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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Evaluating E-Commerce Functionality with a Focus on Customer Service

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The rewards of business-to-commerce (B2C) e-commerce are realized partially through well-designed Web sites, since they act as the primary contact with customers. Surfing the Web reveals sites that have varying degrees of customer service represented through their functionality. Some remain storefront applications, while many others incorporate interactive features. In this article, I propose a list of 50 functional requirements that represent facets of customer service in a B2C site and investigate whether and how two award-winning sites fulfill them. Providers of "off-the- shelf" solutions and analysts of custom solutions may use this list as a guideline for design. Applying the list to existing sites may aid in evaluating the customer service incorporated in the site.

E-commerce solutions, like any software product, are acquired in one of two ways: by purchasing a package or by developing a custom system. Both types of systems are developed using the software development life cycle or variations thereof, and rely on the Analysis phase to develop functional requirements to meet users' needs. The Analysis phase may take considerable time, since it typically involves interviews with users discussing the possibilities of the new system. One difficulty with designing Web sites is that the specific audience is not known, since the Internet is available around the world. While this is quite literally true, we assert that the functionality associated with e-commerce consists of a standard set of requirements, based on traditional shopping transactions. By documenting this functionality, this article may reduce the resources needed to successfully complete the Analysis phase for a B2C e-commerce site.

Nearly 20 years ago, Ives and Learmonth [4] introduced the Customer Service Life Cycle (CSLC) in Communications as a guide for differentiating the service a customer receives throughout a buying cycle. The CSLC consists of four stages: Requirements, Acquisition, Ownership, and Retirement. The Requirements stage establishes a need for the product and determines the product attributes. The Acquisition stage consists of the ordering, purchasing, possessing, testing, and acceptance of a product by the consumer. The Ownership stage involves using the product, and upgrading and repairing it when necessary. The Retirement stage returns or disposes of the product and monitors the expenses related to the product [4]. Investigating a target customer base and responding to specific service requirements for a product may lead to improved customer service, which can be a competitive advantage for the company providing the service. As in a transaction that occurs in a bricks-and-mortar store, customer service is evident throughout an online transaction. For a comprehensive, up-to-date resource on the CSLC, see

Using the CSLC as a guide to providing comprehensive and consistent customer service results in a set of functional requirements for use in the Analysis phase of software development, either for a custom or packaged system. Functional requirements provide the baseline functionality expected from the final system, documenting the "what" of a system. They are maintained and referenced throughout system development to ensure that the agreed-upon functionality of a system is provided by the implementation. In an effort to separate the functionality from the implementation of the functionality, we have prefaced each requirement with the words, "The system will have the ability to..." This wording addresses the "what" of the system and reduces the tendency to address "how" the system will provide the functionality. For example, a functional requirement developed with implementation in mind might be: "The system will have the ability of a shopping cart" instead of "The system will have the ability to accumulate products of interest for possible purchase." Phrasing a requirement in such a way provides an opportunity to meet the functionality in a creative, unique, and potentially advantageous way.

The original Ives and Learmonth article [4], which predates the commercialization of the Internet, contained innovative examples of IT use in each stage of the CSLC. Careful analysis of these examples as well as the phases of the CSLC in the context of B2C applications resulted in the set of 50 functional requirements (in Table 1.) These requirements were derived from a variety of reference sources and from the experience of the author, who is a frequent B2C consumer and a former software engineer versed in the requirements phase of the System Development Life Cycle (SDLC). These requirements are set forth as an initial list, with alterations possible in the future.

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Measuring Site Functionality

We tested this set of functional requirements by selecting two sites that have received awards for design and content and identifying whether and how the sites meet each requirement. was selected in the books category and in the computer software category. Each has received the "Editor's Choice" award from PC Magazine [9] as well as other accolades. Table 2 contains the functional requirements as met by both and

Scores were derived based on whether the site contained the requirement; a "1" was assigned if the function was included and a "0" was assigned if the function was not included. Each of the requirements was given equal weighting. Where the requirement was not neededfor example, warranty information does not exist for a bookit was not included in the scoring. Results of the overall scoring indicate that scored 91%, while scored 83% (see Table 3).

Both sites scored the lowest in the Retirement phase, as neither site contained information about product recalls (requirement 49). Since books and software occasionally contain printing or copying errors that warrant recalls or patches, this requirement was considered applicable for both products. Another weakness of both sites, according to the CSLC, was the lack of aid in determination of expenses related to the product (requirement 50). While this is included in the CSLC, functionality of this sort is not prevalent on today's e-commerce sites.

While many factors determine the success or failure of an e-commerce Web site, the level of customer service provided may serve as an indication of user satisfaction with the transaction-orientation of a site.

While both sites met most of the requirements, differences in the implementations are noticeable. For example, contains an "instant" help feature that provides additional direction without leaving the check-out process. The "Help" feature on is not available from the check-out process, and accessing it requires backing out to the Welcome page. The shopping cart at remains filled even after exiting the site, while the shopping cart at is emptied upon site exit.

Both of these sites included functionalities in addition to the basic ones recommended in this article. Both have links to affiliates and contain company and investor-related information. The intention of the set of requirements developed here is to ensure that customer service during an actual buying process is realized. We assert the added functionality does not directly impact the purchasing process and should be included in a different measure.

We recognize that the scoring method applied contains an element of subjectivity. A more valuable measure would assess the degree to which a site met the requirement. Until such a measure is developed, this set of functional requirements serves as a basic guideline for setting and measuring the level of customer service provided by the shopping transaction associated with an e-commerce site.

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While many factors determine the success or failure of an e-commerce Web site, the level of customer service provided may serve as an indication of user satisfaction with the transaction-orientation of a site. I have presented a list of 50 functional requirements designed according to the CSLC for traditional shopping transactions in this article. Companies may use this list as a guideline in determining the level of functionality within the shopping experience that customers are achieving with their site. Companies that provide packaged e-commerce solutions may use this list to develop systems that achieve various levels of customer service and price their products accordingly.

By providing a list of basic functionality to be contained in an e-commerce site, the flexibility of implementation remains the choice of the site designers. The creative process is not stifled and a competitive advantage may be realized through innovative implementation schemes.

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Nancy Lightner ( is an assistant professor at Appalachian State University, Boone, NC.

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T1Table 1. Functional requirements for the CSLC.

T2AT2BTable 2. Implementation of functional requirements for each of the phases of CSLC.

T3Table 3. Customer service scores for and

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