Businesses have a lot of room to improve customer service support provided via e-mail, according to a JupiterResearch study released Tuesday.JupiterResearch, which conducted the study in December, found that, in general, response times to customer e-mail inquiries worsened compared with December 2004.JupiterResearch, a division of Jupitermedia, sent test inquiries to 255 U.S. businesses with Web sites, 234 of which offer customer service e-mail support.Twenty-five percent of the sites included in the study responded to a question sent by e-mail within six hours, down from 28% in December 2004 and 27% in December 2003. Twenty percent of businesses responded within six to 24 hours.At the other end of the spectrum, 39% of the sites either took three or more days to reply or never responded. This figure was the highest of the three-year comparison."Those that are answering e-mails on average are doing better but unresponsiveness continues to rise with a huge portion of companies neglecting customers via e-mail," said Jupiter associate analyst Zachary McGeary.Slow or nonexistent e-mail replies negatively affect a company's revenue and can increase a company's expenses as well as hamper e-commerce, he said.For example, after a poor customer service e-mail experience, consumers might sour on the vendor and be less inclined to buy from it, online and offline, and they might also tell acquaintances about the subpar treatment. Snubbed online shoppers are also likely to attempt to contact the company via phone, creating an added cost for the vendor, McGeary said.Jupiter's research indicates that consumer e-mail questions will increase in coming years, with the overall volume expected to increase 23% from 2005 to 2006, and an average of 18% between 2006 and 2010.Less than half of polled sites acknowledged consumer questions with an automated response. Some industries fared better in this category. Music-related companies lead automated acknowledgement with 56% issuing acknowledgements, followed by the retail and travel sectors with 47% and 45%, respectively. Finance companies ranked last with 30% using an automated reply.Failing to acknowledge an e-mail with an automated response violates set online purchase service expectations, said McGeary. "You don't expect receipts from e-mail with friends or family, but you do with retailers because online purchasing requires buyers to place sensitive information, like credit card numbers, on the Web," he said.