In an ideal world, all customer service emails would read as though they were written by a caring, responsive friend—one who’s determined to resolve the customer’s issue, and does so with ease.
But, like every gold standard of performance, this one continues to elude many brands.
Recently, for our StellaService Ecommerce Index, we took a hard look at customer service email habits—some good, some not so good—of 30 major ecommerce brands. What we found offers important lessons for companies that want to maximize the return on their email investment.
Why Some Brands Are Saying Goodbye to Email
Of the 30 companies we decided to evaluate, six of them offer no email at all. This reflects a larger trend we’re seeing: more and more brands moving away from email and investing more in live support channels (phone and chat). There are several reasons for this.
Email can be difficult to service
Customer service agents have only one opportunity to correctly answer a customer’s question. And they can’t have a conversation and build rapport, making it difficult to provide the five-star experience a customer might receive through a real-time brand interaction.
Email can be costly
When customers don’t get quick responses to their email inquiries, they resort to other channels. As a result, agents often waste time responding to emails after the customer’s question has already been answered.
Email can be detrimental to your brand
Many companies automate the email process to some extent. They might use an auto-generated email acknowledging receipt of the customer’s original email, or rely on standardized language or templates their agents can copy and paste. But these practices can come back to bite, as I’ll explain below.
The Problem Isn’t the Medium—It’s the Misuse
Yes, email can be difficult, costly, and detrimental to your brand—if you can’t deliver a reasonably fast response, and if you’re not observing best practices.
Problem 1. Slow response times
Of the companies we evaluated, 54% use automated confirmation. The average response time for this group is nearly 17 hours. In contrast, companies that don’t use auto-responders have an average response time of 9.5 hours. The top five performers in the latter group averaged a response time of just 1.5 hours.
Auto-responders aren’t inherently bad, from the customer’s point of view. But if you can’t deliver an email response within 12 hours, consider reallocating your resources to other channels that offer faster or immediate resolution.
Problem 2. Templates that backfire
Email responses that appeared to rely heavily on templates resolved our issue 26% of the time, as compared to 85% for highly personalized emails. Emails that combined the two approaches achieved 45% resolution.
We encountered several problems with cut-and-paste language, which suggested little or no effort on the agent’s part:
Sending customers to other channels—Emails that include language such as “I can’t help you, but please call our hotline/visit this website” leave customers wondering why they bothered emailing customer service.
Information overload—Several responses (to even the most basic questions) came in the form of lengthy explanations of company policies and procedures, forcing us to dig for the answer. In some cases, the answer appeared several paragraphs in. In other cases, not at all.
Answering the wrong question—Automated responses generated by keywords in the customer’s question (rather than the question itself) can be maddening. Example: We wrote to a retailer asking about gift receipts, and the canned response explained how to redeem a gift card online or in store.
Problem 3. Robotic language
Many companies use standardized language in their emails. They might acknowledge and repeat the customer’s question, for example. Or close the email with “We look forward to seeing you again soon.” Standardized language provides a nice framework for emails so agents can respond quickly and effectively.
However, if agents aren’t properly trained or they’re not careful, a simple tweak can sink a brand’s image. Here are two examples from our study:
I understand your concern that you would like to place an order…. (What’s so concerning about placing an order?)
I also understand that you want to know if what kind of perks will you get right away…. (This one was painful to read.)
If your customer sees language like this, he/she will know the response wasn’t thoughtfully written—and may question whether a human was involved at all.
Best-in-Class Emails Increase Customer Satisfaction, Loyalty, and Spend
Brands that use email most effectively do two things right: they personalize the message, and they solve problems in a clear, precise way. Although this might be enough to satisfy most customers, some of the brands we evaluated go beyond the call of duty to engage and delight their customers and, while they’re at it, boost average order value.
Best practice 1. Empower your agents
Agents should be well trained and ready to help in meaningful ways. They must be familiar with the brand’s policies, processes, and products—not to mention grammar rules and the proper use of standardized language and templates. Consider providing your agents prewritten product blurbs they can use for helpful comparisons or related recommendations.
Best practice 2. Demonstrate empathy
Agents should write conversationally, show some understanding, and demonstrate how much they value the customer’s feedback (example: “I’ve shared your request with my team”). A person’s name in the signature line and a direct phone extension let the customer know there’s a caring person on the other end.
Best practice 3. Address the customer’s issue immediately
If your emails begin with general information unrelated to the question asked, you’re effectively “burying the lede.” Acknowledge and address the customer’s inquiry first. Then, you can surprise the customer by educating him/her further and offering personal recommendations.
Best practice 4. Probe and offer alternatives
Your agents may or may not be able to resolve the customer’s issue immediately. You might not carry the type of product the customer wants. Or perhaps the customer’s question lacks context. In any case, agents should ask specific follow-up questions to better assess the need and present additional options.
Best practice 5. Anticipate follow-up questions
Save your customers as much work as possible (and save your brand the cost of multiple contacts) by answering related questions that haven’t been asked. For example, if an agent is answering a question about in-store returns for online purchases, he/she should include instructions for returning items by mail.
Bottom Line: Success Is All About Agent Training
A 100% personalized response is every customer’s dream, but it isn’t always possible. The good news is, you don’t have to give up templates (and lose that efficiency) to achieve a personal feel. Templates work well as long as agents understand when it’s appropriate to use boilerplate and when it’s better to go off script.