The Black Hole of Customer Email

If half of all customer telephone calls went unanswered, revenues would tumble, markets would crumble, and entire management teams would be fired. Yet top organizations seem content with delivering abysmal email response rates to customer inquiries, according to a new report, "Corporate E-Mail Disconnect" from research firm Common Sense Advisory. In a study performed on 100 leading companies, fewer than half responded at all to test emails designed to look like legitimate consumer inquiries, and of those responses only a minority provided useful information, particularly when Spanish-language skills were required. Common Sense sent four types of emails: a general request for information, a compliment, a complaint, and a request for buying information. No combination of subject or language resulted in better than a 50 percent response rate, and in no case did those replies provide actionable information for the customer more than half the time. To put that in perspective: 81 companies were asked, in English, where their products could be bought. Fewer than 20 sent back a direct, useful answer. And that performance was among the better results in the study. "We did find some companies that did a really first-rate job," DePalma says. Even so, there is clearly a gulf between consumers emailing requests and the companies responding to them. Language did not play a significant role in determining whether an email would get a response, but Spanish inquiries received a significantly lower number of useful replies. Many were delivered in English. Common Sense has conducted other research on corporate America's preparedness for a larger bilingual purchasing base, and Don DePalma, president of Common Sense, believes that a significant growth opportunity is being ignored. "[Email] is a good training ground for companies trying to meet the needs of Latinos," DePalma says, adding that email is an easier way to extend reach than international expansion. "You don't have to deal with logistics or currency issues or laws. It's just a question of text translating." More than two thirds of the companies in the survey use structured Web forms--which in theory provide better filtering and segmentation for response agents--for their online inquiries, but the statistics showed no clear impact on response rate or accuracy. "You would assume, if you have a Web form up there capturing detailed, structured information in exactly the format you need to understand the question and who the person is, that it would be easier to craft a response," DePalma says. "Although they're collecting the information, I would characterize it as a roach motel of CRM: The data checks in but it doesn't check out." Related articles: Digital Service Channels Are Gaining Acceptance
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