Online shoppers: Web sites still fall down on customer service

Online shoppers: Web sites still fall down on customer service

Summary: PALO ALTO, Calif. (Reuters) - For a company that aims tooffer the best customer service on the planet, Amazon.

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PALO ALTO, Calif. (Reuters) - For a company that aims to offer the best customer service on the planet, Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O) seems to have its work cut out.

The biggest online retailer drew many complaints from consumers at a leading Internet feedback site, which lowered its customer service rating for Amazon this year.

But Amazon isn't alone. Overall, holiday complaints related to e-commerce companies on PlanetFeedback.com went up some 60 percent between Thanksgiving and the end of the holiday shopping season.

"Right after Thanksgiving the trends started spiking up quite a bit," said Pete Blackshaw, founder and co-chairman of Cincinnati, Ohio-based PlanetFeedback.

True, shoppers are more rattled and probably a little less tolerant around the holidays. But Blackshaw, whose PlanetFeedback handles about 300,000 pieces of customer feedback a year, said holiday stress alone did not seem to explain the increase in complaints.

What stood out, he said, was a rise in reports on rude customer service, broken promises related to refunds or prompt shipping and other things that suggest stores were more focused on closing sales than accommodating their shoppers.

The Internet has several rating services including BizRate and ePinions. Not all of them have collected such negative responses as PlanetFeedback. But even those with a positive view have found problems. Los Angeles-based BizRate.com, for instance, says customer satisfaction remains relatively high, but that many consumers are still unhappy over the shipping and handling of their orders.

In one such complaint on PlanetFeedback.com, an angry customer wrote that Amazon's free shipping was "a scam."

The shopper had ordered more than $99 of merchandise to qualify for free shipping, but wound up having to pay for postage after all when Amazon divided the order into two separate packages.

An Amazon.com spokesman did note that the company's free shipping promise only applied to single packages containing at least $99 of merchandise. If one item is on back order, it was up to the customer to indicate that shipping should be held until all the merchandise is available.

"If people didn't understand that, we regret that, but we've tried to be as clear as possible and by and large we thing we're successful," said Amazon spokesman Bill Curry.

Several other complaints related to computer glitches on the Web site, broken promises about on-time delivery and an unresponsive, or simply rude customer service staff.

In fact, during one peak shopping day before Christmas nine out of the ten most recent comments entered on the PlanetFeedback.com site were complaints, and the final one was a question.

That was a disproportionate number of unhappy customers, according to PlanetFeedback. Complaints typically account for about 60 percent of the comments it gets from customers.

While Amazon's mediocre B-minus grade earns it a ranking below e-tailers like Target.com, which got a B-plus rating on PlanetFeedback, and Drugstore.com Inc's (DSCM.O) "A," it is hardly alone with its rising level of unhappy customers.

Most Internet retailers say customer service remains a priority, but point out it is difficult to respond to individual complaints since every order is unique.

But even among the retailers that continue to win high ratings, there are anecdotal signs of that service is slipping.

Although Target.com was recommended by 60 percent of shoppers on the review site ePinions, a large number of people reported a shopping experience that was so bad they said they might not return to the online store.

"Astoundingly inept service," wrote one. "Target.com seems to be the bastard stepchild of the real world department store."

No music for New Year's Eve
In some respects, the growing number of online service complaints reflect the growing importance of online retailing. One shopper went to CDNow to stock up on some 80s music compilations for a themed New Year's Eve party, and checked before she clicked on the "buy" button to make sure all the CDs were ready to ship. Only after she completed the purchase did she learn that some of the recordings were on back order. Then it was too late to opt out.

CDNow shoppers also complained that old coupons were not being honored and much of the merchandise advertised as being in stock, is really not ready to ship.

The nature of the complaints against Internet stores, which were often set up as a place to offer hassle free and convenient shopping, suggest that they stand to lose more from not keeping their customers happy.

"I will be taking all of my business to the local WalMart," wrote one BlueLight shopper, unhappy over what he said was a company that "completely ignores customer service."

"What a shame because I prefer Kmart."

Topics: Software, Amazon, Browser, Enterprise Software

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