Although it might be considered that empathy requires personal human contact, it can still be achieved, to an extent, through e-mail. Chaffey and Edgar (2000) report that of the responses received, 91 per cent delivered a personalised human response, with 29 per cent passing on the enquiry within their organisation. Of these 53, 23 further responses were received within the 28-day period; 30 (or 57 per cent) of passed-on queries were not responded to further.

Provision of personalisation facilities is also an indication of the empathy provided by the web site, but more research is needed as to customers' perception of the value of web pages that are dynamically created to meet a customer's information needs.

An alternative framework for considering how service quality can be delivered through e-commerce is to consider how the site provides customer service at the different stages of the buying decision discussed in Chapter 2 in the section on online buyer behaviour. Thus, quality service is not only dependent on how well the purchase itself is facilitated, but also on how easy it is for customers to select products, and on after-sales service, including fulfilment quality. The Epson UK site (www.epson.co.uk) illustrates how the site can be used to help in all stages of the buying process. Interactive tools are available to help users select a particular printer, and diagnose and solve faults, and technical brochures can be downloaded. Feedback is solicited on how well these services meet customers' needs.

It can be suggested that for managers wishing to apply a framework such as SERVQUAL in an e-commerce context there are three stages appropriate to managing the process:

1 Understanding expectations. Customer expectations for the e-commerce environment in a particular market sector must be understood. The SERVQUAL framework can be used with market research and benchmarking of other sites to understand requirements such as responsiveness and empathy. Scenarios can also be used to identify the customer expectations of using services on a site.

2 Setting and communicating the service promise. Once expectations are understood, marketing communications can be used to inform the customers of the level of service. This can be achieved through customer service guarantees or promises. It is better to under-promise than over-promise. A book retailer that delivers the book in 2 days when 3 days were promised will earn the customer's loyalty better than the retailer that promises 1 day, but delivers in 2! The enlightened company may also explain what it will do if it doesn't meet its promises - will the customer be recompensed? The service promise must also be communicated internally and combined with training to ensure that the service is delivered.

3 Delivering the service promise. Finally, commitments must be delivered through on-site service, support from employees and physical fulfilment. Otherwise, online credibility is destroyed and a customer may never return.

Tables 7.7 and 7.8 summarise the main concerns of online consumers for each of the elements of service quality. Table 7.7 summarises the main factors in the context of SERVQUAL and Table 7.8 presents the requirements from an e-commerce site that must be met for excellent customer service.

Table l.l Online elements of service quality

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