Is email useful as a way of providing customer service? Pete Slease, a Customer Contact Council member advisor, apparently doesn’t think so. On the CCC blog in February, Pete wrote:

Call me the jaded contact center geek, but it seems that the usefulness of email as a service channel has expired.  I recognize some B2B interactions may be an exception to the rule – given more regular customer interactions – but for most service interactions, it’s a poor channel.

After receiving poor email customer service, Pete took to the blog, basically saying that offering email customer service isn’t worth the cost. It’s too time consuming, he wrote. Too hard to manage.

On February 11, the day Pete posted his blog, (a Thursday, when things are typically rather slow around here at Palo Alto Software), our main 800 number received 104 phone calls. Of those calls, 11 came before business hours, 10 after business hours and 9 lasted less than one minute (suggesting they hung up before speaking with an agent). Either those 30 customers (or potential customers) called back another time, left a voicemail, or gave up. Or sent an email when they realized the office was closed. Regardless, they didn’t get the information they were seeking on their first try.

On the same day, our Customer Service mailboxes received 40 emails. Every one of them, regardless of the time it was sent, was answered without any additional effort on the sender’s part. A quick look at the Contact Us page on our website shows that our current adjusted average response time for those mailboxes is 9 minutes. Which means during business hours, that’s how long our customers waited to hear back from us. The customer who sent an email at 2:48 a.m. experienced the longest wait for a reply that day. Our response was timestamped 7:30 a.m., which means he heard back from us in less than five hours.

So the question was: is email a useful way of providing customer service? Based on the numbers, the answer is: How could you think otherwise??

Roughly a third of our communications on a randomly selected day took place via email. Our customers in different time zones were able to send their message on their time, without having to schedule their day (or night) around a phone call. And every single customer who sent an email got a reply.

The real issue isn’t whether email is useful as a customer service channel. That’s a given. It’s how do you maximize its usefulness?

The answer to that question is simple. You don’t just put an email address out there for the public and call it email customer service. You might as well hire a trained monkey. Instead, you put together a good team, prioritize email and build efficiencies into your workflow.

You incorporate a tool like Email Center Pro which is ideal for upping your email customer service game. It provides features that help users respond to emails quickly, consistently, and accurately. It lets customer service managers track response times, employee productivity, and overall traffic. The more efficient you are at responding to email, the more you can handle. Which improves your bottom line AND makes your customers happy.

(It also makes it easy to extract the information you need for your blog. With about three minutes of effort, I was able to see all the email sent and received by our customer service team on February 11.)

Back to Pete. He was the victim of poor customer service, which can (and does) happen sometimes no matter what channel the customer chooses. And interestingly, as he questions email’s usefulness and whether it’s cost effective, he writes:

I’m getting ready to send my third email to get a simple issue resolved.  What if that issue was really complex? Despite any e-mail management system the company has, there is an increasing labor cost for each additional e-mail. Plus, I’m almost ready to call, which adds on the handle time of a frustrated customer.

How useless could email be if, even after two unsuccessful contacts, he’s sticking with it and is only ‘almost ready’ to pick up the phone?

Sounds like he should be making a case for better customer service through email, rather than no email customer service at all.

Jay Snider
Editor, Palo Alto Software