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Many UK companies are still struggling to deliver adequate customer service through the web, email, social media and web chat channels, with Twitter performance being particularly patchy in this area, according to the Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study. This article is copyright 2014 The Best Customer Guide.

The study evaluated 100 leading UK companies on their ability to provide answers to ten 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.

Only 39% of companies were able to answer customer service questions asked through Twitter - despite 76% of organisations now being contactable through this channel.

In fact, 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 a 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 from last year. Eight out of ten sectors answered email slower than in 2012. 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," said Olivier Njamfa, CEO for Eptica. "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."

The study concluded 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.

However, large gaps are opening up between the best and the worst, with nearly a third of companies (32%) failing to answer more than half of the ten basic questions they were asked online, and 22% scoring eight or more. There were also major differences in performance, even in the same sector: for example, one entertainment retailer scored 100% yet two competitors only 20%.

For the first time, the research looked at consistency across multiple channels, and uncovered a piece-meal approach to service. Only 12% of companies gave a consistent response to the same question asked through email, Twitter and (where available) web chat. Several directly contradicted themselves on different channels, with one company giving three diametrically opposed 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 just 30% of emails or tweets. In 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 looking to contact organisations. Just over half of companies (55%) offered two channels (normally email and Twitter) alongside their websites, but 5% provided no way of contacting them through digital channels, forcing potential customers to pick up the phone to find out information.

Web chat was the final channel surveyed and provided the greatest accuracy (93.5%) and fastest response, with an average conversation time of just 4 minutes and 29 seconds. However, only 7% of companies offered reactive chat, despite industry studies showing that it increases efficiency, helps sales and is well-accepted by consumers.

"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."