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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/7/2007 7:08:44 PM ET 2007-11-08T00:08:44

Can you imagine going into a store and carefully selecting your purchases, then walking up to the checkout counter only to have the sales clerk tell you to start over again? You wouldn’t stand for it.

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But in the online world, it happens all the time. And it’s annoying as hell.

A recent Harris Interactive Survey found that a large percentage of people who do business via the Internet have a less than favorable experience. These frustrated consumers say they are unwilling to put up with e-commerce that fails to live up to their expectations.

The survey of 2,420 adults was commissioned by Tealeaf Technology, which sells software that lets companies see how users are interacting with their site. The results should be a wake-up call to business. They show that poor customer service will not only hurt sales, it could also permanently cost them customers.

Web-based businesses need to realize the importance of the online experience, said Tealeaf CEO Rebecca Ward. “There’s a big disconnect between what consumers expect and what businesses are providing,” she said.  According to the survey, 83 percent of the people surveyed expect the offline and online experience to be the same. But most companies don’t deliver.

The Tealeaf survey found that 87 percent of the people who do business online have some sort of problem. They have trouble logging in, difficulty navigating the site, receive error messages, get kicked off the page, or get caught in endless loops.

And what do e-shoppers do when they have a problem? The Tealeaf survey found that 42 percent will give up and leave the site.

“What companies haven’t realized or don’t appear to recognize is that shopping online is distinctly different than the traditional brick and mortar business,” Ward says. “It’s just so easy to switch to a competitor online. You’re just a mouse click away.”

Frustrating customer-service calls
The Tealeaf survey found that 53 percent of the people who have a problem online try to complete the transaction by contacting customer service. But nearly half the time, customer service can’t resolve the issue. A majority of those responding (68 percent) felt the service agent was not knowledgeable about the company’s Web site.

Geoff Galat, Tealeaf’s vice president of marketing, says this “a remarkable disconnect.” Companies spend a great deal of money to drive customers to their site but don’t give the service agents the training or tools they need to help customers who have a problem.

“So you’re driving all this traffic to the site, and consumers are leaving because they’re running into problems while trying to transact,” Galat says.

“Effectively you’re spending money to send your customers to the competition and that’s a really scary thing from a business perspective.”

When you e-mail a company with a question, especially one that deals with a potential purchase, you expect a reply. But you won’t always get one. The Talisma Corporation, a Bellevue, Wash., firm that sells customer interactive management software, conducted a mystery shopper exercise from May to June of this year. They sent e-mails to the top 100 U.S. online retailers asking what credit/debit card they accepted and what they charged for shipping.

One third of those e-mails went unanswered. Even when the company responded, the information was not always correct. Talisma says 49 percent of the e-mail responses contained inaccurate information.

Talisma CEO Dan Vetras said he was “somewhat, but not completely shocked” by the results. Many e-tailers are working on razor-thin margins, he says, and they do not have the staff to handle the influx of e-mail they get.

That’s a big mistake. Vetras believes these companies “could generate significantly more sales and build a much more loyal customer base,” if they provided quality service.

“We’re not talking about rocket science here,” he says. “By not providing service you lose customers.”

A company that gets it
Crutchfield Electronics is known for its online customer service. Unlike other sites that hide their customer service telephone number, Crutchfield encourages Web shoppers to call and talk to a knowledgeable sales advisor; names and pictures of advisors are displayed throughout the site.

For years, the company has earned high marks from Consumer Reports. Once again this year, the magazine’s readers rated Crutchfield their favorite place to shop for electronics .

Crutchfield does more than monitor customer problems. It uses software (developed by Tealeaf) to figure out exactly what happened – from the customer’s perspective – when something goes wrong.

“It allows us to view the exact user session, what they clicked on, what they filled in, how they interacted with the site,” says Steven Weiskircher, Crutchfield’s vice president of information technology. “We can literally see what process they went through on our site to get that less than ideal outcome.”

Based on this feedback, Crutchfield can solve little annoyances before they become significant problems. Providing top-notch customer service does cost more, but as Crutchfield has shown, the payback is enormous.

My two cents
For years, e-commerce has been a growing factor in the marketplace. Many of us want to do business online. But we are unwilling to accept second-rate service.

Web sites can no longer be an afterthought, something a business does half-heartedly in order to have a presence on the Internet.  We will no longer accept a poor online experience. We will not use sites that are difficult to navigate. We will not spend our money with retailers who have shabby customer service.

We now have choices. If your company does not want our business, we will shop somewhere else.

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