Is email the best channel for customer service?

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A new study suggests that email is the best customer service channel, but do retailers have room for improvement in this area?

Email is the most effective customer service channel, according to a new study. It is offered by 99% of companies, and 73% of emailed questioned were answered successfully. 

This is one of the findings from Eptica’s study(form filling required) of multichannel customer experience. Eptica analysed the performance of 500 companies across social, email, web and chat customer service channels. 

It doesn’t look at telephone customer service, which seems an omission as it remains important even in a digital world. 

If customers have an urgent query, they are most likely to pick up the phone and dial, though this can mean a world of pain when attempting to contact some companies.

I’ve experienced waits of ten minutes or more when contacting online retailers, which is pretty much unacceptable in my book.

This does make the email contact option more appealing though, as I can fire off a question and save time which would otherwise be wasted in call queues.

If managed properly, it can also take the pressure off call centres, and allows companies to take time to investigate issues and provide information without keeping a customer waiting on the line.

Email customer service response times 

Email offers a fastest response time than both Twitter and Facebook, but none of these figures are especially impressive. 

For relatively urgent queries, these response times are totally inadequate. 

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Customers expect better too. There is a fairly big gap between customer expectations and reality.

Email does match these expectations more closely though. 

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in the study, 81% of companies replied to emails, meaning 19% completely failed. 

How easy is it to email retailers? 

One of my gripes around customer service is actually finding an email address or form. It could be as simple as providing an email address on a page, but it rarely is. 

Many sites seem to be set up to hide this option, routing customers through FAQs and the dreaded contact forms before allowing them to send a simple email. 

Walmart is one such culprit. Having clicked on the email link, you might expect an email address, but instead we have a three page contact form to complete first. 

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I appreciate that, with what must be a considerable volume of emails rolling in, Walmart wants to narrow the query down a little, and also try and answer some obvious questions on site. 

However, for customers that just want to email them, this process can be very frustrating. 

Theres a lot of work to do, and two steps after this form: 

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Even when you’ve completed all these fields, there’s more. It’s also a big omission from Walmart not to set expectations over a response time. 

If it will take an average of 24 hours, tell customers so. If not, they may send more and more follow up emails, or indeed call customer services, increasing pressure on the service. 

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Zappos is well known for its attention to customer experience, and its email contact form is much better, as you might expect. 

It’s only one page, with fewer form fields. 

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Even Zappos doesn’t guarantee a response time, but its messaging around this is far better than Walmart’s.

For one, it explains its approach, while also offering faster customer service options for those with a more urgent query. 

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Many of these contact forms convey the impression that these email messages may just be disappearing into the ether, as promises of responses are vague. 

This is better from Threadless, which does guarantee a response with 1 to 2 days. 

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The processes for contacting companies by email can lead to a lot of frustration. Routing people through several pages and trying to force them into FAQs may seem like a good idea to reduce email volumes, but it’s just as likely to make customers abandon the site, or resort to other channels, which then increases the workload elsewhere. 

Also, managing expectations is very important here. If you make it clear to customers that they can expect a reply within 24 hours, they’ll wait unless it is very urgent.

If they have no sense of when to expect a reply, then they’re likely to resort to other channels. 

In summary 

While some companies seem to be performing well for email customer service, with 73% answering queries there is a lo of variance between sectors. For example, 50% of retailers in the automotive accessories sector failed to provide accurate answers. 

And really, unless customer questions are very tricky ones, accuracy shouldn’t be that hard to achieve – it’s a matter of providing staff with the right resources, and those staff making the effort to do the job properly. 

Consistency across channels was another factor, with the study finding that companies were struggling to deliver consistent answers, even to the most basic of questions.

Just 11 companies (2% of the total) provided a consistent response across all of the channels studied (web, email, Twitter, Facebook and chat). 

Back to email, it may be that there are good reasons why email customer service can be poor, such as a lack of resources, or the need for better technology to manage customer queries. 

However, this is of little interest to customers; they simply want an accurate and timely response when they email companies.

Customer service and, more broadly, customer experience is very important. Those that excel in this area, such as Zappos, are rewarded with better customer retention rates, great reviews and a better all round reputation.

They can also spend less on marketing, as providing great service and satisfying customers is as good a method of marketing as you can get. 

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