Many UK companies are still struggling to deliver adequate customer service through the web, email, social media and web chat channels, with Twitter's performance for customer service applications being particularly patchy, according to a study by Eptica. This article is copyright 2014 The Best Customer Guide.

Only 39% of companies were able to answer customer service questions asked through Twitter, despite 76% now being contactable through the channel. The 'Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study' evaluated 100 leading UK companies on their ability to provide answers to 10 routine questions via the web as well as their speed and accuracy when responding to email, Twitter and web chat, repeating research carried out over the past two years.

The study revealed that consumers were more likely to get an accurate answer via email than Twitter, with 41% of companies successfully responding to email. However, more and more organisations have removed the opportunity for non-customers to email them. Nearly one third (29%) of companies were uncontactable by email, compared to only 13% in 2011.

On average it took 61 hours and 39 minutes (nearly three whole days) to get a response via email, a minor improvement of 3 hours over 2013's figure. Fully eight out of ten sectors answered email slower than they did in 2012 and, in contrast, the average response time for Twitter was 8 hours and 37 minutes (although one company replied in only 4 minutes).

"The web, email and social media are fast becoming the channels of choice for consumers, yet the biggest brands in the country are struggling to cope. In particular, when it comes to Twitter companies are playing a dangerous game by establishing a presence and then failing to engage with customers. This could well backfire, leading to negative feedback spreading through the social network and damaging their overall brand," said Olivier Njamfa, CEO for Eptica. "Companies need to focus resources to deliver a consistent, high level and above all, fast, customer experience across every channel if they are to win and retain consumer loyalty and appeal to today's demanding customers."

The study also found that the most accurate mainstream channel was the web. Companies were able to answer an average of 63% of questions asked on their websites (up from 53% last year). Much of this improvement was down to increased use of web self-service software which lets visitors find their own answers to their queries, with over half (53%) of companies now deploying these solutions.

For the third year running fashion retailers led the way, successfully answering 79% of questions via their web sites. However, 36% of the top 100 companies scored worse than in 2012, with entertainment and electronics retailers bringing up the rear, answering just 52% of questions asked via the web. Gaps are opening between best and worst - nearly a third of companies (32%) failed to answer more than half of the ten basic questions they were asked online, yet 22% scored eight or more. There are major differences in performance, even in the same sector. For example, one entertainment retailer scored 100%, yet two competitors scored only 20%.

For the first time, the research also examined consistency across multiple channels, and uncovered a worryingly 'piecemeal' approach to customer service. Only 12% of companies gave a consistent response to the same question when asked through email, Twitter and (where available) web chat. Several directly contradicted themselves through different channels, with one company giving three completely opposite answers via email, Twitter and web chat.

Many companies that were strong on one channel were weak on others; for example, electronics manufacturers answered an average of 70% of questions asked on the web, but only 30% of emails or tweets. By contrast, telecoms companies responded successfully to 60% of tweets, but only 10% of emails.

There is also a shrinking choice of channels available to non-customers seeking to contact organisations. Just over half of the companies studied (55%) offered two channels (normally email and Twitter) alongside their web sites, but 5% provided no way at all of contacting them through digital channels, forcing potential customers to pick up the telephone to make contact.

"For most companies, the idea of multichannel customer engagement is a distant dream," concluded Njamfa. "Many appear to have focused resources on particular channels, ignoring others. This not only risks alienating customers but actually pushes up costs, as they run silo-based, inconsistent, channel by channel activity that is more expensive than a single, multichannel operation."