Tested For You: How Are European Retailers Performing In Online Customer Service?

Martin Stocker and Erica Vialardi

The sunny and warm weather has finally arrived. What could be more fun than having some cocktails and nice foods on your terrace together with friends? My colleague Erica and I decided to meet on a Saturday afternoon for a summer barbecue with our families. I would take care of the preparation of the barbecue itself, while Erica would look into the cocktails.

Since we both like good and innovative online shopping experiences, we decided to make it a little bit more challenging and ended up testing the online customer services of the top 10 European online retailers to get everything ready for the party. We were both confident that, in the golden age of online retailing, the whole setup would go smoothly. In reality, we went through quite surprising experiences.

What makes customer service future-proof

Finally, we met for the barbecue and had a very nice time with good food and fresh cocktails. In the kitchen, Erica took me aside and told me, “It was fun to do the cocktails stuff, but not all parts of it. I thought it would be way easier!” I shared the same impressions with her.

To test which of the top 10 European retailers would score best in terms of online customer service performance, we selected the two main criteria that, today, prove a retailer’s ability to walk down a future-oriented path in customer service:

1) the customer engagement effectiveness of their customer service

2) the availability of self-service channels

Each criterion got an assessment on a 1 to 10 scale, where 1 means “not available” and 10 means “extremely effective and innovative”. Are retail brands walking the walk, or just talking the talk of providing great online customer service?

Forward-thinking retailers don’t wait for a complaint

The first criterion we assessed was the level of customer engagement that retailers could provide on the customer service side. Leading retailers are aware that customer service is increasingly becoming an actual engagement channel and no longer a mere post-sale troubleshooting tool.

The differentiator here lies in the ability to provide customers with enough valuable product information so that they can have all their questions answered before they make the purchase decision, and in addition, are encouraged to increase the value in their shopping carts. The elements we analysed to assess customer engagement performance in service included: detail of product description; product advice and suggestions of use through service channels; cross-and up-selling; personalization tools; and re-marketing through service channels.

Testing brought its share of fun and sharing our experiences ended up in conversations like this one:

Martin: “I hoped that some online shops would support a much more intelligent and convenient way on how to find the items on my list. Take the new gas bottle for my barbecue: unfortunately, when I browsed the first online shop, the size of the bottle was not the perfect fit for my grill.”

Erica: “Do you mean that not only didn’t the store recommend products related to a specific grill, even a basic thing like a gas bottle, but they couldn’t even provide more product information through their service channels?”

Martin: “Exactly! I wished I could, for example, have immediately chatted with a store consultant when visiting the page of the gas bottle to get some product advice. Some of the online shops did indeed have a Service button, but when I clicked on it, I got the usual contact information via phone, email to address technical or delivery issues only. What held me back from purchasing was not getting a helpful answer fast enough about the product I wanted to purchase.”

Erica: “Frustrating! Now I understand why you had to drive to the next DYI store to talk to a salesperson.”

A multifaceted gem called self-service

The second criterion was about measuring the retailers’ performance in offering self-service channels, which enable customers to solve their service requests on their own and find answers with ease, without having to contact a service operator. The higher the number of self-service channels, the higher the score of the retailer. We analysed the presence of the following self-service methods at each retailer’s website: FAQs; buying guides; personalization tools; customer communities and ratings; and chatbots.

Here again, the two of us had interesting conversations, for better or for worse:

Erica: “I wanted to make everything ready to be the ‘hostess with the mostest’ that day, so I went on an online quest for cocktail items on two different home goods online retailers. When looking for barware, I heavily relied on self-service tools to guide me in my purchase. Through communities, peer reviews and Q&As, I could easily determine that a key differentiator in a cocktail shaker was the lid and felt confident in my purchase.”

Martin: “Now that’s what I call great service! Better than my experience with the gas bottle for sure. At least you found all the info on your own, directly on the website.”

Erica: “Wait—unfortunately, the fun didn’t last long. When it came to the actual cocktail preparation, I would have expected at least something as simple as a link to a cocktail recipe book on the glassware section of the store, but it wasn’t available anywhere. This made it very hard for me to choose the right glasses and… guess what?”

Martin: “… you clicked away and ended up on Google.”

European retailers could serve themselves better

There is still a long way to go, but with our research, we could highlight some strengths and growth opportunities. Here is the final ranking:

The strongest performers overall were by far the UK apparel and home goods retailers. They showed very advanced service functionality, such as a striking 20-question personalization tool to select the best outfit, and in another case, sophisticated, searchable communities together with product comparison tools.

The two biggest German fashion vendors provided good service performances, the only ones with a live chat available on their homepages that also included a separate, product advice chat. A good experience, which combined the advantages of an online and an offline shop. No long waiting times, direct responses, and very uncomplicated recommendations.

The third and last cluster were the grocery retailers from France, who offered the weakest performance in terms of customer engagement and self-service capabilities and instead seemed to concentrate most of their service efforts on the delivery/pickup side, which may reflect the intrinsic nature of the fresh food industry, where convenient delivery is a priority.

The first takeaway of our research has been that good service is key to hold consumers from clicking away. Eighty-six percent of all consumers are indeed likely to pay for good service or pay more for their items on the shopping list. Another finding was that customer service should start transforming from solving “administrative” complaints to managing revenue-generating customer engagement activities.

In addition, it still seems to be hard for retailers in specific branches to move away from their product-based core businesses toward a more service-oriented offering, based on the usage/experience for the consumer. Here again, service will play an ever more discriminating role in customer retention in the future.

Conversational commerce is today

Probably inspired by the lavish dinner and cocktails, a thought struck us: Isn’t it a paradox that with today’s availability of sophisticated online, one-to-one conversational channels that brands could only dream of five years ago, those same conversational channels are still often used as mere “complaint centres”? Turn the complaints into opportunities, and you will transform those tools into powerful customer engagement gates, in times where boundaries between service, marketing and commerce are blurring.

For example, with intelligent chatbots, both authors are convinced, shopping will be much easier, faster, and more convenient. Even supermarkets could offer their customers a menu with the ingredients they are looking for and put these on their pick list. It is worth noting that of all 10 retailers we tested, not one used chatbots on their online stores yet.

One conversational commerce tool that is already existing and working is Chatbot Charly, developed at SAP Hybris Labs. It would be a win for both sides: retailers could serve their customer needs, increase the satisfaction and the revenue of their shoppers, and consumers could spend more time on the most important things in life: having a great time with their families and friends.

For a in-depth analysis of the evolution of customer service, shifting from strictly a post-sale approach to an entire end-to-end process, read the report “Supporting the Buying Journey with Customer Service” from Forrester.

Martin Stocker

About Martin Stocker

Martin Stocker is Director of Global Programs Marketing at SAP Hybris.

Erica Vialardi

About Erica Vialardi

Erica Vialardi is the EMEA Audience Engagement Marketing Manager at SAP Hybris.