Study: Amazon Gets High Marks for Customer Relations was the online specialty retailer that treated its customers the best in the fourth quarter, according to the Fourth Quarter of 2004 Online Customer Respect Study of large U.S. retailers released this month.

Payless ShoeSource was the online specialty retailer that treated customers the worst, according to the study, published by research and consulting firm The Customer Respect Group, Boston.

Performance was analyzed from an online customer's perspective. A Customer Respect Index is assigned to each company. It is a qualitative and quantitative measure, based on a maximum of 10, of a customer's online experience when interacting with companies.

Sears, Roebuck topped the general merchandiser list while May Department Stores fared worst. Kroger scored highest among food and drug companies while Safeway scored lowest.

By interviewing a representative sample of the adult Internet population, and by analyzing and categorizing more than 2,000 corporate Web sites across various industries, The Customer Respect Group determined the attributes that combine to create the online customer experience.

These attributes were grouped together and measured as indicators of simplicity (ease of navigation), responsiveness (quick and helpful responses to inquiries), privacy (respect for the privacy of the customer), attitude (customer focus of site), transparency (open and honest policies) and principles (values and respects customer data). Combined, they measure a company's overall customer respect. Inc. scored a CRI of 8. Scoring 7.9 were Foot Locker, Ann Taylor and Pottery Barn, followed by Lowe's and Sears at 7.8. Payless ShoeSource had a CRI of 4.7.

Other findings:

· Surveyed firms received the best overall rating (8.2) for transparency and the worst (5) for responsiveness.

· Fifteen percent of firms did not respond to any online inquiries. Fourteen percent responded to half of the inquiries received.

· Seventy-one percent responded to all inquiries. Of these, 7 percent responded within an hour, but 6 percent responded more than four days later. The standard for response is within one day.

· Thirty-six percent of all sector firms use Autoresponder technology, in which e-mails automatically are sent to users to confirm the receipt of their inquiry and to let them know when they should expect a response. Of these, 71 percent included detail on how quickly they would follow up, but less than half followed up in the time promised.

· Ninety-three percent of companies provide e-mail forms for online inquiries, while 7 percent provide e-mail addresses.

· All firms have privacy policies on their sites explaining how customers' personal data are used. Five percent need to be more explicit about how they use personal data, 48 percent do not collect data or use collected data only for internal purposes, 14 percent share data with affiliates or subsidiaries and 33 percent share data with business partners without permission from users.

· Ninety-five percent of surveyed firms use cookie technology. Of these, 25 percent provide a full explanation about what advantage cookies provide the user and what data they hold while 7 percent give a full explanation on how to disable cookies.

· No company provides forms that can be used easily by those with disabilities.

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