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The Second Coming of Email
What was once hit-or-miss customer service is becoming more reliable.
Posted Oct 16, 2008
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I am sure you have seen the reports: Less than one-third of customer service emails get answered within 24 hours -- and over 40 percent of customer service email goes completely unanswered.

Still, there is good news.

There is a quiet, but growing, revolution in customer service email today. The number of customer service emails had been grwoing at between 1 percent and 2 percent a year, but in the last 18 months we have moved to a robust 5 percent yearly growth. We have seen a reduction in response time, from an average of one business day to slightly over six hours. We have also seen an increase in customer satisfaction, with the share of customers calling email responses clear, complete, and what they needed rising from the low single-digits to around 18 percent.

So, how did this happen? Was it perseverance on the part of organizations? Or did customers lower their expectations? Actually, customers have raised their expectations. We went from customers expecting an email answered within one business day to responses expected within a two-to-four-hour period. Twenty-four hours a day, customers are demanding accurate information as the key driver for customer service email. The secret to this email revolution is that organizations finally got serious about it, stopped trying to make it do something it could not (replace telephone calls), and focused on the proper way to make it work.

Improving Your Customer Service Email Management
So, how can your organization take advantage of this revolution? There are five things you must do to adopt email for customer service -- helpfully abbreviated by the acronym EMAIL:

  1. Embrace -- Have a strategy for email that is tied to both your corporate strategy and customer service goals and objectives. If you don’t ensure this correlation, it will be difficult to provide sufficient support for the email solution; consequently, the solution will either be misused or underutilized.
  2. Maintain -- Email requires strict and preplanned maintenance. Even though the requirements increase dramatically as you implement automation as part of your email solution, even the most basic implementation will require nontechnical maintenance related to categorization, basic parsing, or even tying emails to specific processes. The lack of this maintenance will result in lower usage and potential abandonment.
  3. Adapt -- The pace of business changes dramatically and periodically; your email system must be flexible and dynamic enough to adapt to that. Systems that are planned, deployed, and intended to be single-use and single-purpose are not seen as valuable business tools. Organizations that properly view technology as a tool to aid in solving business problems have embraced the fact that these tools must be adaptable to ever-changing business needs.
  4. Integrate -- Email should not be used as a stand-alone solution. Even though this is the usual manner of deployment, you must ensure that the email solution becomes part of the larger multichannel, multifunction implementation.
  5. Leverage -- Some components span the different channels of customer service processes. Business rules, for example, should not change based on how a problem is resolved, regardless of the channel the customer chooses. Business-rule repositories should be leveraged across the different processes and channels. Similar approaches should be taken with items such as knowledge repositories, databases, back-office and front-office systems, and corporate compliance rules and regulations.

Realizing Benefits
Originally, a reduction in the number of calls to a contact center was given as the best reason to implement a customer service email solution. The thought was that emails were cheaper to process than a phone call (which is not usually the case), and that would bring about a return on the investment. However, email can bring about additional benefits when more advanced concepts of email management are implemented. If you have done everything according to the principles laid out above, you can realize benefits and obtain a return on your investment.

Always establish a long-term strategy for email with clear objectives that are closely tied to both corporate and customer service strategies. Have clear business rules and strong knowledge management in place, as well as an understanding of where email sits as an additional technological tool to achieve the goals of your strategy. Finally, by taking a slow, methodical approach to email, you can expect clear benefits and results. Take the experience of the first wave of email management for customer service -- and transform it into the second coming of email.


About the author
Esteban Kolsky is vice president and practice leader with Kana Software. He has over 20 years of customer service, market research, and technology experience. Prior to joining Kana, Kolsky was with industry-research firm Gartner, where he built and managed both the e-service and enterprise feedback management agendas.

Please note that the Viewpoints listed in CRM magazine and appearing on destinationCRM.com represent the perspective of the authors, and not necessarily those of the magazine or its editors. If you would like to submit a Viewpoint for consideration on a topic related to customer relationship management, please email viewpoints@destinationCRM.com.

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