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Got E-Mail from Customers? You'd Better Handle It, and Fast

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Posted May 7, 2001 By Beth Cox     Feedback

A new report reveals that e-mail customer service is getting worse -- 53 percent of retail companies respond to e-mail customer inquiries within six hours.

Did you ever send an urgent e-mail to somebody, asking about something that was temporarily vital to you -- like whether or not to make reservations for dinner tonight? I bet it left you checking your inbox every 20 minutes to see if a reply had come in.

So you can imagine the frustration of a shopper who has taken the time to write your e-commerce company about something. And yet, even though this is a simple concept to grasp, a new report shows that only 53 percent of retail companies respond to e-mail customer inquiries within six hours.

That's right, 53 percent, six hours. Which means that 47 percent of you e-tailers take longer than that to get back to a customer with a question or a complaint.

And that's for retailers, to whom customer service is a mantra. For the general run of businesses online, the new data from Jupiter Media Metrix shows that most businesses in other industries are failing to meet consumer expectations online.

The research shows that although more than half of all consumers expect to resolve their customer service inquiries within six hours, only 38 percent of companies in general are meeting this expectation.

And get this: 33 percent are taking three days or longer to do so -- or are not responding at all.

I wrote about this last July, when a test of the e-mail response systems at 1,000 e-commerce operations over the course of a year showed that only 24 percent of the sites that were queried even bothered to reply.

Sounds as if things are getting worse, not better, as gaggles of online newbies, potential e-commerce customers all, flock to the Net.

According to Jupiter's last quarterly Customer Service WebTrack Survey, 19 percent of companies did not respond to inquiries, but the most recent survey finds that this number has increased to 24 percent.

Interestingly, travel companies (12 percent) and corporate brand Web sites (0 percent) are the least effective at resolving customer inquiries within six hours, while financial services companies (46 percent) rank second behind retailers.

Jupiter analysts said they found that customers are increasingly searching for immediate gratification on their service issues. In fact, customer e-mail response expectations have been increasing over the past two years, from 24 hours to 12 to six.

And six hours seems like a stretch to me. When I have a question, I want an answer -- but then I am one of those impatient types.

Jupiter said it believes that continued poor e-mail performance will not only have a lasting negative impact on companies, but also on the e-mail service channel, as well. As the number of non- and slow-responding sites increases, customer confidence in e-mail as a service channel will also diminish.

Businesses must act quickly to catch up to customer demands, before expectations increase to more challenging levels, Jupiter said.

"The increase in sites that are not responding to customer inquiries via e-mail is a signal that many companies still have not mastered e-mail customer service management," said David Daniels, a Jupiter analyst.

"Jupiter has found that companies can improve customer service response times drastically via e-mail automation, but they must use technology that can accurately answer inquiries without intervention from customer service representatives," he said. "Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology can accomplish that goal while reducing staffing levels by 40 percent for companies that handle large volumes of e-mail."

"Poor e-mail customer service is driving up the costs of customer service for companies and is alienating customers. When e-mail expectations are not met, customers are being forced to initiate a second contact via more costly channels, including the phone," Daniels said.

What to do? Jupiter analysts recommended:

  • Automate knowledge management by investing in NLP. Jupiter said most companies can accurately answer 50 percent of their basic customer service e-mails without any service rep intervention.
  • Use the customer's name. According to the Jupiter survey, only 4 percent of all auto-responses sent were personalized with the customers' names. Personalized responses improve customer intimacy.
  • Use auto-acknowledgments to set realistic timing expectations. Only 34 percent of consumers said that companies responded within the time that the auto-acknowledgment provided. Jupiter analysts urge businesses to monitor e-mail response times with the same fervor that phone queue times are scrutinized.

My take: NLP has a long way to go, but progress is being made. (See my interview with an e-customer service rep.) You can't make me feel better by sending me some kind of phony personalized response that doesn't answer my question. But do get back to me with something, even if it's only a message that you're working on my inquiry. Six hours is way too long to wait.

Reprinted from ECommerce Guide.

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