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March 2000


You�ve Got Mail: Managing Customer E-Mail


A survey by Harris Poll found that 25 percent of all Americans use e-mail on a daily basis. By the year 2001, Internet gurus predict that consumers will e-mail 50 million product information or service inquiries per day. In that same time frame, according to Forrester Research, 20 to 30 percent of customer contacts will shift from phones, faxes and mail to Web sites.

There are hundreds of other studies, analysts, polls and surveys that report similar findings. Arguably, the most pertinent survey related to customer service/consumer affairs applications was conducted by the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business (SOCAP) in 1999 to benchmark the e-mail/Internet practices of its membership. SOCAP is a professional association for corporate management in charge of customer contact. Its membership roster crosses diverse industries, with 47 percent of members representing firms with annual revenues between $1 billion and $5 billion or more. SOCAP�s survey covered topics ranging from how its members make their Web sites known to which technologies members use at their call centers to respond to consumers� e-mail messages.

Not surprisingly, SOCAP�s survey results support the notion that there is a direct relationship between how a company positions its Web site for consumer contact and the number of e-mail messages it receives. In just one year�s time, the 57 percent of member companies that actively encouraged consumer contact through e-mail experienced an average weekly increase in e-mail of 148 percent. The 36 percent of member companies that provide for consumer e-mail contact, but don�t encourage it, reported that their average weekly e-mail increased just 61 percent. In addition, the survey showed that the seven percent of member companies that openly discouraged consumer e-mail contact saw the number of average weekly e-mail contacts they received drop by 56 percent.

More than likely, the companies that don�t encourage consumer e-mail contact, as well as those that openly discourage it, recognize the importance of responding to consumer inquiries, yet lack an efficient system for producing and delivering responses. If that is indeed their problem, these companies need to develop an efficient system � and quickly. Otherwise, they will miss the tremendous opportunities for relationship building that interaction with online consumers presents.

There are several methods that can be implemented to develop an effective and efficient e-mail response management system. Some methods involve the actual response process while others focus on site management and interactive Web sessions with consumers. The actual e-mail response process requires three key components: 1) quick turnaround; 2) product knowledge; and 3) strong written communication skills. Consumers expect quick responses to e-mail inquiries, preferably within hours and never more than 48 hours after their initial inquiry. They also expect your messages to contain the information they are seeking, presented in a well-written manner.

Following are four methods for e-mail response, including automation, which can help you meet your customers� expectations.

Assign categories. You can categorize messages through a form-based message system or screen that instructs consumers where to direct their questions. Basically, when you assign categories, you offer different address options for e-mail contact. For example, you might tell consumers to send e-mail regarding a contest to one address, and ask them to send stockholder questions to another.

Prioritize messages. You can assign a person or group (based on volume) to each category to read the messages in detail and perform triage. The categories should be prioritized according to the urgency of each message. You might rank them as: legal issues (alert customer service manager); emergent situation (forward to appropriate party); consumer inquiry (respond within 24 hours); and suggestions from consumers (send �thank you� note within 48 hours).

Automate acknowledgments. Upon receipt of e-mail inquiries, acknowledgments can immediately be launched to senders, verifying that your company received their inquiries. This assures consumers that they made contact with your company and their message is not �lost in the mail.� You might also attach promotional and other information to acknowledgments.

Distribute e-mail inquiries. You can automatically trigger message activity using a rules-based automation engine. The engine can be programmed and customized according to specific characteristics of e-mail messages, such as content, history and size. As messages enter the engine, the system can either automatically send an acknowledgment to a consumer or it can automatically suggest an appropriate response for a dedicated e-mail agent.

To project the image you want to portray to your online consumers, it is critical that your agents who answer e-mail are not only competent writers, but are familiar with handling customer service issues. They should also be able to tap into a knowledge base containing predetermined copy blocks. That way, they can quickly create high-quality, consistent responses. They can also create tailored, personal responses based on previous contacts if they have access to historical customer dialog.

Although automation helps, someone will still need to read through your e-mail to ensure the engine is generating appropriate responses. Otherwise, you may end up with problem responses. For example, let�s say you program the engine to automatically reply to an e-mail that contains the word �catalog.� Your programmed message says, �Thank you for requesting a catalog. We will send you one today.� Without someone sifting through the e-mail, you have a problem response if the original message you received said, �Stop sending me your catalog.�

In addition, monitoring Web Usenet newsgroups, bulletin boards and other places where Internet consumers congregate can also help control your e-mail volume. At these locations, your customers may be discussing your products and services. If so, you can �listen in� on their conversations to understand how they perceive your company, products, promotions, customer service, etc. Monitoring these conversations can alert you to possible trouble areas that you can proactively address. For example, you could use e-mail to distribute possible solutions before your e-mail box becomes flooded with complaints.

Beyond automating the response process and monitoring the Web, you can improve your responsiveness to consumers through site management. With disciplined site management, you can actually reduce your e-mail traffic, which, of course, will reduce the number of responses you need to generate. In addition, rather than waiting for e-mail to arrive, you can provide online consumer support and interactivity using multiple Web-based applications and communication channels. Following are several site management activities and applications that can help reduce your e-mail traffic, while improving your service to consumers.

Track messages. You can create a database to log each e-mail message you receive. By including a field in the database for message content, you can run reports that help identify e-mail message patterns and trends. Reports should prompt you to take action, such as adding information to your site about a topic that receives multiple e-mail inquiries.

Create a dynamic FAQ area. Tracking messages helps identify the questions consumers ask most often. You can publish these questions and their answers on your Web site in a dynamic, self-serve frequently asked questions (FAQs) area. Consumers can browse through your FAQs to look for their question. If they find it, they won�t send you an e-mail message. To make your FAQ area more dynamic, you can include hyperlinks to related information on your site and/or other sites.

Include searchable knowledge bases. Related to an FAQ area, searchable knowledge bases contain items such as owners� manuals, troubleshooting guides and informational brochures. Placing these items online creates a self-service area for your customers. This type of Web support works best for routine transactions, which account for approximately 80 percent of customer support calls and e-mail inquiries.

Engage in text chats. Using a collaboration server and an Internet browser, agents and consumers can engage in two-way, online interactions during the course of a voice conversation or text chat. Agents can deliver answers to consumers� specific questions backed up with real-time charts, illustrations, facts and figures. Text-based chats over the Internet use a small Java window in which a consumer types a message into the window. The message is forwarded to an agent�s message window, at which time the agent can type a response that appears in the consumer�s window. Agents can also invite others within the company to share in a session, with each person�s time and actions being tracked separately.

�Push� forms to consumers. Agents can step in and walk consumers through the completion of shared Web-based forms. The agents can fill in forms on their browsers, then push the completed forms to consumers. This application not only helps consumers complete forms, it also allows them to verify the accuracy of their information before submitting the forms.

Incorporate a collaborative browsing feature. Collaborative browsing allows an agent to walk a consumer through your site, or any site on the Internet. Agents can �discuss� content with consumers as they browse together. For example, an agent might ask, �Do you prefer a crewneck shirt like this one, or would you like to take a look at one of our turtlenecks?�

Offer a callback option. To speak with a �live� agent, a consumer can enter a phone number and name, then hit a �call me� button. The information is then passed to an ACD through a Web blending system to connect a consumer with the appropriate customer service representative via the telephone.

Incorporate links to databases. Integration with existing enterprise systems is another critical site management effort that leads to effective e-mail management. Basically, integration allows crossover access between account records and historical data stored in databases throughout the enterprise, including your Web server. Because your Web site technology links with the rest of your technology infrastructure, you gain efficiencies, such as the ability to meld customer information gathered through e-mail with information gathered through other forms of customer contact such as telephone conversations, fax and postal mail.

The importance companies place on tracking and melding Web-generated information with other consumer information is underscored by results from SOCAP�s Benchmark Survey. More than 82 percent of SOCAP�s member companies reported that they track consumer information they gather from the Internet, including e-mail. Of those companies, 89 percent said they integrate this information with consumer information they gather from phone calls and mail. Additionally, more than 69 percent stated they plan to use the combined information to recontact consumers in the future to enhance their relationship marketing efforts.

�Successful marketing efforts aimed at building lifelong relationships with consumers depend increasingly on the information generated by Web contacts, especially e-mail contacts,� said Michael Earley, chief operating officer at AFFINA. �More than any other applied technology, the Internet is influencing and fueling consumer demands for exceptional and personalized customer service. Delivering the consistent, quality service and timely information that consumers have come to expect requires the integration of all consumer contact data, whether the data are generated by a phone call, a fax or an e-mail.�

Providing consumers with online access to your company through your Web site, especially your e-mail responsiveness, has quickly become a competitive necessity. Done right, your company�s e-mail responses, self-help areas and interactive Web site services create favorable impressions about your company, your products and services and your commitment to customer service.

As the number of consumers who use Web sites to communicate with companies continues to grow, each day it becomes increasingly crucial to use or develop an effective system for managing your e-mail responses and Web interactions. When you do, you gain yet another access channel to build and sustain loyal relationships with your customers.

Stephen R. Nelson is chief information officer of AFFINA � The Customer Relationship Company. Headquartered in Peoria, Illinois, AFFINA operates eight call centers in four states and Canada, providing an array of CRM services, including inbound customer service and support, Internet, closed-loop lead management, database marketing, market research and fulfillment.

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