RealTime IT News

Corporations Still Not Cutting Web Pie

The Web sites of too many Fortune 100 companies in the United States don't take customers seriously, an upcoming report by research and consulting firm The Customer Respect Group concludes.

The 2004 Online Customer Respect Study, which will be published Monday, shows that while companies like Microsoft (No. 1) and Hewlett-Packard (No. 2) performed very well across the board, most had inadequate privacy, operational or security measures in place to reassure customers.

The study evaluates the top 100 U.S. companies in six categories -- simplicity, responsiveness, transparency, principles, attitude and privacy -- and elicits end-user feedback on their experiences of visits to the Web sites. Grading is done on a 0 (worst) to 10 (best) scale.

Roger Fairchild, president of the Bellevue, Wash.-based consulting firm, said he finds it amazing that after three years of publishing report results, companies still don't take their online sites seriously.

"Companies need to realize that the current statistic is 10.6 percent of all transactions in the U.S. are initiated with a visit to a Web site," he said.

He pointed out potential customers are visiting company Web sites to research a product they are looking to buy, whether it's a book or car, adding that, if they can't get the information they want from the Web site, customers will look elsewhere. According to polling conducted for the study, 64 percent said they would visit a competitor's Web site if they couldn't get the information they wanted from their first choice or were put off by a Web site's unclear data-mining practices.

"And unlike in a brick-and-mortar environment, I don't have to get in my car and drive across town for 20 minutes and go to the competitor's place of business. I simply have to make a click," Fairchild said.

The common perception might be that Fortune 100 companies are made up of the most established brick-and-mortar companies in the United States, who, therefore, have little understanding of the complexities of the Web and haven't devoted much energy to the relatively new Internet technology.

That is not true to an extent. While companies like Weyerhaeuser Company (No. 98) and SuperValu Inc. (No. 100) fared poorly online, other, similarly established, bricks-and-mortar joints like Albertson's (No. 7) and The Home Depot, Inc. (No. 15), received good grades for their Web sites.

What's surprising is the number of high-tech companies whose Web sites are sub-par, according to the report's findings. For example, Dell Computer Corp. (No. 36), the company that became highly successful over its online PC sales component, snared a meager 3.3 rating in responsiveness, or the time it takes to get back to a customer.

Cable carrier TimeWarner (No. 82) had an abysmal 0.0 rating in responsiveness, while telephone companies SBC Communications (No. 66) and BellSouth Corp. (No. 73) had responsiveness scores of 2.9 and 3.6, respectively.

"Even after three years of reporting on this, we're still finding that a third of Fortune 100 companies aren't responding to all Web inquiries, which is amazing to me -- That you can make the investment and understand the significance of the Internet and how people use it, and a third still don't respond to inquiries for general information or product-specific information," Fairchild said.

Overall, the study found that 12 percent of the Fortune 100 companies don't respond to any of their inquiries, while another 21 percent responded to half the inquiries.

The study isn't completely negative. Sixty-seven percent of the companies do respond, taking anywhere from one hour to four days to respond, though only 31 of that 67 percent include an auto-response e-mail to explain how the customer will be waiting.

In the area of security, The Customer Respect Group survey found 44 percent of the surveyed companies don't use SSL to protect documents. A little more than a quarter of them, however, always use the encryption technology.

Of the 100 Web sites, 93 percent have a privacy policy in place. While only 30 percent only use the data for internal marketing, a whopping 58 percent of them share the data with affiliates, business partners or subsidiaries. Cookies used to gather personal information is found on 93 percent of the Web sites, but only 11 percent of them explain how to disable the feature.