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What the best online businesses have in common

(MoneyWatch) If you do business online and would like to know how your company's customer service compares with the best of the best, there's a unique testing firm that can tell you. Two-year-old StellaService (named after the Italian word for "Star") is waking and shaking up the customer service world with a comprehensive, sophisticated testing and rating system that puts a high-tech spin on the classic "secret shopper" concept used by bricks and mortar retailers for years.

Stella, which is a fully independent evaluator (and audited by KPMG), uses a large team of actual human testers who repeatedly put websites through an exhaustive battery of trials over time. These trained shoppers place orders, make returns, contact the businesses through all communication channels, see how company representatives react to different questions and challenges and more. According to Stella, it has hundreds of metrics in its protocol (I can't figure out how there can be that many, but it seems safe to say they find and test everything possible). And testing is done without the subject company's knowledge, so there's no way to game the system.

I found out about StellaService by learning that my own business had been tested. You can't ask to be evaluated -- the largest companies are rated automatically, but smaller ones like mine get selected for testing based on what Stella calls a "critical mass" of customer requests. So it was a surprise, and it turned out to be pleasant one. I got an e-mail telling me that my company had been evaluated over a period of many weeks and that we qualified for Stella's highest "Elite" designation.

To put that in perspective, more than half of the thousands of companies tested fail to meet the minimum standards to be given any rating, and of the companies that do qualify, only 4.5 percent are rated as "elite." That translates to about 20 companies per 1000 tested. Not to toot our own horn (OK, so I am tooting a little -- who wouldn't?), but that puts my small business in the rarefied and humbling company of greats like Zappos, Apple and Amazon.

We proudly added the Stella seal to our site. The fact that sites like Zappos also see fit to give priceless home-page real estate to this "trust mark" is testament to Stella's increasing importance and value to best-in-class service companies.

Thrilled with our recognition and fascinated by the process, I contacted Stella to learn more about their business and findings. I spoke with Ty McMahan, the company's director of content, who explained that of a statistical sample of the 100 top retailers, these are the four most important commonalities shared by the very best of the best:

1. They make sure customers can reach a human being easily: How easily? The average time to a live agent for the highest-rated subset of the 100 companies is 23 seconds. Not minutes, seconds.

2. They respond to inbound messages with lightning speed: Average time to reply to an email for the best companies is 1 hour and 24 minutes. "We'll make every effort to respond to you within 24-48 hours" definitely doesn't cut it.

3. They ship crazy fast: Average delivery time among the top subset is less than two days from order to receipt. Before you say "give me a break, we can't do that," the stat is presumably skewed by services like Amazon Prime and Zappos' legendary free overnight delivery. Clearly many, if not most of us can't afford to deliver that quickly, so a few more days doesn't necessarily preclude an "elite" rating. But these ultimate examples stress the critical need for maximum speed.

4. They give money back as quickly as they take it: Among the peak performers, the average time from return initiation to processed refund is three days. Customers don't want to wait for their money any more than they want to wait for their orders.

Of course, the extraordinary depth of Stella's analysis and its sample size provides much more insight than just these four generalizations, but according to McMahan the list represents the highest of the high bars. StellaService publishes its extensive and detailed findings in data-rich reports and other research to help businesses improve their service operations (That's how they make their money, in case you were wondering.)

This testing model may seem biased toward huge retailers with limitless resources, and indeed many of the companies at the top of the heap are household names. But there are plenty of smaller, lesser-known businesses like mine that have earned top scores. Conversely, there are many famous companies -- some that will surprise you -- that received lower ratings, or no rating at all.

Any company is capable of "elite" customer service. It's not about size, or systems or money -- it's about a molecular-level desire and -- above all else -- genuine, tireless effort to make people happy.

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