January 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

Need for Speed

Customers like to communicate via e-mail - retailers better learn how to respond.

By Linda Punch

Terry Golesworthy recalls with dismay one online retailer’s explanation for poor e-mail customer service: all e-mails were still going to a member of the web site development team-which had set up the site but wasn’t responsible for customer interaction-who was deleting them.

What’s more, the retailer didn’t even know that customers’ e-mail inquiries weren’t getting through until Golesworthy mentioned the problem in a quarterly report published by his consultancy, The Customer Respect Group. “Nobody spotted it because there was no one managing or expecting e-mails to come in,” he says.

In another case, Golesworthy called a company which failed to respond to an e-mail inquiry. “They said they never check e-mail,” he says. “Well, why put it on your web site then?”

Haphazard approach

Such examples are commonplace, and reflect some retailers’ haphazard approach to e-mail customer service, says Golesworthy, who as president of The Customer Respect Group regularly monitors online retailers’ customer service performance. “Many people just don’t track metrics on e-mail,” he says. “They have no clue about how many they get and how many they respond to. As a result, there’s a significant number that just don’t go anywhere.”

Golesworthy estimates that retailers ignore between 25% and 35% of e-mails at any one time.

In addition to ignoring customer service e-mails, retailers are taking more time to answer the ones they do respond to. A fourth-quarter study of 100 online retailers by The E-Tailing Group found that the average response time to e-mail inquiries increased to 30 hours from 26 in 2003 and 2004.

In spite of the deterioration in overall numbers, evidence exists, though, that some retailers are putting more emphasis on their e-mail customer service operations. Those retailers are responding faster and with more complete answers. During the third quarter, 65% of e-mail replies were sent within 24 hours of receipt, significantly higher than the 40% in the previous study, according to The Customer Respect Group, which surveyed 35 major retail web sites.

And 74% of those replies were considered “very helpful” compared with 67% in the earlier study.

A frontline group

The E-Tailing Group showed a similar trend-questions were answered correctly 83% of the time during the fourth quarter, up from 79% a year earlier. The top 10 retailers in the survey all had response times below 23 hours.

Retailers that excel at e-mail customer service typically have a “frontline group of e-mail personnel-and their job is only e-mail,” Golesworthy says.

That’s the case at online consumer electronics retailer Crutchfield.com. Crutchfield has a 15-member staff devoted only to answering e-mails and live chat, supplemented by 10 call-center employees who are cross-trained to answer e-mail. “We want everything to be answered in under eight hours,” says Zach Zimet, senior marketing analyst. “If response time starts to exceed that, we bring in people who might not otherwise answer an e-mail.”

The E-Tailing Group study found that Crutchfield responded to e-mail inquiries in 6.08 hours during the fourth quarter. Crutchfield logged 2,000 customer service e-mails in December, says Kristi Richardson, customer service team leader.

72% of consumers expect an answer to their e-mail within 24 hours, according to a Customer Respect Group survey of 1,000 online users. But retailers should immediately send out an auto response e-mail acknowledging receipt of the inquiry and giving the consumer an estimated response time. “If you’re going to take two days, tell them,” he says. “Set expectations very clearly.”

Customer service training

While responding to a customer’s e-mail in a timely fashion is important, it shouldn’t be the only consideration, Golesworthy says. Most consumers would rather wait to get complete answers to their questions. “The customer does not necessarily expect an instant response,” he says. “People would prefer a very good response in two days versus a not-good-at-all response in four hours.”

Crutchfield emphasizes that the content of replies is as important as the speed of the response, Zimet says. “People aren’t being measured on how many customers they can churn through or how many e-mails they can write in a day,” he says. “They’re being measured on the satisfaction of the customer.”

To make sure that customers’ queries are answered in full, Crutchfield requires agents to work in customer service for six months before training to handle e-mails. “That’s to ensure that they really do know all the answers, have a lot of experience and can pretty much handle anything that comes up,” Richardson says.

Crutchfield then gives agents a four-hour course on using the e-mail program, including how to look up customers’ e-mail histories and how to use the response form. The retailer also checks the agents’ writing skills. “They have all the customer-service training they need,” Richardson says. “It’s just working that into a written media instead of on the phone.”

But even the best training may not prepare front-line customer service agents to answer every question. As a result, retailers need a coordinator or gatekeeper to make sure e-mail is forwarded to the correct department and to make sure the customer gets a timely and complete response.

That’s especially true if the customer asks multiple questions requiring answers from different departments. “At least half of the e-mail we track in this area ignores the second or subsequent questions,” Golesworthy says. “They take the first one and answer it but they ignore the second, third or fourth.”

By answering questions fully on the first go-around, retailers can head off follow-up questions that can eat up more time and resources, according to Golesworthy. Follow-up questions tend to be tricky because the subsequent e-mail will likely go to a different agent from the one who received the initial query. That means agents must be able to access the earlier communications so they can continue the conversation with the customer. “You need to have a sophisticated tracking system at your e-mail centers,” Golesworthy says.

Random sampling

Crutchfield has one administrator whose sole responsibility is to monitor the e-mail system to make sure all questions are promptly answered. “He keeps an eye on our reports to make sure our volume is correct and nothing strange is going on with the program,” Richardson says.

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