UK retail customer experience – stuck in a rut?

28th Apr 2016

The retail sector has never been more competitive. With a click on a mouse or a tap on a phone screen, most retailers know their customers can very often find the same, or substantially similar, products at competing prices from numerous other outlets.  Differentiating and optimising the customer experience is one of the most important ways they can stand out from the crowd, while preserving revenues. This isn’t always easy – customers expect a hassle-free, joined-up, experience every time, across a growing number of channels.

Given these factors, retailers should be continually innovating to advance the customer experience. However, Eptica’s latest Retail Multichannel Customer Experience Study indicates that overall the sector seems to be stuck when it comes to customer service, with little improvement or change since last year.

The research, which has been conducted annually since 2011, benchmarks 40 leading UK retailers, across four sectors (food & wine, consumer electronics, entertainment and fashion) on their ability to provide answers to 10 typical customer service questions. It tests how well the questions are answered on retailer websites as well as speed and accuracy of responses on email, Twitter, Facebook and chat.

There are six main findings:

1. Retail websites are best for getting customer answers – but improvement has plateaued
Company websites are the most successful channel for retail customer service, answering 66% of all questions posed in the 2016 Eptica study. But this is only 1% better than last year, meaning that a third of typical customer questions remain unanswered online.

The headline figure also masks a shift towards average performance. The majority (55%) of retailers were able to answer 6-8 questions (out of 10). Only 17.5% answered 9 or 10 questions (down from 20% in 2015), with 27.5% scoring 5 or under.

2. Facebook wins top prize for accuracy – but fails on speed
This year was the first time Eptica tested Facebook customer service in its study and the findings indicate that social network giant is the best source for accurate responses, with 59% of queries receiving a successful answer. But response times on Facebook are slower than Twitter; it takes 6 hours 36 minutes on average get a response on Facebook compared with 5 hours 40 minutes on Twitter. 

3. Email: the consumer favourite fails to get the love it deserves from retailers
Consumers love email for customer service, with research suggesting 87% use it as their primary channel for getting in touch with companies. Yet Eptica found that a growing number of retailers are turning it off. This year 88% of retailers offered email to non-customers, 10% fewer than in 2015. Average performance is also dropping, with just over half (55%) of retailers delivering a successful response on email (down from 58% in 2015). While average speed of response had improved by over 10 hours, it still took 32 hours 53 minutes (nearly 1.5 days) to get an answer. That’s more than five times longer than on Twitter – and the exactly the same question was asked on both channels.

4. Twitter wins on speed and popularity – loses on accuracy
Twitter is the fastest channel for retail customer service. Again there there was inconsistency with lightning fast responses from some companies contrasting with snail’s pace service from others. So for example, one electronics retailer answered in 4 minutes, yet another in the same sector took nearly 33 hours to respond to the same question.

95% of retailers now have a presence on the channel (up from 88% a year ago), but in line with the overall trend, retail customer service on Twitter has improved only slightly since last year. Companies successfully answered 45% of questions in 2016, up just 2% from 43% in 2015. This means that over half of all queries are going unanswered or are receiving incorrect answers, leading to the channel trailing both Facebook and email for accuracy.

5. Customer service via chat gets worse
Where shoppers have questions before they buy - such as for consumer electronics purchases – online chat should be perfect because it offers real-time responses that do not disrupt or delay the customer journey.  

In practice, however, most retailers do not devote enough resources to chat, with less than half (43%) of those assessed by Eptica claiming to offer it. And even then, just 13% had it operational when Eptica tested the channel (up from 5% in 2015). Performance on chat has actually gone down since last year with only 60% providing successful answers this year (compared with 100% in 2015). The average time to answer nearly doubled from 5 minutes 30 seconds to 9 minutes 40 seconds.

6. All channels are not seen as equal
With most customer journeys taking in more than one channel, you would expect retailers to be trying to deliver consistency across all of them. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth: many retailers seem to be focusing on one or two channels with others being starved of resources. No retailers provided successful answers across all four channels (email, Twitter, Facebook and chat), for example, and just 10% gave a consistent, accurate response on three.

The 2016 Eptica Retail Multichannel Customer Experience Study shows that the majority of retailers are not doing enough to improve the service they offer. Given the competitive nature of the sector – and the fact that some companies are leading the way when it comes to a joined up, superior experience, now is the time for all retailers to take a look at their operations and see how improvements can be made. After all, the peak Christmas season starts in less than seven months…………

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