Study: Fortune 100 lacks respect for online consumers

Consumers sending queries to some Fortune 100 companies' sites could probably get a more rapid response by driving to the airport, booking a flight to the company's headquarters and talking to a customer representative there, a new study reveals.

In its study of online "consumer respect," Web-focused research firm ConsumerRespect.com, a division of International Ventures Research Ltd., found that not only do many Fortune 100 companies lag in responding to general online inquiries, 37 percent do not reply at all.

The study, released Friday, rated Fortune 100 companies overall online "consumer respect," based on factors such as privacy, principles, attitude, transparency, simplicity and responsiveness that consumers encounter at the companies' sites.

"What surprised me is what some of the simple things that people got wrong," said Donal Daly, author of the report.

He added that the responsiveness scores were "striking," given that "it's not a hard thing to do."

Of all the attributes ranked, the companies performed the lowest in terms of responsiveness, garnering a 4.8 rating out of 10. Forty-one percent of the companies replied to inquiries within 48 hours, while just 9 percent received a perfect score in terms of responsiveness.

While some of the 37 percent of companies that failed to reply to inquiries did send auto-responders that the consumer's inquiry was received, this is not the trend. According to the study, 83 percent of the sites offered no auto-response function.

This lack of online consumer respect is a big mistake, according to Daly, given that customers who tend to use the Internet are more valuable to companies because they are usually younger and offer the companies the ability to build lifetime brand loyalty.

And in a time when corporate mistrust is rampant - given the implosion of Enron Corp. and accounting shenanigans of other major firms -- regaining consumer confidence is imperative, Daly said.

PG&E Corp. and Ford Motor Co. ranked among the worst in terms of responsiveness, while Freddie Mac Inc., Costco Wholesale Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. rated among the best.

In terms of attitude, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Costco did the best, while AOL Time Warner Inc. (AOLTW) and Electronic Data Systems Corp. ranked the worst, the study said.

Daly described attitude as the sites' tone and transparency.

"It's whether they are sitting across the virtual desk with their arms folded or not," he said.

Bad-attitude ranked AOLTW, for example, didn't respond to an e-mail inquiry, had a difficult to read privacy policy and wasn't clear about its practices, Daly noted.

Privacy was also rated, with Lowe's Companies Inc. scoring high, and American Electric Power Co. Inc. coming in last. In fact, companies still have a way to go in terms of protecting consumer privacy, given that 15 percent of the companies surveyed sell customer data without seeking permission to do so, according to the report.

What's more, Daly said he was surprised to find that a handful of Fortune 100 companies did not have privacy policies on their sites.

When asked why some companies were giving online customers such little respect, Daly proffered the adage "on the Internet no one can hear you scream."

"Companies lose customers but they don't know about it," he said. "They don't hear the screams, and everyone loses."

The term "Fortune 100" refers to the top companies in Fortune magazine's listing of top 500 U.S.-based corporations with the largest revenue in the last year.

The survey was performed as part of ConsumerRespect.com's 2002 Online Customer Respect Study of Fortune 100 Companies. More details are available on the firm's site at http://www.customerrespect.com.

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