance to be struck, and River Island's contact page is a pretty good example of this: 

email contact 4

Clicking 'contact us' takes you straight to this page, where users are shown some of the most common FAQs on the left of the page. Then, all of the other contact options are there for customers, email, phone and post. 

There is a contact form, but River Island also provides the email address if people prefer not to use the form. 

Speed of response

The next problem that customers face, once they have filled in the contact form or found the email address, is getting a response from retailers. 

Email often seems to be the poor relation when it comes to customer services, one of the common problems being the speed of response, or lack of response in some cases. 

I've experienced this myself on a few occasions. For example, I'm still waiting for a response to a complaint emailed to Toys R Us in November. I bear grudges in such cases, so I avoided Toys R Us when Christmas shopping. If customers get zero response, or a poor one, then many are likely to feel the same way. 

It's a common theme of reports on online retail and customer experience:

  • Snow Valley's recent Delivery Report found that more than 60% of email enquiries about deliveries took more than one day to answer
  • The same report found that 16% didn't respond at all, which is shocking. 
  • 5.7% didn't provide an email address at all. Someone tell the EU! 
  • 39 of the 50 UK retailers benchmarked in a recent eDigital study scored 50% or less in the speed of email response category. 


It may be that there are good reasons why email customer service can be poor, lack of resources, or the need better technology for example, but this is of little interest to customers; they simply want an accurate and timely response when they email companies. 

Customers need a response, and one within a reasonable length of time. Not responding to emails, or making them wait too long is a great way to lose customers. 

Graham Charlton

Published 4 April, 2011 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 (6)

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Michael Bolton

for too long many companies have hidden behind being virtually impossible to contact on the grounds that email or web based contact is more efficient and keeps costs down. But for many it is a way of avoiding genuine customer interaction or providing decent customer support and service. I cite Wiggle as one example of a company with rapid growth and great online range and store but if something goes wrong it is impossible to speak to someone without an olympic sized effort, and they are not the only ones by any means.
I have never understood why selling via the web meant you could treat customers with such contempt and argue that online is low cost and therfore service has to be lower. We are way past that. Customer support and service is not cheap or easy but if the whole ecommerce proposition is to stand up for a company it needs to be addressed.

over 7 years ago

Pauline Randall

Pauline Randall, Director at Florizel Media

Too many companies seem to want customers to part with their money but not bother the company with any problems, questions, issues. Some really don't seem interested at all which strikes me as a bit odd in these tight economic times.

If you really want to know how much a company wants to talk to you check out the emails that come from them - how many come out with do_not_reply@ email addresses?

over 7 years ago



These issues are not unique to etailers. Whilst public service bodies provide email addresses openly, their contact forms are lengthy and off putting. Equally, responses to emails don't always meet their promised response deadlines (5 or 10 working days). Also, email correspondence is not joined up to other touch points (calls or postal) despite having reference numbers that could be used to link the queries/customers.

over 7 years ago


Rob Mobberley

Interesting article with some very valid points. From my own expereinces over many years one of the reasons many businesses did not include their email address was the perceived issue of spam and the email being picked up by various bots and the inbox subsequently being flooded with spam email, potentially drowning out the genuine emails.

Yes there are work-arounds such as customer_service @ emailaddress . com - but visually these do not look appealing and can sometimes be equally as frustrating to the customer who would prefer not to have to type in the email address. It may be that things have moved on and the issue is not so relevant or there may now be better solutions?

over 7 years ago



What language differences? ;)

Customer service is always being worked on, i know we are small, no arekibo, but always try and get back to feedback asap.

Maybe some people could be employed to do more of the work, instead of slicing into the budget, with wages being a get out of jail cheaper card, it could pay off in the long run (she says in her naive-ity) :/

Really read the article with some interest, and enjoy receiving your newsletters.

From Behind the Desk.

over 7 years ago


Gary J

Great post.

However, as a Customer Services agent myself, I found it a little amusing to find a Captcha box to send this post at the bottom of the thread, and also no e-mail address?

The fact this is a blog is irrelevant, but is a great exaple that e-tailers ar bound by the same technology to prevent spam, and thus do avoid posting a direct e-mail address on the page for this reason.

One of the largest problems I find in replying to customers in an accepted timescale is to those that send an email after closing hours on a Friday, and then send a follow up before we open on a Monday, by this time they are frustrated by no response. Do customers think e-tailers don't have weekends off?

Another problem I often discover is many customers will email their enquiry, but if they do not get a reply in a couple of hours they phone, and may leave the same enquiry on our answer phone, effectively doubling the work for customer services to cross reference.

I believe there should be less expectation and more protection for e-tailers, which is often not the case, as customers often expect more than reasonable service, typical of the "want it now generation" we live in today. We all struggle to please customers which is not always possible, and I hang onto the saying "..you can only please some of them all the time, or all of them some of the time...". But without them, we woudnt exist.

about 7 years ago

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