As a cybershopper, Charlene Brown finds it nearly impossible to reach real people to answer questions about ordering merchandise from different Web sites.
So, as an online art retailer in Troy, Mich., Brown makes sure a phone number is easily visible to customers who browse her Web sites. Brown, who owns and operates three online art businesses, also tries to answer the calls herself so she can understand customers' problems and questions.
"My frustration with many sites is that they have this philosophy that, 'We don't want to talk to you. Just give us your credit card,' " Brown said. "We wanted to have a friendly cyberstore where a toll-free number appears on every page of a site."
Brown is an example of an e-tailer, or electronic retailer, who has seen the writing on the e-wall: Unless e-tailers find ways to beef up customer service to stem the tide of shoppers abandoning their online orders, they could lose $173 billion over the next five years.
Sixty-five percent of online orders are abandoned before being completed, according to a Boston Consulting Group study.
As a result, e-tailers increasingly make sure customers can reach a live person to get answers about products and other issues. E-tailers also are testing their Web sites to make sure that ordering is simple and easy to understand. Some e-tailers even offer free shipping, big discounts and additional promises of credit card security to reel in shoppers.
Others contract with a new breed of company that specializes in online customer service, including providing special software and customer service representatives.
On-line customer service is becoming so crucial that it is expected to grow from a $162 million market in 1999 to $1.95 billion in 2004 as e-tailers put more emphasis on answering customers' questions and serving their needs, according to Datamonitor, a New York research firm.
Meanwhile, online retail revenues are expected to nearly double this year to more than $61 billion.
But the average company could have improved its online sales by almost 35 percent in 1999 if it had provided better customer service, Datamonitor said.
Consequently, online retailers are changing their way of thinking.
"We're seeing the Internet evolve," said Jim Speros, president of Sideware Corp., a customer-service software company in Reston, Va.
"If you can't communicate with a live person so you can get customer questions answered in real time, you're one click away from failure," he said.
Initially, Web developers thought sales would naturally follow once they got people to visit their sites. But many have found they need to do more than attract visitors to make a sale.
Many online customers who want quick answers about products or services will abandon an Internet purchase and head to a store when they can't get those answers, Speros said.
Early e-tailers spent thousands, and in some cases millions, developing sites, but few, if any, developed systems for getting customers' questions and concerns immediately answered by workers.
Companies like Sideware have developed software that enables retailers to send messages to potential customers immediately after they log onto a site. The software enables the retailer to tell customers that employees are available to answer questions. In some cases, it contacts the employee who worked with the customer previously.
"The Internet's got to do many of the same things that people get when they walk through a store," Speros said.
E-tailers also must test their Web sites on a cross section of people, including many with little computer experience. The tests are designed to help retailers see if and where consumers are having trouble completing orders.
"There is a learning curve for online retailers," said Elaine Rubin, chairwoman of shop.org, a trade group for 450 online retailers. "The smart retailers focus on watching customers move through the process and understanding where they are having difficulty."
Rubin said online retailers need to continually modify their sites to meet customer demands and expectations. They also need to use the information they gather by tracking visits to their sites to find repeat buyers.
A March study from Boston Consulting Group found repeat users drive online sales and deliver the greatest value. It found 5 percent of online shoppers account for 40 percent of all sales. They also are more loyal than other shoppers, the study said.
Anand Kumar, a creator and owner of Servefresh.com, an online food ordering service, said one of every 100 visitors to his site completes an order.
The number of completed orders rises dramatically among customers who have previously filled out orders. "They know what they want, and they know how it works," Kumar said.
He said he didn't have the exact order-completion rate for repeat customers.
Experts say e-tailers need to simplify ordering by reducing the amount of information a customer must provide and by storing much of the information so buyers don't have to enter it repeatedly.
Providing shoppers with as much information about shipping fees, taxes and availability early in the order reduces surprises and increases the chances of making a sale, analysts say.
Brown said she thought about these issues in the 18 months it took to develop her three art-and-novelty Web sites: www.aartsmart.com , www.scifiart.com and www.jimis.com. Two of the sites sell paintings, prints and greeting cards designed by James Homer Brown, her husband.
The Browns use the jimis.com site, which sells rock n' roll T-shirts, to get more practice with higher-volume sales. Though customers can order though jimis.com online, nearly 50 percent of the orders are called in or faxed because customers have questions.
Brown welcomes the calls.
"They help us fine-tune our sites," she said. "This technology is still new. We want to reassure customers and build the trust factor."