Customers shortchanged by corporate Web sites

Von Linda Rosencrance

Only six of the largest 100 companies in the U.S. achieved "excellent" ratings for online customer service, according to the 2005 Online Customer Respect Study from The Customer Respect Group.

Those companies, in order, are Hewlett-Packard Co., Medco Health Solutions Inc., Sprint Corp., Intel Corp., American Express Co. and United Parcel Service Inc. Another 29 companies received "good" ratings, while 65 companies got failing grades, according to the survey.

The average customer respect index last year was 6.2 (out of a possible 10), while the most recent study showed an overall improvement across all industries, with the average score rising to 6.5.

"In general terms, things show a modest improvement year to year -- the overall average score went up just a tad," said Terry Golesworthy, president of The Customer Respect Group.

That"s largely because of efforts by companies in the top 25, which improved quite a lot over their scores in 2004. Many companies at the bottom of the group"s rankings did not improve at all -- or in some ways got worse. "Thus, the gap between the most and least respectful companies is widening," Golesworthy said.

The highest-rated companies improved in terms of transparency, particularly when it comes to publicly detailing their privacy policies to their online visitors, he said.

"We saw a lot of companies in the "excellent" categories that improved in the area of data privacy, and there was also an increase in the number of companies that have chosen not to share data with outside organizations," Golesworthy said.

While responsiveness to customers improved overall, it remained the lowest-scoring area for many companies, yielding an overall score of just 5.3 out of 10. Some 28 of the top 100 U.S. companies were rated "very poor" in their handling of online inquiries, according to the survey.

Overall, 15% of online inquiries sent were ignored, the survey showed. Although that"s better than last year, all of that improvement can be traced to the top quarter of companies whose responsiveness was measured, The Customer Respect Group said.

While 58% of all e-mails were responded to within a day -- a time frame customers considered acceptable -- only half of the responses were helpful, according to the survey.

"Customer respect, or lack of, is a significant factor that influences online behavior," Golesworthy said in a statement. "It"s no surprise that companies that do more business via the Internet are doing better. Simply put, they get it. No organization, however, can ignore the online customer, regardless of what percentage of its sales are derived from the Internet."