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Computer Firms Score Poorly In Privacy, Customer Response

Computer firms are slow to respond to online customer inquiries, a study released Monday showed.

Computer firms are slow to respond to online customer inquiries, and more than one in three share customer data with business partners or affiliates without permission, a study released Monday showed.

In a fourth-quarter study of the largest U.S. computer products and services companies, The Customer Respect Group found that, on a scale of 0 to 10, the firms scored highest in providing open, honest online policies, 7.3; and lowest in responsiveness, 3.6. More than half of companies didn't response to all inquiries, the study found.

Many companies that fail to respond to online inquiries within 24 hours have yet to make answering email a normal part of their business, Terry Golesworthy, president of the CRG, said. This is happening even as more customers are choosing email to avoid long telephone waits.

"If you don't respond, then you're causing double frustration," Golesworthy said. "Also, from a cost standpoint, you want to drive people to electronic mail, because you can answer them in more of a batch process."

On privacy, 95 percent of the companies had policies on their sites explaining how customers' personal data is being used, the study found. However, 37 percent didn't ask customers for permission before sharing personal data with affiliates, subsidiaries, or business partners.

Sharing data can get companies into trouble with online customers, given that more than half of the latter say protecting personal information is their greatest concern, Terry Golesworthy, president of the CRG, said. When Web users are considering making an online purchase, that number jumps to two-thirds.

"Privacy is already the number 1 issue among consumers, and its becoming the paramount concern," Golesworthy said.

The industry is increasingly divided between companies that are taking privacy issues very seriously--even naming chief privacy officers--and those that are not addressing the issue at all, Golesworthy said. Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, and Symantec Corp. are examples of companies that have exceptional privacy polices, while others, such as Brightpoint, Graybar Electric, and Safeguard Scientifics fail to even adequately list their privacy policies online.

The CRG divided the industry into four sectors: Computer and data services; computer peripherals; computer software, computers, and office equipment; and electronics and office equipment wholesalers. The companies that had the highest and lowest overall score in each category, respectively, were EBay and Equifax; Lexmark International and Symbol Technologies; Microsoft and Siebel Systems; HP and NCR; and Avnet and Brightpoint.

In judging online customer performance, the CRG interviewed a representative sample of adult Internet users, and analyzed Web sites based on a host of attributes that are grouped into a half dozen categories, including simplicity, responsiveness, privacy, attitude, transparency of privacy policy, and principles related to respecting customer data.

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