The subject that crops up more often than any other in the PC Advisor online forums is customer service, or rather the lack of it. Time and again I read about failed deliveries, hours spent listening to Abba’s greatest hits on so-called customer service lines, unanswered emails and broken promises.

It seems that if you buy from an online retailer you run the risk of having to negotiate a virtual obstacle course every time you want to complain, ask about a repair or check an order’s progress. It’s almost as if the online-selling business, hell bent on boosting sales and not much else, sets out to bite the hand that feeds it.

Sadly, such stories such are not uncommon. Indeed, they’re indicative of a malaise that affects many online retailers. It isn’t difficult to stuff a garage with a few boxes, publish an impressive-looking website, cut prices to the bone and watch the orders roll in. Under such circumstances stock management can be virtually non-existent and a hand-to-mouth trading policy tends to set in.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that for a business like this customer service is not a priority. Some retailers are not concerned by this. Their attitude is: “If you want cheap products you can’t expect the earth when it comes to service.”

I decided to put this theory to the test. Do customers only want low prices or is there a market for good old-fashioned customer service, even if it costs a bit more? I asked PCA forum members for their views.

Asked if good customer service is more important than rock-bottom prices, the largest number of the 1,333 respondents (43.3 percent) agreed. They said they would happily pay slightly higher prices to get it. Another 42.2 percent said that good service is important, but they wanted cheap prices as well.

Only 7.4 percent said that they didn’t care about customer service. They wanted low prices come what may. The remaining 7.1 percent said good service was all-important and they would gladly pay a fair few quid extra if decent customer support was guaranteed.

Figures such as these leave me in no doubt – consumers want to know that when things go wrong they’ll be able to get a hassle-free refund or replacement. It isn’t all doom and gloom, of course. Some firms are aware of the value of good service, recognising it as a trading advantage.

To find out which companies offer the best service, check out the results of the PC Advisor Customer Satisfaction Survey in December’s ConsumerWatch. The ability of those successful vendors to offer the kind of buying experience consumers want only highlights the shortcomings of less efficient retailers.

All of which leads me to wonder why there are such disparities. Perhaps it’s not entirely the fault of the businesses. Let’s face it, some customers try to push the limits when it comes to getting what they want.

In fact, I’m often accused of taking the supplier’s side in forum threads. It’s true that I try to see fair play if I can. We’re all consumers and we’re all capable of getting it wrong. We can be intolerant of human failings in others and it’s never easy to admit we’re wrong – even when confronted with evidence to the contrary.

I see all these things in abundance in the ConsumerWatch forum, but I also see hundreds of examples of bad customer service – or no customer service at all. PC Advisor can play a part by informing our forum members of their consumer rights, but that’s only part of the story.

Online retailers want our money and they want us to trust them to fulfil their obligations, both legal and moral. Retailers should note the results of our online poll – it isn’t always about rock-bottom prices.

In a highly competitive market, online vendors must remember that today’s unhappy customer can spread bad news rapidly. Web forums such as PC Advisor’s reach a wide audience and a reputation for inefficient service is something that will haunt firms which fall short.

Forum member Taran Scott summed it up perfectly: “The sour taste of having to fight tooth and nail for refunds, having to call in the troops to have faults rectified, or call out an engineer for the umpteenth time lasts a very, very long time.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.