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.