Vendors fail online customer service test

IT vendors are failing to practice what they preach when it comes to e-commerce. Many of them are running badly designed web sites and a third failed to responsed to e-mails sent by customers.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  April 30, 2003

IT companies are failing to respond to customer e-mails, according to the Customer Respect Group. Furthermore, the research firm rates the technology sector’s response rate as the worst of any industry it assesses.

Most IT companies’ web sites have the facility to send an e-mail using a generic address, such as marketing@company.com. However, the Customer Respect Group found that only 57% of firms responded within 48 hours to queries sent via the web site, 10% replied within four days, while a third did not responsed at all.

“Given the dramatic slump in high-tech fortunes during the past few years and their inhouse technology talents, it’s amazing that firms in this sector don’t make a stronger effort with their web sites,” says Donal Daly, CEO of the Customer Respect Group.

“At the lower end of the table, companies are just getting worse — some despite having been made aware of it last time [the group reported on the sector]. If they want to capture new customers, or even keep the ones they have, they’re just going to have to treat them with more respect,” he adds.

Bottom of the list was IT distributor, Tech Data, which scored just 2.0 out of ten in the research firm’s Customer Respect Index, which assesses all aspects of a company’s online performance.

Within the region, Eliot Shepherd, marketing director, Tech Data Middle East, says the company has a number of generic e-mail addresses, which are featured on the web site and in the company’s advertising materials. These addresses are assigned to a set number of people who are expected to reply. “A very limited number of people receive the e-mail,” says Shepherd. “There is a person who is expected to take action, and then there is an escalation of action as well,” he adds.

However, Shepherd admits that the company doesn’t monitor whether responses are sent, and that the service is not particularly popular with clients. The marketing address, for instance, only receives a couple of messages per month. “Maybe that’s [because] people get fed up not getting a response and most people here prefer using the phone,” he adds.

Furthermore, because the company deals mainly with business customers, most of its clients know which salesperson to contact anyway. “To some extent they tend to ignore these [generic] links as they already have a set point of contact,” suggests Shepherd.

HP, which topped the Customer Respect Group’s report, has a much more consumer-based business model than Tech Data. As such, between 100 and 150 e-mails per week are sent to its two generic Middle East addresses. However, this number can rise substantially depending on the company’s marketing. “There will be a spike if there’s an advertising campaign going on because we also use the same e-mail addresses on our direct mail pieces and adverts,” explains Karen Bell-Wright, CRM manager, HP Middle East.

All e-mails sent to HP Middle East’s generic address are received by a Dubai-based welcome desk, which then forwards them on to the most appropriate person, whether they are in pre-sales, after-sales or marketing, for instance. The company also examines response rates to ensure that customers rapidly receive a reply.

“We monitor it internally to make sure we get quick responses, but generally that’s not a problem,” says Bell-Wright. “It’s a core part of these people’s jobs — it isn’t just something that they think of when they decide to,” she adds.

Such monitoring is a core part of ensuring that a web site is a fully functional sales tool, and not just a static site solely presenting information. “If we do this kind of activity, we want to ensure that it is making a difference in the marketplace. We see it as a key differentiator for us — particularly in this region — to offer that kind of service,” says Bell-Wright.

Daly agrees that other companies need to match this level of service in order to keep their customers happy. “The most pressing issue for one-third of these [IT] companies is simply to begin responding to customer inquiries. Nothing turns off a customer or potential customer faster than getting no response,” he says.

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