Given the fact that major retailers are spending vast amounts on e-commerce and advertising their web sites, why do so many fail to provide the online customer service that consumers need? A new report from market research firm, the Allen Bonde Group, examines the 'self-service paradox' of well marketed retailer web sites that can't answer basic consumer queries.
The independent study of the search and navigation capabilities of 57 leading retail web sites was conducted as part of the firm's ongoing analysis of the state of web self-service.
This particular study focused on a single key aspect of the customer's online experience: how well retail sites can handle the questions web users were asking as they struggled to complete their Christmas shopping.
Although many leading retailers have a carefully constructed and well marketed web site, not many of them could usefully provide the answers needed, despite the widely cited cost advantages of answering enquiries via the web, and the increasing role of the web as a source of consumer information.
Of the 57 online retailers studied, 47 (82.5%) have a search facility on their primary customer-facing web site. And of those sites that have search facilities:
- Only 13 (27.7%) were able to provide a relevant response to the query, "What is your return policy?" when typed into the search box.
- Only 10 (21.3%) were able to provide a relevant response to the query, "How do I contact customer service?"
- Only 8 (17.0%) were able to provide a relevant response to the query, "Do you sell gift certificates for less than $50?"
- When the correct response was unavailable, many simply provided irrelevant information instead - and, in some cases, thousands of irrelevant links.
- Overall, 17 sites (36.2%) provided a relevant response to at least one of the test queries, while 11 sites (23.4%) correctly answered at least 2 out of 3 questions, and only 3 sites (6.4%) provided relevant answers to all 3 questions.
"There are many ways to organise and present information on a web site," said Peter Mooradian, one of the study's authors. "But users invariably turn to the search box as a means for finding specific information. Part of the problem is clearly down to the limitations of key-word searching but mostly it's just poor design."
A few of the web sites examined were particularly helpful in answering the test queries and providing a good user experience. Not surprisingly, sites supporting natural language searching performed better than others. The six highest ranked retailer web sites were:
- Gateway, which provided relevant answers to all three questions.
- Talbots, correctly answering all three questions.
- Kohls, correctly answering all three questions.
- Office Depot, which provided relevant answers to 2 of the 3 questions.
- Williams Sonoma, correctly answering 2 of the 3 questions.
- Amazon, correctly answering 2 of the 3 questions.
"We have studied the quality of customer service online for the past three years, and the good news is that web sites are getting better - especially ones that mimic the best of the offline world and offer features such as natural language searching," explained co-author, David Hybels.
"Providing a compelling online experience is not only good for consumers, but also critical to maintaining brand loyalty. It's clear that some retailers understand this but the majority still do not."