Study: Customer Service Coming of Age

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Within a year the number of consumers looking for customer service online has doubled, according to a survey by Internet research firm Cyber Dialogue, New York. This growth is likely to spur a significant increase in Web-based customer service in the near future.


More than 26 percent of online shoppers reported seeking customer service online last year, compared with 13 percent in 1998.


Cyber Dialogue defines customer service as any agent that aids the consumer in decision-making for product purchasing as well as with issues and problems they may have before and after the sale.


Last year, 12.1 percent of online shoppers used online customer service and support for personal products and services, compared with only 6 percent the prior year. For business products and services, this number reached 10.6 percent, up from 6.9 percent in 1998. From 1997 to 1999, the number of online customer service users grew from 4.5 million to more than 12 million adults.


"Internet users, for the most part, are more savvy now and are really looking for quality, not just looking for a flashy page. It's more about product and service as opposed to graphics and flash," said Patrice Brown, a data librarian at Cyber Dialogue.


This growth will likely signal a change in the industry. "I knew customer service would be a big factor in the future. I just didn't think it would double in one year," Brown said. "Most companies now are trying to go toward an [electronic customer relationship management] service. But, some companies are really just lagging. Once they start to see that there's a demand, they'll get on the ball and incorporate it faster."


Customer service is becoming an essential element for retaining customers. Three out of four respondents rated customer service as a very important feature that weighs into whether they will return to a site.


Two-thirds of customers who already use support services agree that they look for sites with the best customer service features.


Thirty-nine percent of longtime users are likely to use customer features while only 15 percent of new consumers use them. Customer service is most important to those shoppers who spend $500 or more online per year.


Eighty-three percent of shoppers surveyed said toll-free calls to a live customer service representative are either extremely or very helpful in improving online shopping. Three out of five shoppers said "Speak to me" buttons that allow a customer to speak to a representative online are extremely or very helpful. Fifty-three percent said "Call Me" buttons that prompt a representative to call the customer within 24 hours are extremely or very helpful.


New technologies such as "Speak to me" buttons are likely to blossom soon. "There are not that many businesses offering them at this point," Brown said. "If a customer has an old dinosaur of a computer, they're hard to use. As the technology grows and computers get faster, [usage] will definitely grow."


These findings were compiled for Cyber Dialogue's American Internet User Survey. The survey involved interviews with 1,000 Internet users and 1,000 nonusers.

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