February 05, 2003
How To

How to Improve Your Customer Service Email Responses: 5 Solutions to Common Problems


You may want to forward the link to this Special Report from MarketingSherpa to whoever heads up your own customer service department. Experts Marylin Rudick and Leslie O'Flahavan visited service centers across America and collected hundreds of real-life email replies to create it. Includes:

a. What are the biggest email problems and why do they occur?
b. Five specific tactics to improve your email
c. Three ways to measure customer service email effectiveness

It is a fairly quick read. Hope you find it useful.

According to a study conducted by Purdue University's Customer Service Benchmarking Center for Customer-Driven Quality, 25% of all contact between a typical company and its customers is conducted via email.

In fact, your customer service agents' emails may make a bigger difference to your bottom line than any marketing, advertising or PR campaign you conduct this year.

This quick report includes:
a. What are the biggest email problems and why do they occur?
b. Five specific tactics to improve your email
c. Three ways to measure customer service email effectiveness

-> a. What are the biggest email problems and why do they occur?

Chances are, your current outbound customer service email is being written poorly enough that you are losing sales.

"The situation is dire," says Marilyn Rudick who together with partner Leslie O'Flahavan has trained thousands of agents on how to better handle email.

"People who handle email are expected to be nearly superhumanly helpful. They work under really tough conditions. Their jobs are like a battle. They are expected to answer 50-60 emails a day which is an awful lot, often while taking phone calls. If they do live chat, it's 3-4 chats simultaneously."

"Most often they don't come to the job with strong writing skills. Imagine you're trying to keep up under a constant
barrage of customer questions and have deep product knowledge, all for $7 an hour."

The canned answers most call centers use to help automate email processing present three challenges as well:

1. Customers often write garbled, half-incoherent emails and expect excellent answers in return. O'Flahavan says, "If you were on the phone, you could ask questions and pluck out which thread to follow from their mess. You can't do that with email."

Instead, the rep must double-check each automated reply to see if it really answers the question that is being asked. No matter how advanced software is, imperfect questions often equal imperfect answers.

2. Customers often ask more than one question. The agent will get two or more suggested replies from your automated system to address different items. Then that agent must knit the answers together, segueing between an intro and each paragraph or idea.

"Improvisation of this type is very difficult, and you're putting the burden on the shoulders of some of the least capable writers in the employment food chain," says Rudick.

3. Sometimes the canned answers themselves read as though they are written by an uptight bureaucrat (or the IRS), so all those warm-fuzzy feelings you have been working to build around your brand go flying out the window.

Your company may be sending email, a very personal, human communication, that sounds like it was written by a robot.

-> b. Five specific tactics to improve your email

Rudick and O'Flahavan reviewed all types of customer service email responses from more than 300 companies in a variety of industries to isolate factors that can improve your email responses.

Tactic #1. Personalize your auto-responder

Many companies use an auto-responder or some other nearly instant response system to give customers the benefit a quick "thanks for your email" message while they are waiting for the full answer to work its way through the queue.

However, some customers are unwilling to wait the 24-48 hours for their full answer. When they get the auto-responder they pick up the phone instead, which is more expensive for your company to handle.

To head off that restlessness, try altering your auto-responder system to include some personalization. The customer's name in the text of the message will help. Even better, reference their question in the response.

People love to hear their own words said back to them. Something as simple as pasting their question in the middle of the reply (not at the end) can make a big difference.

Tactic #2. Deep-link if you link at all

Answers that simply read "Check our Web site" with a link to your home page are infuriating to many of your customers.

If they wanted to go to your Web site, they would have done so. In fact, often they have *already* done so and did not find the answer they were looking for. They have chosen the communication method they would like you to use to help them, and now it is your turn to follow their lead.

If you do reference your Web site address in your reply, give a deep link that goes directly to the answer to the question the customer was looking for.

If you cannot link deep, never give your Web site home page as your only or primary answer to the customer question. Instead, send out your fast reply auto-responder, put the email in the queue and answer the question properly, clearly and completely, via email as soon as you can.

Tactic #3. Personalize Reply Message Intros

Increase customer loyalty by adding a little extra personalization to the beginning of your final, complete email reply.

O'Flahavan says, "Draw on what you know about a customer to personalize. If they are a long-time customer or a new one, acknowledge that. Make them feel like a person, not just a number."

Tactic #4. Review Your Canned Answers

Have a copywriter familiar with your brand review all your canned answers for appropriate tone. While the facts may be right, the tone may be so off-putting the answer will boomerang on you badly.

While reviewing your canned answers, check to see that those with step-by-step instructions present these in a series of separately numbered paragraphs. Do not pile several steps into one paragraph of text, it is harder for customers to comprehend.

Tactic #5. Hold Email Agent Get-Togethers

Invite your agents to a special 'sharing ideas' meeting at least once a month on company time so they can interact with each other.

O'Flahavan says, "It's extremely valuable to convene a panel of agents. Ask them to each bring sample questions and decide amongst themselves, 'What was the customer asking? Was their question fully answered?'

"It's incredible to see how grateful the agents are to talk to each other about writing. They are so isolated otherwise - you spend eight hours with your fingers on the keyboard talking to customers."

-> c. Three ways to measure customer service email effectiveness

Most companies currently measure effectiveness primarily by speed (how long are emails in the queue to be answered?) and by cost per answer.

Rudick and O'Flahavan suggest three additional metrics that may help you measure results:

1. Spot-checking answers for completeness

Seems obvious, pretend to be a customer and send in a variety of questions to your service center and your competitors'.

Instead of merely checking for speed and typos, review each answer with one primary goal in mind, "Was my question clearly and comprehensively answered, or do I need to ask additional questions to get a useful answer?"

Remember, if customers have to ask more questions it costs you more in terms of service time, inbound call lines, and satisfaction-based loyalty.

2. Measure impact on loyalty

Your database systems may be too separate to manage this, but it should be a long-term goal. The question you need data to answer is: are customers whom we have interacted with via email more loyal than others?

If you can measure customer lifetime value by email interaction, it gives you numbers you can use when considering investing more in email quality. If you can prove in a data-driven presentation that improved email equals more profitable accounts, you will be able to argue for a bigger budget.

3. Measure multi-channel question askers

Is the same individual customer using several channels such as email and phone to get an answer to his or her question?

This measurement shows how effective the initial email response is, whether the recipient was satisfied enough to not try another channel in addition.

It also reveals where you may be able to achieve cost-savings. For example, if you can reduce the percent of email questions that turn into follow-up in-bound phone calls, you will save a lot.


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