7.3 Quality of customer service
This is probably the key determinant of customer satisfaction. Most online transactions go through flawlessly. But some don't. Goods fail to arrive, or are delayed, or delivered to the wrong address. Or what is delivered doesn't match what you ordered. With a real-world bricks-and-mortar retailer, the solution is obvious: you phone or turn up at their premises and speak to a human being. But what do you do if an online order goes wrong? Whom do you phone? And where is the number for customer complaints or queries?
This is a weakness of the e-commerce industry. The reason many investors were attracted into the sector in the early days was that they saw it as a way of cutting the staff and overhead costs that ordinary retailers have to carry, while being able to charge roughly the same prices. This was a foolish misjudgement, but one made by many people in the period 1998–2001. The truth is that any kind of retailing – online or offline – needs a good customer-service department, and this is still best provided by human beings. So a good test when choosing an online retailer for a particular transaction is to search their site for information on how to make a query. Is there a telephone number? Is it prominently displayed? If not, look elsewhere.