The Changing Face of Customer Service

If good customer service is hard to find, maybe it's because you're not looking in the right places.

A growing number of consumers are turning to the Web — rather than the telephone — for answers to their questions, finds an online study of customer service attitudes by San Francisco-based market analysis firm Modalis Research Technologies.

And, if given the choice, half of all respondents prefer to use the Web to resolve an issue even if they could receive the same answer over the phone in the same amount of time.

But, not surprisingly, WorldCom's e-Services unit, which commissioned the survey argues that online service options won't replace traditional customer service such as the phone. "The driving trend is that consumers expect phone and online interactions to be integrated," conjectures Dodie Vance, public relations manager at the firm.

Challenging Customers

Shoppers want a wider variety of service options and more personalized assistance, the survey finds. Whether seeking help online or on the phone, 73 percent of customers expect companies to be able to know who they are, pull up all their information, know that they already called about a problem as well as know what e-mail they sent last month, explains Vance.

"The problem is that while customers want that [integrated service], companies don't usually provide it," adds Donna Victoria, a vice president at Modalis. In fact, an October 2000 study by Forrester Research found that out of 2,500 managers, 70 percent of firms consider customer service critical, yet only 26 percent of them have Web-enabled their call centers.

In a competitive market, the difference between satisfactory help and bad service can cost not only a sale, but brand loyalty. Victoria says that 72 percent of those surveyed by Modalis said they would stop doing business with a company if they experienced bad service.

She adds that the majority indicated they were willing to pay more for goods and services provided the company pays adequate attention to their needs. Only 8 percent of respondents say low prices are more important than customer service.

Further, if more companies provided some form of online assistance, they would have salvaged an estimated $1.6 billion in lost sales, according to market analysis firm Datamonitor.

How Can Firms Stay Ahead?

With more than 100 million Americans using the Web for purchases and Jupiter Media projecting that the number of online customers seeking help will double to 67 million this year, Victoria argues e-tailers, businesses and service providers must learn to accommodate more demanding shoppers.

That may be tough to do in current market conditions, she points out, because as the amount of layoffs rises, firms tend to pay less attention to the needs of their customers and place more emphasis on bottom lines.

But, she argues, seamless integration of services, especially taking advantage of the Web, may actually save companies money. By conducting more business online firms can cut overhead costs while offering consumers a wider array of information that's available at all times.

Another helpful tool could be the massive popularity of online chat help. The study found that although very few people use online chat customer service — which functions very much like AOL Time Warner's instant messaging — it provided the highest level of satisfaction. "I think that's going to be one of the biggest trend implications," says Victoria. "It makes me wonder if it will change attitudes and change phone interactions."