Customer service crucial to online buyers

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Even in the virtual world, a helping hand and a soothing voice can go a long way.

Online shoppers are more likely to return to e-commerce sites when they've received good customer service. That's the finding of just-released research from NPD Online, a division of the NPD Group.

NPD Online surveyed 2,554 consumers in July via a questionnaire completed on NPD's site to assess their online buying habits and found that, while the quality of Web sites' customer service does not influence consumers' initial purchase decision, it does affect whether they will return to a site to buy. In fact, 75% of consumers surveyed said they strongly agree good customer service would make them shop at a site again.


And good customer service is particularly important to shoppers contemplating big-ticket purchases, such as airplane tickets, computers and consumer electronics, the survey found.

"To some extent, people generally need more hand-holding when purchasing more expensive items," said Allyson Leavy, NPD Group account manager.

Unfortunately for e-commerce sites, however, the quality of their customer service leaves much to be desired, at least in consumers' minds. The survey found most shoppers are dissatisfied with the level of service available online. Just 23% believe the customer service they experience online is efficient. Only 32% said the information they receive from customer service reps is accurate.

Some e-commerce sites offer resources in lieu of high-quality customer service. For example, some sites provide lists of frequently asked questions, but the survey found such lists are insufficient help for most consumers. Rather, they require human contact via e-mail or the phone to make purchasing decisions, Ms. Leavy said.


Good customer service is equally appealing to both sexes: The survey found that 51% of customer service users are men and 49% are women. A majority are ages 45 to 54, earn more than $75,000 a year and have spent at least two years online.

Online businesses that want to stick around should improve customer service, Ms. Leavy added.

"More and more people are going on the Internet, so the need for customer service will increase, not decrease," Ms. Leavy said. "Web sites need to have customer service [reps] that are trained and up to speed."

Copyright September 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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