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Email Delays Alienating Customers and Increasing Costs?: E-Mail Response Management to the Rescue! 

Email Delays Alienating Customers and Increasing Costs?: E-Mail Response Management to the Rescue!

Email Delays Alienating Customers and Increasing Costs?: E-Mail Response Management to the Rescue!

6/26/2003
By Donna Fluss
ICCM Weekly

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Have you ever wondered why a phone inquiry placed to a company is answered within 4 to 6 rings (24 to 36 seconds, on average) but the typical 24-hour wait for an email response to the same question is considered good service? Should companies be proud of their email auto acknowledgment processes that enable them to quickly and efficiently send the infamous message: “We’ll respond to your email inquiry within 24 business hours”? While better than nothing, those replies might as well say, “If your inquiry and time is important enough, call 888-888-8888.” Enterprises haven’t yet figured out that a 24-hour response isn’t acceptable, even though customer service executives themselves would never tolerate waiting that long for an answer.

Most of us are reasonable people and don’t expect an email response within 24 to 36 seconds, like our phone inquiries. However, we’re not willing to wait 24 hours to get basic information, like the closest location of a movie theatre, whether an on-line retailer has a certain item, the name of a doctor or a clarification of the ingredients in a food product. Why should we, when we can call and get the answer within minutes?

Enterprises that want to satisfy their customers should survey how long they are willing to wait for an email response. Even then, some customers will be disappointed as surveying creates the expectation that the enterprise is going to act upon the interviewees’ feedback, providing responses within their suggested time frame. If you don’t deliver, they’ll be more aggravated than if you didn’t survey them at all. Despite this risk, it’s better to know than not to know how long customers are willing to wait, on average, for an email response. I do suggest closing the loop on the survey with a thank you email that presents participants with a summary of findings so that they will believe you are using their input and not just wasting their time.

So, realistically, what should enterprises do? How quickly should they respond to customer e-mail inquiries? The answer is, depending on the urgency of the inquiry, 1 to 3 hours (not business hours, real hours, as the very fact that email is not limited to business hours is a great reason for people to use it). For example, if a customer reports a gas leak via email, something known to happen, the response should come within minutes – one can only hope the person doesn’t wait in his house for the reply! If, on the other hand, the customer asks the location of the nearest business office to pay a gas bill in person, the company may decide to take its time with a response, but this time lag will likely delay the payment and cost the company money. This underscores the benefits for both the customer and the company of being able to interpret the meaning and intent of each incoming email so that it can be prioritized and routed electronically. While the enabling technology (E-Mail Response Management systems, ERMs) isn’t perfect, it’s much better than accepting delays and wasting valuable resources – agents – on this basic function.

ERMs don’t eliminate the need for people, but the good applications analyze the writer’s intent and tone, reducing the need to use people, who are much slower than a computer, to do the majority of the basic routing and categorization of incoming emails. Agents also benefit from not having to perform these boring and tedious tasks. Many of today’s ERMs also do a good job of standardizing and suggesting correct responses to incoming emails, allowing the system user to define an accuracy threshold and ensuring that responses match inquiries. Because ERMs are not perfect, I suggest setting this threshold at 85% or higher, depending on a company’s need to satisfy customers. Then, you can use your valuable resources, your customer service or relationship agents, to respond to inquiries that require the human touch and real cognitive thinking.

The truth is that not all customer emails require human intervention. Even though interactive voice response (IVR) is not a favorite form of service, most of us use it when we know that it will speed up the handling of our inquiry and that it will be at least as accurate as an agent – an automated system is not going to read a balance off a screen incorrectly. Enterprises should use ERMs the same way that they use IVR — to automate the basic and repetitive customer inquiries that generally represent 60% to 80% of a typical contact center’s call volume, where agent input will not add value.

The cost of delaying email responses is much greater than most companies know. Since a very large percentage of folks will call if they don’t receive an email response on a “timely” basis, and because the vast majority of companies (large and small) haven’t yet integrated their phone and email channels (54% according to David Daniels, Senior CRM Analyst at Jupiter) organizations often respond to the same inquiry twice. Long after the phone call is handled, the customer may receive an email response to the same inquiry. And my favorite is when the email response differs from the response received on the phone. That causes the customer great consternation and results in even more phone calls and emails.

These situations happen more frequently than most companies are willing to admit because their email response libraries are not kept in sync with information used in their phone service organizations. The failure to integrate these two important servicing channels can increase the cost of a single email inquiry (estimated to be approximately $5.00 by Gartner) to $100 to $500 dollars, as the customer shifts from simply asking an innocent question to feeling compelled to correct wrong information through a series of lengthy service interactions. Besides wasting valuable resources and a great deal of time, the organization adds to the burden of customer service agents and creates an attrition risk – all because they didn’t response to an email inquiry on a timely basis. By improving email response times, ERMs can increase customer satisfaction, reduce agent attrition and decrease costs.

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