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Report: Online Customer Self-Service Struggles

A Jupiter Research analyst says companies that do business with consumers online are doing a poorer job of providing effective self-service.
Despite more-sophisticated search technology and content-management capabilities, companies that do business with consumers online are doing a poorer job of providing them with effective self-service, a Jupiter Research analyst told a gathering of content-management technology buyers Wednesday.

Jupiter has done a lot of number-crunching over the past couple of years to better understand consumers' online shopping experience, and while consumers have clearly indicated that quick responses to online inquiries are crucial to their satisfaction, companies' responsiveness to those inquiries is actually on the decline, analyst David Daniels said. Jupiter's research shows that nearly nine in 10 consumers expect a response to an inquiry within 24 hours, but that the percentage of companies not meeting that requirement is on the rise.

"It's shocking," Daniels said. "There's a big issue here--not just for putting content on the Web site, but for reacting."

The problems are multifaceted, Daniels said. Companies are failing to integrate their call-center response systems with their other information resources, such as content-management systems, knowledge bases, and even customer-relationship-management applications. That leads to support staff developing ad hoc support methodologies, often even prioritizing calls themselves based on how easily they think they can answer a question. Companies also continue to make the mistake of overinvesting in personalization even though customer feedback clearly shows that consumers don't care about being recognized or receiving recommendations--what they want is quick answers to their questions.

But perhaps the most surprising problem that persists is search engines that are delivering less-than-helpful results, with the percentage of consumers reporting dissatisfaction with site search up from 31% in 2001 to 49% in 2002. Jupiter's 2003 numbers haven't been released yet, but Daniels said he expects the trend to continue. Among the things companies are doing wrong, Daniels said:

• They're continuing to depend on keyword search instead of natural language tools. "Nobody walks into a department store and says, 'pants,'" Daniels said.

• They're not effectively using search to support navigation, an approach known as guided navigation, instead bringing up the traditional endless lists of often irrelevant results.

• They're not clearly instructing customers on how to best use their search engines.

Daniels warned companies that they underestimate the impact of ineffective search at their own risk. Jupiter's research indicates that nearly 80% of consumers who have problems navigating a site turn to the search engine first for help, and that about one-third of consumers actually use search immediately upon entering a site. That doesn't mean consumers are sophisticated in their use of search, but rather that they see it as the most obvious self-service tool.

And what happens when site searches prove fruitless or inquiries are addressed too slowly? More than half the time, consumers will tell others about their bad support experiences. One of the worst offenses, Daniels said, is a scenario most people can relate to: asking customers to repeatedly describe their problems because the retailer's left hand doesn't know what the right is doing.

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