E-Mail Drops the Ball as a Customer Service Tool

More than half of retail companies respond to customer inquiries within six hours, but businesses in other industries are failing to meet consumer expectations, according to research by Jupiter Media Metrix.

The majority of consumers expect to resolve their customer service inquiry within six hours, but only 38 percent of companies are meeting this expectation and 33 percent are taking three days or longer to do so or are not responding at all. Jupiter’s quarterly Customer Service WebTrack Survey found that the percentage of companies that did not respond to inquiries has risen from 19 percent to 24 percent.

“The increase in sites that are not responding to customer inquiries via email is a signal that many companies still have not mastered email customer service management. Inefficient email handling is causing customer service representatives to spend more time assisting customers via email than they could by phone — in effect, making phone service more cost effective for companies than email,” said David Daniels, Jupiter analyst. “Jupiter has found that companies can improve customer service response times drastically via email automation, but they must use technology that can accurately answer inquiries without intervention from customer service representatives. Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology can accomplish that goal while reducing staffing levels by 40 percent for companies that handle large volumes of email.”

Jupiter’s research also found that travel companies (12 percent) and corporate brand Web sites (0 percent) are the least effective at resolving customer inquiries within six hours, while financial services companies (46 percent) rank No. 2 behind retailers. Customers are also increasingly in search of immediately gratifying solutions to their service issues — and customer email response expectations have been increasing over the last two years, from 24 hours to 12 to six. Businesses must act quickly to catch up to customer demands, before expectations increase to more challenging levels.

Continued poor email performance will not only have a lasting negative impact on companies, but on the email service channel as well, according to Jupiter analysts. As the number of non- and slow-responding sites increases, customer confidence in email as a service channel will also diminish. E-mail autoresponse is not widely used and is rarely effective. Only one-quarter of companies use email autoresponses, Jupiter found, and less than 2 percent of them successfully resolved customer inquiries. Depending on the complexity of the service issue and category of business, companies using NLP technology can lower service costs by reducing the overall customer service headcount. Retailers, for example can expect NLP systems to accurately answer 50 percent of their basic email service complaints, such as order status, without any customer service representative intervention. Companies that receive 20,000 email messages per month can save $90,000 a year, while companies that receive 70,000 messages per month can save over $400,000.

“Poor email customer service is driving up the costs of customer service for companies and is alienating customers. When email expectations are not met, customers are being forced to initiate a second contact via more costly channels, including the phone,” Daniels said. “Over the last several years, companies have bought into vendor claims that email automation can lower costs and raise efficiencies. However, recent Jupiter research indicates that email automation has not been perfected and will not be until NLP is integrated.”

Companies looking to improve email customer service should automate knowledge management by investing in NLP, according to Jupiter analysts, who believe that most companies can accurately answer 50 percent of their basic customer service emails without any CSR intervention. Companies should also utilize NLP for personalization and use autoacknowledgments to set realistic timing expectations. A Jupiter Consumer Survey found that only 34 percent of consumers said that companies responded within the time that the autoacknowledgment provided.

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