What price feedback email?
By David Walker (Google profile)
If you run a Web site, chances are you've put links or forms on it somewhere, labelled "Feedback" or "Contact us", links and forms which let users send you email messages. Chances are that the users send those messages. Chances are that you face a pile of feedback email every day - email from site users who expect you to respond.
And there's a good chance that you respond to those messages too slowly, if at all. So says research by Jupiter Communications, which found in August 2000 that many organisations were falling short of their users' email expectations. (The report is called "E-mail Customer Service: Taking Control of Rising Customer Demand".) Jupiter found that 55 per cent of customers expected accurate responses to email within six hours. Yet only 20 per cent of companies were meeting that expectation.
Jupiter also found that:
- Most executives were in denial, wrongly convinced that their company was meeting or exceeding customers' expectations on email replies.
- Online users found email more important than listed telephone numbers; 76 per cent viewed it as "indispensable" to good customer service.
- Users continued to expect faster and faster replies to email, so that most users may soon expect one-hour turnaround. (In Jupiter's survey 15 per cent already did.)
- Firms that didn't meet email expectations just made trouble for themselves; most unanswered customers sent another email, or made a phone call.
- Budgets for email customer response were likely to tighten, not expand.
If you can't see conflicting agendas here, you're not paying attention. Customers expect more and better service, and many site operators behave as if they can deliver it. But now that the easy money of the dot-com boom has evaporated, many Web site operators also want tighter cost control. And hiring people to write coherent and intelligent answers to feedback email costs real money. It all adds up to an "email expectations gap" - a gap which has to be closed.
As Jupiter and others point out, some of the solution lies with better Web sites. You can cut email volumes simply by ensuring a Web site contains easily-found information to answer the bulk of customer queries. And by classifying and examining the email which still arrives, you can write the recipe for making the site better still. Better still, this no-lose strategy helps other site users too.
But this strategy won't make email problems disappear. Indeed, it ensures that email feedback contains the toughest queries, ones the Web site can't answer.
Jupiter's report on email customer service contains a swag of other ideas for trimming the email burden: prioritising your email responses, confirming automatically that you received the message, and buying software to respond to some messages without human intervention. Jupiter ranks this "automated reply" as the most effective tool, but it carries the highest up-front investment.
A few sites are starting to take the opposite approach. Instead of slowing the email stream, they're damming it up entirely. Jupiter notes that bike maker Specialized.com has removed all its customer email links: its "Ask Specialized" links take you merely to a searchable database of online articles. Software firm Adobe has rather more artfully created a feedback page which offers users the opportunity to send certain types of messages, while minimising the chance that a visitor will create a message which requires high-cost, no-revenue response. As software firms have long done, Adobe demands users pay for email-based technical support.
What's happening here? Apparently, some sites have done their sums and decided that in the low-margin Web environment, expensive customer support just doesn't make financial sense. These sites want to be vending machines.
It's no surprise that Specialized is in a low-margin businesses. In low-margin businesses, too much customer service will eat up all your profits. If this sounds harsh, ask yourself whether you expect no-frills supermarkets to have highly trained assistants on every aisle. But at the other end of the spectrum, many sites are investing in customer service technology and staff training to try to cater to a customer's every need. They want to be the equivalent of Australia's David Jones, or the US Nordstrom, or the UK's Marks & Spencer, with help available at every turn.
More sites will have to choose how to close the email expectations gap. Can their business model support high-level customer service? Or do they need to tell their customers simply and clearly that they must find their help on the Web site, without one-on-one email response? It's a choice fraught with risks, even for Internet organisations that understand their own economics well. But it's a better course of action than simply pretending that your email feedback system is fine, when in fact it's broken - as so many are.