The Overstuffed Inbox

Here's a simple notion, often overlooked: Customer care is one of the most powerful competitive differentiators in this flat world.

If we create happier customers, they will stay longer, buy more, and recommend more often. Patterns of preferential repurchase and referral increase the profitability and longevity of our businesses. That's the framework for a true customer relationship, of course -- but it is not what I generally experience as a customer.

This longer-term relationship is the rubric of CRM, but when we put it through the meat grinder of short-term mandates, we create turnstile relationships. [Editors' Note: See Hornstein's column in the December 2008 issue of CRM magazine, "Rejecting the Turnstile Relationship," for more on this topic.]

Our investment is too often limited to the immediate sale. The attention we devote to any given customer lasts no longer than the blink of an eye, and then -- whoops, the doors are spinning again and there's the next customer. "I know you have a problem or concern that affects your satisfaction," we say, "but I think the customer behind you wants to buy. Please don't trip on your way out, you'll slow things down."

The longer-term relationship revolves out of sight.

Respond, If You Please

Every year, my organization conducts a survey on email responsiveness, based on the following premise: If you email a customer-service inquiry to a corporation, you expect an answer, preferably within 24 hours.

The methodology of the survey itself is painfully simple: An email is sent, using my name and email address, to a list of the Financial Times' Most Respected Companies and Fortune's Most Admired Companies. The list includes:

  • Apple,
  • Amazon.com,
  • Barnes & Noble,
  • Bristol Myers,
  • Microsoft,
  • Berkshire Hathaway,
  • Nordstrom, and
  • Google.

This year, we added The Reputation Institute's list of Most Respected Companies, which includes:

  • BMW,
  • Cisco Systems,
  • General Mills,
  • Walt Disney, and
  • Xerox.

The subject line of the email is "Customer Service" and the body copy is "What is your corporate policy regarding the turnaround time for emails addressed to customer service?"

The criteria is that we must receive a substantive response to that question. That's the only thing that counts.

Non-answers -- such as the response from Travelers Insurance that I send in my resume, or the request from Xerox that I provide the serial number of our machine -- do not.

I'm not trying to pull a punch or fool anyone. I just want an answer to the question posed in my email.

Here are the results:

Without factoring in the time frame of the response, 86 percent of the companies we emailed in 2002 answered our question. That, as it turned out, was the high-water mark -- each subsequent year has seen a decline. By 2008, the figure had plummeted to 51 percent. This year, the figure was just 45 percent -- less than half.

Interestingly, four companies sent an immediate autoresponse that said my inquiry was important and would be routed to the appropriate person -- who apparently doesn't exist, because I never received their answer. (On the opposite end of the autoresponse spectrum, Intel's automated reply had a box entitled "Related Resources" positioned directly over the body copy, so I have no idea what the company's message was.)

What a Difference a Day Makes

In 2002, 63 percent of the companies we emailed answered our question within 24 hours. By 2008, that figure was just 31 percent; this year, just 29 percent. The decline is, again, steady.

In terms of stated policy, however, "within 24 hours" is a target claimed by only 14 percent of companies. Standouts were:

  • RedEnvelope, which has a policy of "ASAP" and responded within 9 minutes.
  • LL Bean, which responded after just 16 minutes, well within its 20-minute policy.
  • Costco, with a policy of "eight to 12 hours"; and
  • 3M, which got back to us in 1 hour and 21 minutes despite a policy that only promised "within 24 hours."

Other findings of note:

  • To send an email to Procter & Gamble or Coca-Cola, you must use a Web-based form. In each case, "Age" is a required field.
  • US Airways' required field is travel date.
  • The AMA responded within 9 minutes to tell us that its policy dictates a response will be sent within between 24 and 78 business hours. What the heck is that?
  • The IRS' response (after 23 hours, 57 minutes): "After clicking on this link, please scroll down to the bottom of the page. The answer to your question is in the sixth paragraph from the bottom." It would have been easier (and more appreciated) to just say "48 hours."
  • Home Depot can't tell us because the information is proprietary.
  • Target invited me to call in to discuss my question.

Some observations, which are probably my own personal crotchets:

  • What happened to simple, grammatical, declarative sentences?
  • Since when did a company earn the right to call me by my first name?

Is all this intentional? Absolutely not. These are sins of omission. Not one of these companies is telling me that I'm not an important customer. Similarly, not one of them is saying an investment in differentiated customer care is a strategic product and success is measured by the interaction. Within a short-term focus, customer service is a cost, and costs need to be controlled and minimized.

And yet our friends in the financial community have shown us all what a short-term focus can lead to over the long term.

Stated differently: You may be innovative and provide a high-quality product or service, but if you view customers as commodities, they'll return the favor. And in this socially networked, viral world, they will be happy to tell their friends.

My conclusion? There is an enormous opportunity in the marketplace.

About the Author

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. You may leave a public comment regarding this article by clicking on "Comments" at the top.
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For the rest of the July 2009 issue of CRM magazine please click here.

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