Damning evidence about the UK's failure to use Internet technology appropriately for customer service has been delivered by two Internet surveys this week.
Hewson Consulting Group (HCG) and marketing consultants Rainier both issued warnings to Times 100 companies that they risk losing significant business unless they overhaul their Internet strategies.
In the HCG study of 150 top companies that actively promote their Web site in television and print advertising, only 14 per cent responded to an urgent request from a potential buyer within 24 hours, while a staggering 39 per cent never responded at all.
In the Rainer study, it is claimed that 26 of the FTSE Top 100 did not respond to basic investor information after 100 days with only 44 per cent responding within 24 hours.
Rainier claimed that Boots Chemist at 31 days and Ladbroke at nine days were among the most tardy respondents. The HCG study, which included representative samples from a wide range of business sectors showed a significant disparity in service quality, with the best performing exceptionally well, while the poorest bordered on the farcical.
Wendy Hewson, head of research at HCG said, "My favourite was the healthcare company which telephoned in response to a request for details of healthcare insurance. On answering the phone we heard 'Oh sorry (rustle of papers)...I can't find your name on my list.' Without good customer data, one to one marketing is commercial folly!"
Many industries are still unable to pass on Web enquiries to their own field sales forces. In the business travel sector Hewson characterised responses as: "Apalling - most have expensive full page, four colour adverts but of the 10 companies in this sector, including names such as Club Med, Delta Airlines, Posthouse and Marriot only three made any effort to respond to an urgent sales request within eight to 10 working days."
In HCG's view, there is a significant risk that brand leaders may end up devaluing their brand value reputations through poor strategies and so inadvertently clear a path for new customer centric businesses to take market share.
Bob Apollo, general manager of infrastructure vendor eGain, which commissioned the Hewson study, said, "This survey should act as a huge wake-up call for UK companies. Email is becoming an increasingly accepted and convenient means of communication for online shoppers, and yet few companies are providing an acceptable level of online customer service today."
The reasons for this state of affairs are many and varied but according to Nick Hewson, head of consulting at HCG, many companies don't understand how to make their business processes fit an Internet economy.
"They're effectively creating black holes - Web sites with content but inadequate mechanisms to link Internet components such as email back to their response systems," he said.
Other reasons include ill defined Internet strategies, management difficulty in working out strategies that don't alienate traditional distribution channels or problems adapting 'bricks and mortar' businesses, such as car distribution, to ones that include service elements into the public offering.
From a technical perspective, one answer might be the inclusion of call back functionality on Web sites - something of a rarity but with significant potential for customer service improvement.
Eric Dadian, president of French based call centre operator Intracall, said, "We have 'call-me' functionality in our virtual call centres. It's a simple way of making sure the customer gets the service he or she needs and we can do this either over IP or direct to the person's phone line. Customers love it - it's immediate and effective."
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