The customer is king, it is generally acknowledged except, it seems, when they want to ask a question.

With ecommerce sales rising to account for one-tenth of total retail sales worldwide this year, exceeding £130bn last year in the UK alone, one might expect businesses to be falling over themselves to gain their share of customers’ wallets. Yet, despite the opportunities online retail offers, and the stiff competition springing up as a result, many UK businesses are failing to provide customers with ways to keep in touch.

When Yonder Digital Group surveyed 2,000 UK consumers on the performance of a wide range of consumer-facing sectors, asking whether companies were easy to get in touch with and efficient at getting queries resolved rapidly and effectively, the answer was generally no.

In fact, it found that no more than a quarter of people rated any sector as excellent, with the majority voted basic or poor by more than half. At the top, online-only retailers scored highest although even then only 25% rated their contactability as excellent. Retail banking came second, scored excellent by 24%. Hotels followed at 23% and with the lowest ‘poor’ score of 10%, while supermarkets received the second lowest poor score at 13%, and an excellent score of 19%.

Down at the bottom end, car brands, airlines and delivery services were judged the worst. Airlines and delivery services were only rated as excellent by 10%, with almost a quarter rating them both as poor, and the majority as simply basic. In fact, delivery firms received the worst poor score, from 24% of those surveyed.

Fashion and DIY stores didn’t perform much better, with the majority of consumers voting their ease of contact as basic (41% for fashion shops, and 42% for DIY stores) with excellent scores of just slightly above 12%.  And, falling roughly in the middle, the majority of people scored mobile phone companies, utilities, internet providers, and insurance companies as good or basic although the poor scores of the first three reached 17%, 19%, and 19% respectively.

With ever growing competition within sectors for customer share, retailers cannot afford to downplay the role of contactability in keeping customers loyal. In fact, one report shows that 82% of people have stopped doing business with a company because of poor customer service while 40% have started shopping with a competitive brand because of its reputation for the opposite.

Why businesses are failing in these areas varies from sector to sector. Yonder’s research, for example, shows that the DIY sector does not make its staff accessible enough, scoring very low on contactability and fast, effective problem resolution, despite the fact that DIY products frequently stump people once they get them home. With utilities, a 2017 survey by Which? shows that the bigger players in particular score poorly for customer service and complaints handling, while airlines have to manage large numbers of queries while also having to deal with unexpected strikes and natural events that can drive up consumer queries and complaints unpredictably.

However, regardless of the sector, research shows that UK consumers expect a fast response. According to the Institute of Customer Service, almost half (46%) expect a response within 24 hours if they contact an organisation via email, with 42% saying the same for website contact and 33% for social media enquiries. In line with this need for speedy resolution of issues, instant online chat is also now ranked by 73% of consumers as being the best way to deal with an organisation.

The first step to opening up communications for any business is of course about ensuring contact details are clearly visible and include a range of options. Linked to this, companies also need to ensure they are offering multichannel support with live agent interaction, be it by phone or live chat at key times of the day and night.

Identifying when these times are can be quite easily accomplished through an analysis of the customer journey, looking at the channels used, potential sticking points, and where people most seek help or indeed, abandon a purchase or enquiry. Having this support in place and being more responsive and efficient in answering queries is central to improving customer service and therefore satisfaction.

Research from all quarters tells the same story: that in our always-connected world, consumers are becoming increasingly accustomed to – and quite rightly expect – swift query response across any and all of the channels open to them. As a result, as consumers take more and more of their spend online and competition continues to grow, businesses across all sectors need to ensure they are easy to contact, and that they answer queries and solve issues quickly and effectively, or risk losing their customers to those that do.