online customer serviceA new survey finds that, though some of the most popular online retailers are performing well for usability of search and navigation, as well as delivery, they are often failing when it comes to effective customer service. 

According to the eDigital Research survey, e-tailers scored especially poorly on providing customer service by email, something which customers increasingly want to do to save spending time on the phone. However, customers often received inadequate information, or no response at all.

A similar mystery shopper survey for the US by the e-tailing group found a broadly similar pattern, with the majority of retailers failing the customer service test.

The e-Retail Benchmark study used mystery shoppers to look at 39 UK e-commerce sites, rating different processes and sections of each site. This chat provides a summary of average scores:

eDigital chart

Homepages and ASOS scored best here, both over 90%, thanks to clear layout and navigation options, prominence of promotional offers, server security logos and help information, as well as overall impression.

Both Debenhams and River Island performed poorly here – a trend which continues across other aspects of the survey. For Debenhams, while promotional offers are shown, the navigation could be better (it currently uses drop-downs, making browsing more difficult), while signs of security cannot be found on the homepage

We’ve mentioned River Island before, as it uses Flash for its entire site, making it harder to navigate, and completely inaccessible for many disabled users. It has been an issue for a long time, so it is surprising that the company has yet to address this problem. It comes last in this survey, and it’s not hard to see why.


Figleaves, B&Q and Amazon scored best for accuracy and speed of search, all were praised for having a prominent search box, relevant results and a variety of options to refine and filter search results.  We’ve mentioned this in our user experience reports before, and it is clearly a website feature that customers appreciate.

A quick look at BHS, which had the worst rating, illustrates this point. A search for ‘shirt’ produces 335 results over 23 pages, and includes bras, trousers, and other non-shirt items. This poor search experience is worsened by the fact that there is no way to further refine the search, by mens / women’s, size, colour etc, which makes it a usability nightmare

BHS terrible search results page

Email contact

The survey looked at the speed of response to customer emails, as well as the quality of information offered, and found many e-tailers wanting in this area. Amazon and John Lewis performed best here, with prompt and accurate responses to customer requests.

The scores in this section were poor overall though; Boots and were the biggest culprits, scoring just 20% for email response. Incredibly, Boots isn’t even offering an email contact option at the moment, telling customers that their email service is currently unavailable. Then again; perhaps no email contact option is better than a poor one.

Many customers hate having to spent time on the phone to companies, and especially for non-urgent queries, email should provide a good alternative contact option for customers. This doesn’t surprise me though, as plenty of surveys and reports have highlighted the problem of poor customer service by email before.

Telephone customer service

Customer contact by phone wasn’t rated much higher in the survey. Though Waitrose and Tesco both scored over 90%, thanks to clear contact options on the website, and fast and helpful responses by call centre staff. Others need to improve customer service by phone though.

River Island and ASOS had the lowest scores here, both under 25%. River Island falls at the first hurdle here, as it doesn’t even provide a telephone contact number, which is pretty poor.

ASOS meanwhile, tells customers in the FAQs that: ‘Because we are an online retailer, we find it more efficient to answer
your queries via email rather than phone’.

It does promise to answer email queries within the hour though, and had one of the highest scores for email contact, but there may be times when customers don’t want to wait an hour for a reply, or would prefer to talk to someone directly, so not providing this option seems a strange policy, as sales may sometimes be dependent on this.