Email Black Hole Causing Customer Service Crisis

Email is officially the UK's worst channel for customer service, according to research from eService provider Transversal. Transversal's third annual Multi-channel Customer Service Study has uncovered a growing crisis in email response: emailing customer service staff is markedly less effective at yielding a satisfactory answer than using an automated online system or phoning a contact centre. Less than half (46 per cent) of the routine customer service questions emailed to 100 leading organisations were answered adequately.

Additionally, the average time to respond to email was nearly 2 days (46 hours), with 28 per cent of organisations not even replying at all. However proving that fast, accurate responses by email are possible, some companies responded with useful answers within 10 minutes. Overall these figures show a major deterioration since 2006, when email successfully answered 60 per cent of queries and kept customers waiting less time on average 33 hours - for a reply.

Transversal's study evaluated 100 leading UK companies in the banking, telecoms, insurance, travel, consumer electronics, grocery retail, fashion retail, CD/DVD retail, consumer electronics retail and utilities sectors for their ability to answer simple routine questions, via email, their website and by phone. While websites averaged 5 out of 10 correct responses and 55 per cent of phone calls were answered within 2 minutes, email responses continue to deteriorate year on year.

"Our research has uncovered shocking failings in the customer service email channel", commented Dee Roche, Director of Marketing, Transversal. "Companies are playing ping pong with email enquiries, pushing them back to the web or forcing consumers to call contact centres. What is the point in paying staff to respond to customers' questions badly? With consumers increasingly demanding personalised service, email should be at the forefront of delivering tailored responses that help convert browsers into customers. Some organisations are doing this extremely well but the general picture is of lazy, generic replies if companies eventually respond."

Analysis of responses show that too many companies simply use email to push customers to other channels rather than even attempting to provide a useful answer.

The majority (63 per cent) of inadequate replies directed customers to call a contact centre, while nearly half (48 per cent) pushed customers back to the website, where they started, normally to generic web pages that didn't answer the question. Not only does this increase customer dissatisfaction but multiplies the number of contacts consumers need to make, with many having to telephone to resolve their enquiry.

The usefulness of email replies has deteriorated year on year in 80 per cent of sectors. Even though many have improved response times, this appears to be through sacrificing effectiveness of replies. For example, in 2006, utilities companies took an average of 102 hours to reply to email with 70 per cent of replies answering the question. While 2007 email response times improved to 53 hours, only 15 per cent of replies answered the question. The picture is even worse in telecoms. From 2005 to 2007, average reply time fell from 32 to 26 hours but successful answers fell from 70 per cent to 20 per cent. The pattern of improving response times at the expense of deteriorating answers is clearly evident.

Insurance companies come bottom of the survey: only one email reply successfully answered the question and 50 per cent of companies didn't respond at all. The slowest response took 27 hours and then asked the customer to call them! Utilities were nearly as bad, with only one answering the question successfully and one partially answering it. One utility even advised customers to visit third party comparison sites to get information on current pricing.

Proving that fast, accurate responses are possible, in contrast 80 per cent of CD/DVD retailers provided correct answers, with the quickest received within one hour. Fashion, grocery and electronics retailers as well as consumer electronics manufacturers also scored relatively highly but still only around 50 per cent of those surveyed responded satisfactorily. The fastest successful response was from a consumer electronics company which answered the question within 10 minutes. Showing the wide range of email handling skills a rival company in the same sector took 13 days to respond to an identical query.

"Our analysis demonstrates the scale of this problem and how dramatically the usefulness of email replies has deteriorated over the last three years. There seems to be a lack of monitoring of the quality of responses, with a narrow focus on agents answering questions to hit service level targets rather than spending the time to properly resolve customer queries. With many contact centres outsourced this also has a financial aspect companies that are paid a set amount for every email answered, have no incentive to ensure agents are providing detailed, useful responses. Equally contact centre managers targeted purely on numbers don't have a remit in their jobs to monitor content. Organisations need to take a step back and overhaul their processes to ensure that the email channel is providing what customers want and need", concluded Roche.

Organisations need to aim to reduce the sheer volume of email they receive. A key way to accomplish this is to allow customers to first ask their questions through a customer service knowledgebase on their website. If customers then go on to email from the knowledgebase, the agent will be able to see what they have searched for there is then no excuse for sending customers back to the same website pages.

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