Survey: Holiday Customers Value Customer Service Above All

Consumers are looking for black coal to put into their brick-and-mortar retailers' stocking this holiday season, with complaints soaring about bad customer service experiences. But those same consumers are seemingly ecstatic with online customer service.

Some of those results?courtesy of a new survey from American Express and the National Retail Federation?are not surprising. In the same way that a politician can benefit from low expectations, many consumers seemed to have had lower expectations of online this year, so they were more easily favorably impressed.

Those good online experiences apparently mushroomed, as online consumers said they were eager to share happy online experiences and less eager to share equally happy brick-and-mortar experiences. The novelty of the online encounter is more interesting, which lends the Web site a nice viral marketing boost.

"Consumers like to share the highs and lows of their shopping experiences with family and friends," said Katherine Mance, vice president of the NRF Foundation, the education and research arm of the National Retail Federation. "It's no stretch to say that a single customer service experience, whether positive or negative, affects a retailer's sales from a variety of consumers, not just one."

The study found that a whopping 99 percent of shoppers interviewed said that customer service was at least somewhat important to them when deciding to make a purchase.

The survey found a mere 16 percent of brick-and-mortar shoppers who said they were extremely satisfied with their most recent customer service experience, while an additional 51 percent said they were very satisfied. In contrast, online shoppers were almost three times as likely to be extremely satisfied with their customer service experience (44 percent), and an additional 45 percent were very satisfied.

"Many retailers are putting renewed emphasis on customer service, but shoppers are telling them that even more needs to be done," said John Theiss, vice president of Retail Industries at American Express Establishment Services. "This study identifies a wide range of service improvement opportunities that can have a meaningful impact on shoppers."

How are consumers defining good customer service? Courteous treatment was the answer from 67 percent of the participants, while almost as many (65 percent) said they wanted to be made to feel like a "valued customer."

Retailers lost points for some negative customer service behavior, such as pressuring customers to buy (69 percent) and being unable to find employees to help (61 percent). Having a "neat and clean store" was "extremely important" for 60 percent of the participants.

The customer service definitions change for online. The vast majority of online consumers (88 percent) said that "an extremely important component" of Web customer service is delivering "a safe and secure Web site." On-time merchandise delivery (73 percent) and quick answers (74 percent) were also mentioned.

Privacy cropped up as a top concern with both online (78 percent) and offline (73 percent) customers, with a specific request that information not be shared with other companies. Accurate item pricing was another priority that hit home with both online (75 percent) and offline (71 percent) customers, along with the belief that merchants would fix defective products.

For that one, online customers (74 percent) were slightly more nervous than their brick-and-mortar (63 percent) counterparts. The survey also showed strong online and offline consumer desire for clear, fair and non-argumentative return policies.