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Why Customer Assistance Sucks
liteblb.gif (981 bytes) Why Customer Assistance Sucks

liteblb.gif (981 bytes) Going Global

liteblb.gif (981 bytes)  How Online Stores Can Develop Communities

A Survey of Customer Assistance on Consumer Stores on the Web, from

Online shoppers need help, and many stores are doing a lousy job providing assistance. The e-stores should offer better-organized, more visual, and more on-the-spot customer assistance to answer questions, solve problems, and enable customers to achieve their goals, according to a recent report from, following a survey of the top e-commerce sites.

What is it called?

If youíre looking for helpful information, you may be confused because the same material is described in several different terms from site to site, and even within one site, you may face overlapping, or similar terms, and wonder, "Whatís the difference?"

75% of the sites surveyed call this information Help, but the same sites may also call it Customer Service (35%), FAQ (30%), and Customer Support (20%), as well as a scattering of other similar terms such as Help Desk, Member Services, and How to Use This Site (35%). (Thus, the total exceeds 100%). Also, some sites that have been cobbled together from various mergers have different kinds of customer assistance, with different names, localized by department, brand, or service. Net result: a customer will be hard pressed to know what to click, to get help.

Where is it?

Help information rarely appears where a customer can use it.

 Instead, you have to leave the product page, the order form, or the wish list to go somewhere else for information. 40% of these sites provide answers only on separate pages, ignoring the opportunity to include labels, tips, or informative graphics on the content pages or forms within the rest of the site.

How do I get there?

Links to some form of customer assistance should appear on every page, so you get can help from anywhere. The sites we liked best built customer assistance information into omnipresent menus. Such links appear at the top of every page in 35% of the sites, at the bottom of every page in 35% of the sites (sometimes the same ones that had links at the top), but a quarter of the sites only placed such links at the top of some pages, while 10% chose to put the links at the bottom of some pages (but not all). 30% offered the links as part of a menu on the side or in the middle of a page, while 20% put links within running text. 

Across the Web, then, we imagine a user learning to look first at the top and bottom menus, then at menus on the side of the page or in the middle, and lastly, for links within text. Not bad, but not consistent, either. Perhaps the industry needs to agree on a standard location for a link to help.

What types of assistance are offered?

90% of the sites follow a question-and-answer format, crystallized in a FAQ, at least some of the time. 

But 65% also put some information into a form more like a Help system, with headings that are gerunds or noun phrases, and text that gives instructions or explanations. 

In addition, only 40% of the sites offered some form of label information in order or registration forms, while a mere 20% gave actual instructions during activities (some sites provided both). 

10% offer chat, and 20% offer some form of discussion boards. As for actual contact with a human, we could only find a phone number for customer support on 45% of the sites, although we found email addresses related to customer support on 80%. 

Overall, then, we see a need to increase the amount of information embedded into forms and other activities, and to offer more personal contact through chats and discussion with other customers.

Is there help for a first-time visitor?

Surprisingly, almost half the sites offer some form of guidance aimed specifically at first-time visitors.

What if a customer is confused during registration?

Registration is a critical tool for capturing information about customers, getting their email address, and luring them into becoming repeat visitors. 

75% of these sites beg or require users to register. 

60% actually devote several paragraphs to marketing the benefits of registration up front, and 60% offer further explanations during the process. 

But that means 40% of the sites donít feel they need to do anything more than present you with a form. All sites could do a better job handling the transition after you register: now what?

How clear is the privacy policy?

Because customers worry about privacy, every site has a privacy policy advertised somewhere. 90% of the sites put a link to the policy on the home page, and 60% put that link on every page. 

Very few think to put the links where people care, though, during ordering. 

Incidentally, 70% use a third party such as Truste to guarantee their policy, and all of those offer the ability to opt out of email, usually during a registration process. 

The language of these policies is usually clear enough if you are a computer-savvy lawyer, but these screeds pour down the page in text as dense as the terms of service. Most of these policies do not seem designed to be read and understood. Perhaps they are designed to impress with their length.

How much information is provided about ordering?

Ordering is key for stores. Other research suggests that 75% of shopping carts are abandoned before purchase. There are plenty of reasons for that: for instance, many people use the cart as a way of collecting "maybe" items, when the storeís interface is so confusing they donít believe they will ever find the items again. 

90% of the stores put information about ordering into some form of FAQ (with an average of 10 questions about ordering in each site, from a minimum of 0 to a max of 73). 

40% add a few labels to the checkout process, where users really need the information, but only 20% actually provide numbered steps to guide you forward, and most of these are slipped into the context of a FAQ, rather than appearing on the order form.

How about shipping info?

Shipping is another painful subject for consumers, because it can double the cost of some items that seemed like bargains. On these sites, shipping gets an average of 3 questions per site.

How much information is there about returning an item?

Another very contentious issue, returns, earns an average of 1 question per site, often without any real instructions- just rules. We conclude that the sites are generally stingy with information that customers consider critical, perhaps in hopes that customers wonít return anything if they donít know how.

What kind of information appears in the FAQs?

The customer assistance information is text, text, text. 

No more than a quarter of these sites offer visuals of any kind, such as pictures of tool icons, screenshots, or diagrams. For a medium that puts a premium on graphics, these information pages are hopelessly old-fashioned, and, since most people do not want to read online, the labor involved in putting together these FAQs may be wasted. Recommendation: Build any FAQ around diagrams and graphics.

How easy is it to scan an FAQ?

Using some of Jakob Nielsenís ideas about scannability, we found that the sites unanimously provided headings and subheads (but less than half the sites put a meaningful title into the windowís title bar). 

Only 40% put lists into bulleted lists; only 40% put instructions in numbered steps; only 35% emphasized any keywords within the text, and only 35% generally put links at the end of sentences, where they are emphatic. 

The sheer volume of verbiage overwhelms the user, and makes it unlikely that anyone will really read this material.

What overall grade would you give these sites for their customer assistance?

C+. They have done their homework, but perfunctorily. They need to do a better job putting help where users need it, making customer assistance visual, clarifying the name and links to customer assistance. 


Note: For more information about this survey, and other ongoing research projects from, please email us. 

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