E-Mail Response Time Drives Service

Many marketers understand the power of e-mail marketing and recognize that a well-executed e-mail campaign can deliver return on investment far beyond that of traditional direct mail.

But often, a critical success factor gets overlooked — responding to the inbound customer e-mail that an outbound e-mail campaign can generate. For example, if you send out a 50,000-piece e-mail campaign, and just 0.5 percent of the recipients reply with a question, you suddenly have another 250 customer e-mails to answer (on top of the hundreds that you’re likely getting already).

Sure, you can include a line in your outbound e-mail to tell people not to reply. But why? One of the best things about the online channel is that it encourages your customers to interact with you. After all, you were the one who began the dialogue.

Those people asking you questions may turn out to be some of your best prospects. How quickly are you prepared to respond? Studies have shown that most customers expect replies to their e-mails within a few hours. Generally, if they don’t receive a response within 24 hours, customers either will resort to another contact medium (usually the telephone) or will abandon their interest. And customer expectations for response times are getting shorter, not longer.

In a recent study by Jupiter Communications, New York, 74 percent of people said they would shop elsewhere if a merchant was unresponsive to their e-mail inquiries. So, you have a vested interest in ensuring that those customer e-mails receive prompt attention, and that your responses are friendly, well-written and accurate.

E-mail is becoming the communications vehicle of choice for many people. Just as many people would rather use an ATM than visit a bank teller, many customers today would rather send an e-mail than pick up a telephone and talk with a live person. That’s especially true if that live person is unavailable during off-peak hours, or if there are long hold times on your toll-free line.

One thing that can dramatically improve your e-mail responsiveness is the use of an e-mail management system. These systems are designed to provide automated message routing and response assistance to your online customer service representatives.

An effective e-mail management system also can be used to automatically acknowledge all inbound e-mail messages within seconds, to assure your customers and prospects that their inquiries have been received, and to let them know that you plan to respond within a set amount of time. This one step can be a huge improvement from a customer’s viewpoint, in that he at least knows you have heard from him and intend to respond.

Your e-mail management system can be set up to auto-respond to specific categories of inquiries so that many questions can be addressed immediately, without having to involve your CSR team. And it can route messages to specific CSRs when personal responses are needed so that the most qualified person in your customer service group can answer each type of question.

Another key advantage of e-mail management systems is cost savings. According to Shop.org, Silver Spring, MD, and The Boston Consulting Group, Boston, the average cost per customer contact via telephone alone is $6.60. Via e-mail, manually responded to by an online CSR, the cost drops to $3.80. Automated e-mail support systems can drop that cost to an average of 25 cents.

Granted, not all customer inquiries can be resolved automatically. But if you can develop methods of supporting even a portion of your online customers without having to hire additional support staff and call center systems, the competitive advantages can be substantial.

Beyond speeding the reply process, e-mail management systems also can provide the back-end reporting that allows you to proactively manage your online customer care by providing metrics around data such as time-to-respond per message, mail volumes by topic and productivity per CSR. So an e-mail management system gives you visibility to the same types of data that you expect from your call center systems.

Although large direct marketers may consider purchasing and installing an e-mail management system internally, small and medium-sized companies may want to consider choosing an application service provider as a way to implement these systems quickly and inexpensively. Some of these systems can be implemented in less than two weeks, and the cost savings can begin almost immediately.

Another big cost saver, and one that also increases customer satisfaction, is proactive site-based customer service. Does your commerce site ship an automatic order confirmation via e-mail every time a customer order has been accepted? Do you send an e-mail automatically to confirm each shipment? Do you e-mail to confirm an account credit or to notify your customers when temporarily out-of-stock items are due to ship? Doing so is far less expensive and provides far better customer service than waiting for them to call. If your site doesn’t support such features, consider upgrading to one that does.

In the online world, customer service is a key variable. How much is enough? How soon must you respond? And how can you deliver the highest levels of customer service at an affordable cost? The simple rule is, the faster you can respond to a customer’s questions or concerns, the higher the customer satisfaction and the greater the loyalty.

Especially for big-ticket items like technology products or financial services, having adequate call center staffing to meet peak call loads can be justified by the lifetime value of each customer. For online sales of lower-ticket items, such costs may not be viable. The key, then, is to develop online support systems that provide high levels of service at the lowest achievable cost.

The best (and most cost-effective) solutions begin with proper Web site design. How convenient and intuitive is the navigation of your site? The most frequently asked questions should be addressed on the site itself, in places that take no more than a couple of clicks to find. FAQs, properly categorized, prioritized and maintained, can be a great way to help customers avoid both telephone hold time and e-mail delays. As any Webmaster will tell you, if a customer has to call, you may want to add the question to your site’s FAQ section.

Does your site currently provide order status for customers who already have purchased items? Can a customer find out the carrier and weigh bill number for a particular shipment without having to call? Are return and exchange instructions included with every outgoing order and included as FAQs on your site? Make it simple, and make this information readily available. Your customers will love you for it.

Keep in mind that no matter how well your site is designed or how targeted your e-mail campaigns may be, your long-term success online will very likely be determined by the quality and responsiveness of your customer service. Make sure not to under-invest in the systems that provide this critical service, and make sure all of your online programs focus on the total customer experience. If you do, you’ll be head and shoulders above the vast majority of your online competitors.

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