Use E-Mail To Energize Your Customer Service

Ignore your customers and they’ll go away.

This oft-heard “anti-maxim” of customer service can give us some insight into how not to treat customers. A recent study by Jupiter Communications showed that 42 percent of companies tested didn’t respond to a relevant e-mail inquiry, took more than five days to respond, or didn’t list an e-mail contact at all.

The Internet has opened an entirely new vein of customer communication, allowing companies to share information at lightning speeds around the clock. With that power has come a number of headaches. Companies are struggling to find new customer service models that can help them better communicate with Web-savvy customers.

This new breed of customers doesn’t seem to sleep — they sende-mail requests for information in the wee hours of the morning. They ask a variety of questions, from the commonplace to the extremely complex, filling customer service inboxes daily. And while they don’t expect an immediate reply to such inquiries, they definitely expect to have an answer to their inquiry some time the next day. After two or three days without a response, they often give up and move on to another company with better customer service.

Forward-thinking companies are finding ways to address this problem, realizing that every opportunity to touch a customer is an opportunity to strengthen the brand and grow the business. Newe-mail technologies allow companies to sort through customer service inquiries quickly and efficiently, directing requests to the appropriate department or person and in some cases even automatically responding to questions.

Web Service Design

World-class customer service operations are becoming increasingly popular as more products and services become commoditized and companies find that customer service is one of the only means to differentiate themselves from their competitors. However, while traditional customer service has been done through snail mail, telephone, and fax, more customers — the more fickle and demanding customers — are using e-mail.

Integrating Web-based customer service into your overall customer service strategy begins the moment you realize you need to include it in your strategy. Some issues to consider include:

How? Today’s technology offers many ways to solicit and collect customer feedback. The most common methods are hot-linked e-mail addresses and simple HTML forms. Hot-linked e-mail opens a new browser, allowing the customer to send a message and not lose their original location on the site, and HTML forms include a single text box, in which the customer can type his or her message, pull-down menus, or various choices with check-boxes. Any method can give the customer a simple way to communicate via the Internet.

Who will respond? While some companies have devoted entire customer service teams exclusively to addressing e-mail inquiries, other companies incorporate e-mail response services with existing telephone Customer Service Representative (CSR) responsibilities. Either route you take, you should strongly consider administering a written exam to those people responsible for sending e-mail replies. This will ensure that you are sending intelligent and grammatically correct messages to your customers. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages that depend on your specific business and customer service model. What you have to keep top of mind is that you need an adequate staff to accommodate all the inquiries your company receives, whatever method they arrive.

How will messages be delivered? Once a message comes into your company, how will you deliver it to the appropriate people? Can one person or team of people do the job, or is it more efficient to automate the process with an automatede-mail response system? If you find your CSRs becoming backlogged frequently, you should consider an automated system, or designate an individual or a small group of people to deliver the message. Studies show customers still prefer speaking to someone — anyone — rather than a machine.

Should you outsource? Many companies, especially those involved in seasonal sales fluctuations, find that they can more efficiently outsource e-mail customer service. Tracking and monitoring your customer service needs should help you with this decision. Working with an outside vendor eliminates many of the headaches associated with periodic upsizing and downsizing staff, and can better accommodate unexpected spikes.

How will you track? The very nature of e-mail communication allows you to automate a benchmarking and tracking system easily-in fact, many automated e-mail response systems include tracking components. To track and use the information effectively, determine your requirements up front in your design: How soon do you want to respond, how do you want to prioritize inquiries, and how much time should each request take?

What tools and techniques? Again, technology provides many options for providing information, but you must decide which ones are appropriate for your operation. Consider, for example:

1. Making sure that answers coming from different people are correct and consistent by frequently updating your staff with current information. A great way to do this is posting a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) page on your Web site and giving your CSRs access to it for referencing and updating. Another benefit is that FAQs have the tendency to head off customer inquiries completely.

2. Capturing e-mail addresses for future marketing purposes. Always ask your customers if they want to hear from you on upcoming promotions and if they do, you can add them to your database.

3. Following-up some e-mail responses with a telephone call. This is a great way to ensure that your customers are satisfied with your customer service.

4. Tracking and monitoring the questions/complaints and using this information to help you determine what areas of your site needs to be updated. Since customers also have a tendency to complain when items are out of stock, this can be a helpful tool when it comes to managing your inventory.

Automated Responses

The most efficient way to address e-mail inquiries is to incorporate an automated response system. Such a program can automatically categorize messages, prioritize them, respond or route and track them, greatly simplifying the process and ensuring a timely and accurate response.

There are many companies that offer customer service software, such as Webline Communications CorporationTM, which offers password-protected methods; SiteBridgeTM, whose CustomerNowTM software integrates a human element to their solution; and Silknet’sTM eServiceTM, which allows interaction over the Web using multimedia, messaging and dynamic discussion threads.

Keep in mind that an auto-response system should first and foremost generate a confirmation to the customer, informing them that their message was received. Many systems stamp the message with a tracking number and send a confirmation immediately upon receipt of the inquiry. Your customer will feel better knowing that their message has been received and that an answer is on its way.

The system then needs to categorize the message. By “reading” through the text, the auto-response system can look for frequently asked questions and keywords that will identify the type of response required. Based on how the message is categorized, it can then prioritize the message and route it to the appropriate place.

Auto-response systems can follow one of three general paths:

Automated. If the question is clear and easily interpreted-such as driving directions, addresses and operating hours-the system can respond automatically with a pre-set answer from a library of responses or with an appropriate Web link. Note that in the first stages of such an operation it is critical that an experienced customer service representative reviews the inquiries and responses to ensure the responses are appropriate.

Automatic routing. Using the identified keywords, this system can route the message to a customer service representative for a personalized answer. This step is particularly useful if your customer service system is designed to route messages to the most appropriate CSR rather than simply the next one available. The CSR can then respond, sending the message back through the auto-response system to gather and include the appropriate tracking information.

Manual routing. Even the “smartest” computer can’t compete with a live CSR, especially when it comes to complicated customer inquiries. The auto-response system must have a human backup who can review complex questions and manually route them to the right CSR. Automated e-mail customer service programs are nearly a requirement for doing business in today’s Internet world. Providing customers with fast, valuable and consistent information in response to e-mail inquiries allows you to meet and exceed customer expectations. By strategically reviewing your customer service and Web programs — and by integrating the two into a comprehensive system — you can ensure that every point of customer contact is a positive one that grows your customer base and your bottom line.

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