It may surprise people that this year marks the 32nd birthday of email, with the original copyright on a program to send and receive emails granted in 1982. That is seven years before Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web while working at CERN.
Over the last 30+ years email has changed the way we communicate at work and play with 114.8 billion emails now sent on a daily basis. And this number continues to grow despite the advent of new channels such as social media and web chat.
However, whilst volumes increase, the way we send and receive emails is changing. According to SendGrid, one of the world’s largest email delivery companies, more emails are now opened on Apple platforms such as iPads, iPhones and Macs than on Microsoft Windows (which tends to be mostly desktop PC based) devices. In the UK these figures are even more marked with nearly half of all emails opened on an iPhone. Essentially mobile devices are driving greater use of email, rather than diminishing its reach. People can answer on the move, rather than just when they are at their desks or home PCs.
The importance of email to customer service
Email remains a central as well as an essential channel for customer service and engagement. There are number of reasons for this. Customers like its flexibility and the fact that they can choose when to send or reply, putting them in control. Indeed analyst firm Forrester tells us that 58 per cent of customers want to communicate with companies by email. Equally it can make life easier for businesses as it isn’t real-time, which gives agents time to think and craft a considered response. A written record of the conversation can also be valuable for analytics and help avoid re-work when picking up an open query with a customer, as well as for regulatory reporting.
However, many companies are neglecting email. The Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study evaluated 100 leading UK companies on their ability to provide answers to routine questions via email and a range of other channels. It found that just 60% of companies responded to a question emailed to them – and just 41% successfully answered it. This means an astonishing six out of ten customer questions are not being dealt with.
And on average it is taking up to 61 hours and 39 minutes (nearly three whole days) to provide a successful response back to the customer. This is wildly out of kilter with Forrester research which shows that 41 per cent of customers expect a response to their email within six hours. Just 18 per cent of companies are delivering on this.
Improving email performance
As the statistics show, the number of emails companies receive are continually increasing, meaning that any issues with email management are only going to become worse over time. So what can companies do to improve their response times, response rate and accuracy?
Some of the answers are obvious. There needs to be a culture that says leaving any customer communication sitting unanswered for three days isn’t acceptable in today’s world, backed by a corresponding investment in people, process and technology to bring down response times. Companies need to ensure they are meeting customer expectations when it comes to email.
Linguistics-based email management technology can also help deal with growing email volumes in four key ways:
1. Faster responses
By understanding incoming emails, linguistics can automatically suggest answer templates to agents that they can personalise to the individual customer’s query. This increases agent productivity, while delivering consistency, speeding up response times, removing backlogs and improving customer happiness
2. Improve understanding
Linguistics allows firms to analyse the tone of an interaction quickly and easily. This can then be used to both prioritise and route the message, and for longer term analytics.
3. Deliver joined-up service
Linguistics can take the hard work out of connecting multichannel conversations. For instance it lets you extract information freely provided by customers within incoming emails (such as in the signature) and cross-reference/update the master customer record (i.e. in a CRM system). This gives a more cohesive view of the customer, refining the multichannel service you can provide.
4. Greater efficiency
Linguistics can route emails to the right department or agent first time, reducing handling time and ensuring quicker, more informed answers.
In a world where it may seem that new customer service channels are invented every few weeks, there can be temptation to embrace the new. Yet email will be with us for a very long time. The same Forrester study that looked at email preferences found that nearly 70 per cent of those born after 1995 want to contact firms via email. This same ‘Generation Z’ is already on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Pinterest but they also want the flexibility of email too and this won’t change overnight. So make sure you have the technology infrastructure in place to deliver quickly and consistently on the email channel, now and in the future.
Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are radically changing how customers interact with companies. Rather than being tied to their PC consumers are now demanding access to information anywhere and anytime, both for research and making final purchases. Businesses therefore need a mobile strategy to support consumer needs, with a seamless, high quality experience vital to winning and retaining customers.
Companies have to make key decisions on how they are going to deliver mobile service – do they adapt their existing websites so that they work across every device or create mobile apps focused on particular operating systems? And if they go down the app route do they build standalone customer service apps or integrate with other parts of the business? The answers to these questions will obviously vary from company to company and industry to industry, but what is vital is to put in place a customer-focused strategy now to ensure that mobile doesn’t leave you behind.
Showing the importance of mobile, the latest Gartner research, based on a survey of over 2,000 CIOs, forecasts an enormous increase in the number of mobile customer service apps. From just 200 in 2012 there will be over 1,200 by 2014, as companies extend their customer service to multiple devices. These apps will cover particular areas of customer experience, meaning that vendors need to make their CRM software open and easy to break into bite size chunks.
- Demand – what do customers want and what does the business need
- Supply – what staff and skills are available to manage external partners
- Control – who owns and manages the strategy
- Risks – what could go wrong and derail the strategy and what other factors could affect it
Consultancy IDATE predicts that there will be more people accessing the internet through mobile devices than PCs by mid-2014. As the centre of gravity on the web shifts, the companies that can deliver the right customer experience will flourish, while those that fail to embrace the new opportunities will see sales shrink. As Gartner points out now is the time for CIOs to develop a mobile CRM strategy if they want their companies to benefit from the mobile revolution.
Delivering the best service is often about understanding what makes your customers tick – recognising them, knowing their likes/dislikes, what channels they prefer to be contacted by, and even on a basic level whether they prefer to be addressed formally or informally.
In theory the huge amount of personal information now freely available online provides companies with the chance to deliver that personalised service. However at the same time as demanding improved service consumers are increasingly worried about the privacy of their online information and how it is used.
Balancing these two conflicting areas is difficult, as British Airways is currently finding. Last week the airline launched its “Know Me” system, which allows customer service representatives to access data about clients from BA’s systems, as well as information including photographs from the web. This is used at check in and by flight attendants with iPads to help identify travellers and deliver a personalised service to frequent flyers.
However it has flown into a storm, with privacy campaigners claiming that BA may be breaching the Data Protection Act by using web information in this way. The airline has hit back strongly, declaring that it is fully compliant with the law and is only using the information to improve service.
BA’s system seems to be a genuine attempt to use the resources around it to provide improved service, but the fierce criticism shows how difficult the whole area of using personal information is in the internet age. Companies need to be very sure that not only what they are doing is legal, but that it is something that customers are happy with – and if possible, have given their informed consent for. And, of course, that the improvement in customer service that it delivers is both real and long-lasting. Consequently customer service departments in companies in all sectors will be watching BA’s progress with great interest and seeing what lessons they can learn moving forward.