WorldCom, Merck, AOL, J.P. Morgan Chase–all four corporations have seen their stock prices and reputations pummeled as a result of negative media coverage and subsequent SEC investigations into allegations of accounting shenanigans and overstated earnings. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that these four corporations appear to share something else: a lousy record when it comes to being responsive to their online customers.
That, at least, is the finding of a recent study about the way Fortune 100 companies treat their online customers. And its author, Donal Daly, finds nothing coincidental about the results. “If they don’t respect their customer, it is not a great leap to say [these companies] don’t respect their shareholders either,” says Daly, CEO of CustomerRespect.com, a Bellevue, Wash.-based consulting company that did the survey.
Daly is the former CEO of e-marketing company NewWorld Commerce and the author of two books on marketing. He and other researchers at his new company posed as customers and then graded companies on the speed and quality of their responses, the navigability of their sites, the ease in finding company policies on how customer data was used and how “respectful” of customer privacy those policies were.
What they found was disturbing: 37 of the 100 largest companies didn’t even respond when the researchers e-mailed them as part of the four-month survey last year. Only 16 companies of the Fortune 100 obtained an above-average score on these measures (see “Big Names: The Best and Worst,” Page 30). Financial services companies were among the poorest performers (with the exception of mortgage company Freddie Mac, where fast, detailed responses to e-mails earned it the best score). Customers can’t even send e-mails to financial giants like American Express and Goldman Sachs, though the researchers found that aloofness wasn’t limited to financial giants. AOL, Pfizer and Viacom were similarly impossible to contact online.
Other examples: Ford Motor responded to a general inquiry with an automated response, promising a personal reply within 48 hours, and then failed to do so. And the CVS pharmacy chain wasn’t clear about its opt-in policy for consumers concerned about privacy.
For many companies, however, online ineptitude does not appear to be a deliberate strategy. “A poor score doesn’t translate necessarily to arrogance,” Daly says. “It translates to a lack of understanding of the psyche of the online customers and what they want.”
Most of the companies surveyed, however, do deal directly with consumers. And for them, online obtuseness is remarkably shortsighted. As Daly and others have found, online customers tend to be younger (read: higher lifetime potential). Yet once discouraged online, customers often flee forever. Which is why PepsiCo, which scored much lower in responsiveness and site navigability than Coca-Cola, is taking note. PepsiCo spokeswoman Elaine Palmer says the soft drink company is overhauling its website to improve ease of use. Pepsi, it seems, understands that treating customers well online is one of the essential blocks on which to build “a new generation.”