You�ve Got Mail: Managing Customer E-Mail
BY STEPHEN R. NELSON, AFFINA
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
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
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
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
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
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
�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
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