The results of the first eTravel Benchmark survey from leading online research specialist, eDigitalResearch, indicates online travel sites need to look beyond the 'wow' factor and work harder at improving the entire end to end website experience if they are to build trusted, long term relationships that encourage customers to buy from them time and time again.

The eTravel Benchmark survey uses eDigitalResearch's eMysteryShopper tool to measure the 'usability' of 18 channel crossing, cruise and airline websites, comparing seven key areas ranging from first impressions to the search and booking process. Overall, channel crossing operators fared better in the survey with P&O Ferries emerging as the top performer and Stena Line second.

Airlines, however, were notably let down by poor first impressions and disappointing customer service, both of which play a vital part in overall customer satisfaction. When measured on telephone customer service, just one airline, British Airways, made it into the top 10 rankings, rated seventh and just two airlines (Virgin Atlantic and British Airways) scored highly enough to make the top 10 for email customer service.

The survey also indicates that the online travel industry as a whole has some way to go in order to compete with 'best in breed' companies for website engagement and customer service. When the sites were measured using the net promoter score to find out which are most likely to be recommended through word of mouth, while eight companies ranked 'above average', the sector as a whole achieved score of +5. Compared to other recent eDigitalResearch benchmarking studies that scored retail at +27, finance at +18 and car manufacturing at +7, the online travel sector is clearly lagging behind.

Commenting on the findings, Derek Eccleston, Head of Research at eDigitalResearch said: "What is interesting about this study is the fact that although there are clear leaders in certain categories, there is not one operator who has managed to tick all the boxes consistently. In a sector whose customers are particularly promiscuous - switching brands for a better deal, looking for recommendations and picking the purchase channel that most suits them at that particular time - failing to perform well across the board is more than a missed opportunity, it is commercial suicide.

"But it's not all doom and gloom. The survey shows the recipe for a successful site is a simple one. What customers want is a clear step-by-step process. They want a site that is easy to purchase from but at the same time that has the inspirational 'wow' factor to keep them engaged. Add to that transparent pricing, great customer service, and of course a great trip and you've cracked it."

The eTravel Benchmark survey will be repeated in September and aims to create a benchmarking study to show how the online travel sector develops over time.

Get the complete study at eDigitalResearch