Death of salesmanship?

A new survey reveals that a lot of companies are slamming the door in the face of online customers. Howard Baldwin advises you avoid being one of them.

If there was anyone that embodied traditional salesmanship it was my father, Norman Baldwin. I remember watching him on his way into the restroom once at a coffee shop--as he opened the door, it stuck, and, thinking he had bumped into someone on the other side, he automatically said, "Excuse me."

To this day, my father is the only man I know that says "excuse me" to doors. And his politeness brought him a great deal of success as a residential real estate salesman.

I found myself wondering what my father would make of the survey released last month by CustomerRespect.com, a division of Irish research firm International Ventures Research. The survey ranked the Fortune 100 (the top 100 companies in the Fortune 500) on their customer etiquette in two main areas--their response to customer inquiries, and their respect of customer information. While a frightening number of the companies were lackadaisical about respecting customers' boundaries and privacy--45 percent of sites force customers to opt out if they don't wish to receive unsolicited e-mails from them, while 15 percent of sites sell customer data without seeking permission to do so,--the thing that concerned me most was the egregious disregard of customer e-mail. It's the most obvious factor connected to sales: Ignoring a customer inquiry is tantamount to slamming a door in the customer's face.

According to the survey, 37 percent of companies didn't reply to a general inquiry submitted to their Web site, despite offering either an online form or e-mail contacts for such inquiries. And 83 percent of sites offered no auto-response function to notify customers that their communication had been received and would be acted upon.

And these aren't fly-by-night dot-coms we're talking about. These are the Fortune 100.

How can they be so misguided?
The companies that did poorly in these results are essentially taking their customers for granted. They've forgotten the basic rules of business, perhaps because they've been around too long. You wouldn't start a new business with an unlisted phone number. You wouldn't set up a new phone line without voice mail. You develop relationships with customers one customer at a time. Ignoring them is as counter-productive as you can get.

"These companies wouldn't be where they are today if they ran their total business the way they run their online business," says Donal Daly, CEO of CustomerRespect.com. "While executives know that the Web is important for a certain segment of their customers, they haven't applied the same discipline as they have with traditional customer service and marketing."

Sadly, it's going to get worse before it gets better. "Some folks were dragged screaming and kicking into the Internet land, and the demise of a lot of the high-profile dot-coms gave people a reason to say it wasn't important anyway. They're ignoring the fact that Internet usage continues to be the fastest technology uptick that we've ever seen," says Daly. A successful company may not see the Internet as a channel that merits consideration, but when the average cost of a Web site runs over $1 million, it darn well merits consideration.

Interestingly, Daly notices a pattern among the companies that did poorly on the survey: Some of them, like energy supplier Dynegy and software developer Merant, are having financial troubles.

Wonder who, between Wal-Mart and K-Mart, did better on the survey? Think Wal-Mart, the one that's not in financial trouble. Why? "Because they're always focused on their customer. This survey isn't about the use of Internet technology. It's a wonderful indicator of fundamental corporate values. The customers know this. The customers say, 'I want to give you my money, and all I want in return is a modicum of respect,' " says Daly.

The place to start
As the son of an unfalteringly polite realtor, I am offended by the astounding lack of courtesy indicated by these statistics. In fact, when asked what companies should do first to rectify their ways, Daly suggests implementing an auto-response system at the very least. "It makes the customer feel like you're listening, even though it's an auto-response. It's an easy technology to implement."

This behavior is especially mystifying given the mantra that greeted the birth of e-commerce: If you don't give the customer what they want, your competition is just a click away.

The results of Daly's survey haven't gone unnoticed. When BusinessWeek asked Pepsi about their weak showing, particularly against Coca-Cola, a Pepsi spokesman said the company was changing its practices right away.

It's not clear whether these survey results represent rampant arrogance or rampant stupidity among the Fortune 100. But the sooner companies start looking at the Web as a legitimate channel for communication and e-commerce, rather than as a step-child, the sooner this kind of sloppiness will go the way of 286 chips. And good riddance.

Come to think of it, I do know how my father would respond to people that treated their customers so cavalierly. He'd shake his head slowly and say: "I'm glad they're not working for me."

Have you been turned off by lack of response to an email inquiry? TalkBack below or e-mail Howard.