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Customer is king? Not quite
Meenakshi Radhakrishnan-Swami
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January 18, 2005

By the end of this year, some 37.5 million Indians will access the Internet. And Indian companies are pulling out the stops to be ready for them.

Or are they? Reports are pouring in that companies are increasing their spends for interactive marketing of products and services and enhanced communication with the people who access their websites -- and eCRM (electronic customer relationship management) is the latest buzzword.

But here's the surprise: customer support from these companies is really, really poor.

That's the finding of a survey by Juxt Consult, an Internet market research and consulting firm.

The syndicated research focused on testing the efficiency of the web-based customer support provided by some of the leading companies in India.

The results were not encouraging. More than half the companies included in the survey did not respond in any way to queries sent to their websites.

That's bad news. As customers become more informed, they also become more demanding. And if you want your company to stay ahead in the game, be prepared to give the customer what he wants.

That means, regardless of how the customer interacts with your company -- whether in person, talking to a "live" representative, or through the telephone or the Internet -- he should be able to expect the same level of service. If that's not happening, you've got a problem.

Various studies have come to similar conclusions: more customers leave because of problems with the level of service they were offered, than because of product or pricing issues.

And it costs several times more to acquire new customers than to retain existing ones.

So clearly, it makes sense for companies to brush up their interactive acts. But that's not what most of the 50 Indian companies surveyed seem to be doing.

How did the survey work? The survey restricted itself to the top 50 business-to-consumer companies across different verticals such as financial institutions, automobile, telecom, pharmaceuticals, FMCG and oil and gas.

Posing as customers planning high-value purchases, analysts from Juxt Consult submitted online queries related to each of the companies' products and services, ranging from the availability of products, addresses of dealers in a particular town, and details of existing offers and promotions advertised on the companies' websites.

The queries were sent either to the email IDs or through the online forms provided by the websites.

And the findings? As already mentioned, 58 per cent of the companies did not respond to the queries: of this, while 44 per cent did not reply, 14 per cent of the emails bounced.

That means either the company's systems were not equipped to handle email traffic, or the email addresses had not been updated. Further proof of shoddy management.

There were some surprises in store while analysing the 42 per cent of the companies in the sample who did respond. Contrary to popular belief, companies in the public sector showed they were better at eCRM than their counterparts.

Half the PSUs surveyed sent replies to queries posted to them, but less than 40 per cent of the private companies were as civil.

Across verticals, telecom companies proved to be the most sensitive to customer queries -- 75 per cent of the companies surveyed replied to queries, and all of them managed to close the query after replying satisfactorily.

Other verticals that achieved 100 per cent closure on queries were FMCG and oil and gas. Compare that to the overall closure rate of 32 per cent for all companies.

In particular, automotive and pharmaceutical companies fell short in solving even simple queries posted to them. Over 70 per cent of the pharma companies surveyed did not respond to queries, making this the worst-performing vertical.

Ironically, these are sectors where the scope for explanation and need for detail is greater than most.

How about the time taken to close a query? The international norm for online query response is 24 hours; Juxt Consult decided to be generous and extend the base time for the purpose of the survey to 72 hours.

Even so, the results were mixed. While a little over 40 per cent of the companies who responded to inquiries did manage to close the queries within 24 hours, almost as high a proportion -- 37.5 per cent -- took more than two days. The scope for improvement is obvious.

But why have the results been so abysmal? Here are two possible reasons, both related. One, the lack of an integrated approach to customer management -- unless the various departments within an organisation work in a coordinated way towards achieving customer delight, it's not going to happen.

Two, the seams are showing. Data doesn't flow within the organisation -- from online to "real" space -- seamlessly and in a way that encourages cross-functional sharing.

The lesson from the survey: It is time Indian companies realised that merely allotting high budgets to their online activities is not going to bring them closer to the customer.

Your task doesn't end with setting up an eCRM initiative -- in fact, it's barely begun. Ultimately, the best web strategy is one that results in satisfied customers, not fancy, fully loaded websites.

Postcards from the "cutting" edge of communication

Replying to a query asking for details about car loans advertised on its website, a leading bank wrote curtly that it did not deal in that area.

A second mail from a different email ID, though, extracted a positive reply, complete with contact information. Clearly, the information you receive depends on how informed or misinformed is the e-manager on duty.

In response to a help query about the inability to find on the website information about a specific product, a telecom company replied: "Please refer to our website for information on the same." Oh, and did we mention that it took the company 48 hours to frame that sentence?

Five companies acknowledged the query sent by the researchers, with a promise to revert shortly. Last heard, Juxt Consult was still waiting.

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