When a "customer" called Wal-Mart to track an order, then attempted to get additional information, the automated voice system politely told them their complete satisfaction was a priority, followed by "Goodbye," and then hung up.
Upon contacting RadioShack for digital camera recommendations, a live sales agent told the "consumer" to call back and ask for technical support instead of sales. But when the "consumer" called technical support they were promptly transferred back to sales.
Meanwhile, Cingular's Web site provided a "customer" forms for sending
e-mail inquiries with a registered account. The catch? The password for the account was sent via text message to a phone the user hadn't yet received.
And the customer service war stories go on and on.
The difference this time: it was not a consumer getting burned. It was a team of analysts from Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass., reviewing the cross channel experiences of 16 brands. During the fourth quarter of 2006, they ranked what it was like to use a brand's Web site, phone agents, interactive voice response (IVR) and e-mail, plus what it was like to cut across those channels. Fifty-seven different criteria were measured on a scale of +2 (best practice) to -2 (extreme failure), which were added to or subtracted from each company's running total. A final total of 57 or higher was a passing grade.
How many of the brands surveyed passed? None.
"I wouldn't say I'm shocked. Are you?" said Moira Dorsey, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Companies deliver erratic experiences when you look across the different channels. They might be strong in one channel and weak in another."
Dorsey said Gateway had trouble with IVR but did well with live phone agent interaction: "Due to the fact that there is this unevenness, it's not a shock that the overall scores are what they are."
The companies that fared the poorest as a whole were the wireless providers. Sprint Nextel scored -19, Cingular -17, Verizon Wireless -12. Only T-Mobile was in the positive column with a score of 12 thanks to its superior Web site experience. Sprint Nextel had problems with its Web site, phone experiences and channel transitions. The average score of all companies for these criteria was 0.8.
Dell (38) and Circuit City (32) received the top scores. Dell scored well, despite being flogged by blogger Jeff Jarvis last year for its Web experience. Forrester said they struggled with e-mail correspondences and transitions from one channel to the next. "Our own internal data shows a lot of the investments we're making to better service our customers are beginning to have a positive effect on the consumer," said Mike Maher, a Dell rep. "We recognize that we still have a long way to go. There are many things we need to do to be where we want to be."
Circuit City ranked second best, with a steady performance across all channels. The consumer electronics chain is continuing to push for improvements by aligning its channels under one leadership. Earlier this month, Danny Clark was named evp-multichannel sales, overseeing the retail, Web and center channels.
"We're trying to create a seamless experience across all channels. It's an area we've been working on for the past couple of years," said Bill Cimino, a Circuit City rep. "We realize there's a long way to go to get to where we think it can ultimately be."
Installing someone like Clark is essential, said Dorsey: "Companies need to create a culture where everyone in the company is asking, 'Who are our users, what are their goals and how can we design an interaction to support those goals?' "
E-mail communications single-handedly drove down everyone's rating, as the average e-mail score across all 16 brands was 4.9. When contacted by Forrester, 10 firms didn't offer e-mail or didn't respond to inquiries. Others responded, but didn't bother answering the question asked. Circuit City fared the best.
Chase received the best IVR score by providing clearly worded prompts. Gateway's system was a maze of unclear menu options and error messages that did not help users recover from mistakes.
Across the board, all of the firms studied must re-examine their cross-channel functionality, as they often treat the Web and phone as separate silos. The average score for channel transitions was -3. Oddly enough, the roughest transition was from IVR to phone agents. Like the Wal-Mart example, researchers couldn't dial through to a live agent. "It's a transition that is broken," said Dorsey.
Another consistent frustration was the fact that information often didn't transfer from the automated system to the live operator. This happened with Dell, T-Mobile and RadioShack. With Gateway, Forrester was even transferred a third time, so the caller had to repeat all of her information a third time. Dorsey warned that companies need to improve quickly. "There's a strong correlation between the experience they have when they try to interact with the brand and the opinion they have of it," she said.