While Web sites provide companies with an easier and less expensive way to reach customers, customer service often suffers in this medium. Last year, The Customer Respect Group Inc., a Bellevue, Washington, consulting firm that focuses on how companies treat customers online, published its first "Online Customer Respect Study," which analyzes company performance from the online consumer's perspective, and the results weren't good.

"Too many companies still view having a Web site as a necessary evil rather than an opportunity to get closer to their customers," says Thorsten Ganz, vice president of research for the group, which is currently working on its 2003 study. "Too often, customers still get treated like second-class citizens online."

Whether you have an e-commerce site or simply a site with information about your products or services, offering good online customer service isn't a complicated proposition, according to Ganz. As you contemplate whether your site is up to snuff, keep these six questions in mind:

  1. Do you respect your customers' privacy?
  2. Do you value and respect customer data?
  3. What is the general body language of your site?
  4. Do you have open and honest policies?
  5. Is your site customer-focused and easy to use?
  6. Do you quickly and thoroughly respond to online customer inquiries?

"The Internet provides small businesses with the opportunity to effectively compete against larger corporations," Ganz says. "A well-designed site, a solid and friendly privacy policy, quick responses to inquiries, and an overall customer-first attitude will have people return to your site."

And even if customers aren't making purchases from your site, keeping their online satisfaction in mind can still benefit your bottom line. "The key thing is to recognize the fact that a Web site is just as important in interacting with customers as the telephone, a catalog or a storefront," Ganz says. "Customers use the Internet mainly for research, even for offline purchases, so a good online experience directly translates into revenues and/or cost savings."