A "catastrophic inability" to provide adequate online customer service leaves most UK firms unable to provide answers to even the simplest customer queries.
According to research published today, over two thirds of leading consumer websites answered fewer than two out of 10 of the most often asked customer questions. Only 16 per cent were able to answer five or more questions successfully.
Research carried out by customer service software provider Transversal found that almost half of the organisations surveyed also failed to respond to customer questions escalated by email. Those that did took an average of 33 hours to reply.
The research, which surveyed 50 leading organisations in the travel, banking, insurance, consumer goods and telecoms sectors, was based on 10 common, sector-specific questions.
Additionally a single question was emailed to each organisation's customer service department. Responses were marked for relevance and for time taken to respond.
Websites in the strongest sector, banking, could only provide adequate answers to three out of the 10 questions.
The worst sector was telecoms, which could answer just one in 10 questions on average. Scores varied greatly between individual companies surveyed, and 34 per cent were unable to answer any questions at all.
For frustrated customers forced to submit questions by email, response rates were equally dismal. Sixty per cent of travel companies did not bother to answer emails at all, and those that did took an average of 42 hours to respond.
The highest number of responses came from telecoms companies (70 per cent) but they still took over a day to reply - 32 hours on average.
Tardiest of all were consumer electronics companies which took an average of 51 hours to respond to email.
The fastest average response time came from the banking sector. While one stood out with a response within two hours, the rest averaged 17 hours which is hardly the immediate answers that online consumers are looking for.
Response rates were only calculated on those organisations that actually answered the questions, and excluded automatically generated holding replies.
"Given the growth in the online channel over the past five years, these figures demonstrate an astonishing lack of understanding by the average organisation," said Transversal chief executive Davin Yap.
"Our research shows a growing customer service chasm between those companies that take online seriously and those that do not.
"Consumers on the web want answers now; they do not want to wait days for an email response or be forced to call a contact centre."
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