Customers looking for respect at company Web sites

A new study from The Customer Respect Group shows that many Fortune 100 companies still have work to do to improve their treatment of customers online.

The report, called the 2003 Online Customer Respect Study, will be released Friday by the Cork, Ireland-based international research and consulting group. The 330-page study details how the largest 100 companies in the U.S. rank in their responses to online inquiries from customers and in terms of their privacy policies and ease of use of Web sites. Also considered were open and honest online customer policies, respect of customer data and navigational simplicity.

The top-rated site in the latest report belongs to hardware and software vendor Hewlett-Packard Co., which scored 9.7 on a scale of 10. Some 25 attributes were used to determine the scores, according to the group.

Rounding out the top five finishers were drugstore chain Walgreen Co. with a score of 9.4, and retailer Costco Wholesale Corp., chip maker Intel Corp., and Dell Computer Corp., all with scores of 9.3.

The bottom five finishers on the list were Marathon Oil Corp. with a 4.1 score, aerospace vendor Northrup Grumman Corp. with 4.0, food service company Sysco Corp. with 4.0, holding company Berkshire Hathaway Inc. with 3.5, and IT vendor Ingram Micro Inc. with 2.8

The overall average score for the Fortune 100 was 7.0, according to the group.

The results, said Thorsten Ganz, vice president of research at The Customer Respect Group, show that "in general, companies still don't treat their online customers as well" as their brick-and-mortar store customers.

But that, he said, is a dangerous mistake. "The competition is only a click away" if a customer has a bad experience on a Web site, Ganz said. "Online customers should not be treated like second-class citizens."

The problems turn up in many ways, from taking too long to answer online inquiries from customers to never answering at all, he said.

The group sells its reports for US$12,000 a year, or $4,750 for a single report, so companies can use the information to make beneficial changes, he said. Some companies have purchased the data, but he said he was not sure if they have made changes based on the information.

Carol Baroudi, an analyst at Baroudi Bloor in Arlington, Mass., said the study is correct that some companies still need to do more to treat online customers better. But, she said, the group errs in using the Fortune 100 companies rather than the top 100 online retailers for its analysis.

For companies that fared badly in the latest survey, such as Ingram Micro, it isn't a consumer-oriented business, and instead focuses on computer hardware makers and IT. For those customers, Ingram Micro probably does a good job of satisfying its consumers, as opposed to answering inquiries from everyday consumers browsing the Web, she said. There likely are Ingram Micro customer portals that are used for customer purchases rather than mainstream Web sites, she said.

Companies that sell directly to consumers on the Web, though, should continue to make improvements in how they relate to their customers online, Baroudi said. "For business-to-consumer, then yes, you really don't have a choice," she said. "You have to go there."

Harry Wolhandler, an analyst at Accelara Research in Harrisville, N.H., agreed that companies like Ingram Micro aren't the best fit in the rankings. For Ingram, there are no real benefits to spending lots of money to answer questions on their main Web site, he said.

"It's really a matter of how much cost these companies wish to incur," Wolhandler said.

This is the second such study by the group, which issued its first report on online customer respect last year. In that report, mortgage company Freddie Mac finished first with a score of 9.3, while Costco finished second with 9.2.

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