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Andy King - ContactCenterWorld.com Blog

A guide to improving your customer service emails: Andrew King Stafford

More and more customers are turning to email as a means of contacting customer service departments, and why not?   Amongst other things it’s free, a message can be sent anytime of the day at the customers’ convenience and it doesn’t involve lengthy telephone calls wading through the various options before waiting for an advisor.

I was asked to look at the email service department of a large UK retail chain.  The service level was running at just 30% with replies taking up to 2 weeks around peak trading times, in addition less than 10% of those sent were of an acceptable standard.  The number of customer emails received by this company had risen from 20000 pa to over 515000 pa in just 7 years.  However the time and investment put into the service didn’t match the increase in customer emails.  To make matters worse, I was tasked with turning this around whilst also making a 5% saving in support costs.  Just under 9 months later, following the latest peak trading period, the service level was at over 90% (the best in the business) and support costs were reduced by 7%.  In addition, research showed the cost of poor email customer service to be £4.42m pa, this was reduced to around £880k pa by improving both service levels and quality of replies.  The business was left with a plan enabling them to improve these figures year on year.

So email shouldn’t be overlooked as a means of communication with the customer, in fact I think in some ways it’s more important to get it right than on the telephone.  After all if you send a customer an email they have a reply from your business there in black and white.  They can print it off, refer to it, forward it on elsewhere (this can be damaging) and the type of response they receive reflects on your business!   There are also certain advantages over the telephone for your business too, E.g. You can send an email reply to a customer enquiry 24/7, however I guess not too many customers’ would be too happy receiving a telephone call at say 7am or 10pm.  This can help when managing SLAs both on email and the telephone.

Sadly, too many companies don’t invest in their email customer service.  Why not try sending a simple email request to a couple of large businesses in your region, or even to your own!  See what type of response you get, did they acknowledge receipt, did it arrive when they said it would, did it answer your question and how well did it represent the company?

So here are my tips for improving any company’s email service to customers’:

1 – Use competent advisors

Unless you get this bit right, you’re always going to be onto a loser.  No matter how good your email system is or how much training you give them, unless they have a basic grasp of grammar they’ll never make a good email advisor.  They must be able to spell, string together a sentence that’s grammatically correct and convey by written word the answer to a customers’ enquiry or complaint etc.  It’s wrong to think that any advisor can simply answer an email.  They might be the best customer service rep you have on the telephone by a mile, but if they haven’t got basic written skills then don’t put them on email! 

So my first tip is to devise a simple aptitude test for potential and/or current email advisors.  Give them a simple email enquiry and ask them to type a reply, then mark them on spelling and grammar.  As long as they can do that, the rest is probably trainable.  You could go a step further and grade their suitability for ecommerce, e.g.

A grade - Answered the email with no spelling mistakes, it was grammatically correct, fully answered the customer’s  enquiry and showed an element of good customer service.

B grade - Answered the email with say 2 - 3 commonly mis-spelt words, it made sense but there were a few grammatical errors and it answered the customers’ enquiry.

C grade - The email had multiple spelling and/or grammatical errors and/or it didn’t address the customers’ question or issue.

I would only use A and B grade advisors on ecommerce.  Perhaps only use A grade advisors to answer complaint emails as simple errors like spelling mistakes or getting the customers’ name wrong are amplified when they are already unhappy.

Remember, your training team can teach people how to use your in-house systems, what advice to offer customers’ and also a varying degree of customer service.  However, they are not school teachers, nor have they got significant amounts of time to teach people the basics.  If they just haven’t got it, then don’t put them on email.

2 – System spell checkers

These are great; I use them all the time, but beware!  Spell checks do have some downfalls and shouldn’t be relied on as a guarantee that an email is error free.  The following email example illustrates the problem, can you spot the deliberate errors?

Dear Mr Smith

Thank you for you email about the failed delivery.

Please accept my apologises for the delay, their were a problem in our warehouse witch meant sum orders did not get loaded onto the the lorry.

I have contacted our dispatch department and arranged for you’re order to be delivered tomorrow between the ours of 7am – 12pm. 

If this is not convenient please contact me again and I will arrange another date four you.

As a gesture of goodwill I have refunded the delivery charge back to you’re credit card.

Kind regards

A Advisor

How many errors did you spot in that short message?  Hopefully you managed to see eleven.  However, run any spell check and you’ll see all the words are spelt correctly; they’re just being used in the wrong context or are duplicated (the the - behind lorry).  Unless a grammatical check is also in place, errors like these will go out on replies to customers.  Even then, not only is it time consuming for an advisor to try and re-word a grammatical error, they also have to understand why it’s an issue or they won’t understand what’s wrong.  This highlights the need for competent advisors to be used on your email service to customers’. 

Another problem is when a spell check provides suggested spellings, it’s all too easy for an advisor in full flow and under pressure to meet their KPIs, to simply accept and ‘send’.  I’ve lost count of the number of emails I’ve seen that read “I am very sorry for the incontinence this delay has caused you” instead of ‘inconvenience’.  Not a good image for your company to convey, particularly if the customer is emailing you with a complaint!  So train your advisors to take a second and just make sure what’s being suggested is correct.  It can save a lot of time sending out additional replies when the customer emails back in highlighting the errors.

3 – Pre-populated paragraphs

In my mind these are a must for any email customer service department.  You’ll find that most advisors have their own pre-written paragraphs saved anyway, ready to copy and paste into the most common customer enquiry email replies.  This in itself causes problems as all advisors will word or convey the message differently and have differing levels of grammatical skills.  The best solution is to have a good selection of pre-written paragraphs stored ready for advisors to use.  Some CRM email software tools provide this function, others it’s a case of copying and pasting.  Either way it’s important as it allows a degree of quality control over emails sent out from your business, speeds up response times and allows you to set a tone throughout your replies (covered later in the article).  In addition, where complex information needs to be provided it takes the onus off the advisor to get it right and provides a written copy for customers’ to refer to rather than try to remember it all. 

Here is an example pre-written paragraph that may be used multiple times during an advisors shift (note there are sections for the advisor to populate):

Thank you for your email regarding a delivery date for your order BX(order No).  I am happy to confirm we now have the (item) you require in stock and can deliver it between the hours of 8.00am – 6.00pm on (date in full).  If this date is not convenient please telephone us on 08889 123456 and we will re-arrange another one for you.

Please accept my apologies for the delay in sending your order out to you.

Even very short pre-written paragraphs can shave precious seconds off response times.  On a recent ecommerce project where there was a real issue with the SLA, introducing pre-populated paragraphs shaved 11 hours off the average time it was taking to answer each enquiry.  They also helped to significantly improve quality and allowed the business to set a particular ‘tone of voice’ throughout the replies being sent out.

A word of advice though; Make sure the paragraphs are specific to the question being asked.  Don’t try and cut corners with just a few pre-written paragraphs that cover multiple enquiries.  Nothing winds a customer up more than a robotic sounding reply that partly answers their enquiry and quite obviously had little advisor input.  The paragraphs can be used to answer a simple enquiry in its entirety, however most would be in addition to some advisor input.  Pre-written paragraphs are a useful timesaving tool but not at the expense of good customer service.  Spend a bit of time speaking to advisors about the paragraphs they frequently use and make sure they’re well written and relevant.

Finally, make sure any information that can change in your business, like opening hours, is always updated on any pre-written paragraphs.  This is often forgotten when changes occur within a business.

4 – Email tone

It’s important to set the tone of your email replies so as to ensure uniformity and match that of other communication methods within your business.  Do you want replies to be formal, informal or somewhere in-between?  For example, the way you address customers at the start of the email often sets the tone, so it’s important to get that bit right.  Here’s some short examples of formal, middle of the road and informal email replies, which one would you expect to receive as a customer of your business?

Formal:

Dear Sir

I am very sorry that you experienced a 20 minute delay when trying to contact us by telephone at 5.00pm on Tuesday 1st May.   I have forwarded your comments onto our management team so they can investigate the matter and take appropriate action to ensure any future delays are kept to a minimum.

Thank you for informing us of the problem you encountered, customer service is very important to us and any feedback is always welcomed. 

Kind regards

A Advisor

Middle of the road:

Dear Mr Smith

I’m very sorry you experienced a 20 minute delay when trying to contact us by telephone on Tuesday evening.  I’ve passed your comments onto our management team so they can look into the matter and make sure delays are kept to a minimum in the future.

Thank you for letting us know about the problem you had, customer service is really important to us and any feedback is always welcomed.

Kind regards

A Advisor

Informal:

Hi Mike

I’m really sorry you had to wait 20 minutes when trying to speak to us by phone on Tuesday evening.  I’ve sent a copy of your email onto our management team so they can see what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Thanks for telling us about the problem, customer service is really important to us and any feedback much appreciated.

All the best

A Advisor

Email ‘tone of voice’ is important.  It communicates the message you want your business to convey to customers.  A financial institution might want to keep things very formal, whereas a surf board supplier would probably favour the informal tone.  Going back to the pre-populated paragraphs, they are an excellent method, along with advisor training, of ensuring the ‘tone of voice’ is maintained throughout your email replies. 

5 – Advisor email formatting rules and guidelines

When training your advisors to work on email customer service, you should provide them with a set of guidelines and formatting rules to adhere to.  They help raise the quality of replies being sent out and are useful for team leaders when assessing work done by their advisors.  It’s important for advisors to have a set of guidelines to work to so as to avoid confusion and keep uniformity in the replies they send out.  Here are just a few of my tips that I use when training (Naturally each company will have their own thoughts or policies):

  • Do not use abbreviations.  Advisors might understand what they mean, the customer probably won’t.
  • Do not use ‘text talk’ to shorten words.  Email is different to texting on a mobile telephone and all words should be spelt in full.
  • Avoid over use of the word ‘that’.  Quite often it’s not needed in a sentence and advisors have a tendency to repeat it multiple times. E.g. I am sorry that the order that should have been delivered to that address was incorrect.
  • Remember we read an email not hear it.  E.g. I am sorry to read about the problem instead of I am sorry to hear about the problem.
  • Avoid multiple apologies.  By all means if a mistake has been made it’s important to start your email with an apology, even end it with one if it’s a big boo boo, but don’t have apologies running all the way through your reply.
  • The use of ‘I’ and ‘we’.  If it’s an action that an advisor is doing then use ‘I’ and if referring to the business use ‘we’.  E.g. I have re-arranged delivery is something an advisor is doing and We are always happy to receive customer comments is referring to the business.
  • Only apologise for any inconvenience if it’s actually been caused to the customer.  Many advisors will add I am sorry for any inconvenience this has caused you to the bottom of every single email enquiry that isn’t positive.
  • Avoid using negative words such as unfortunately, cannot, do not, won’t, can’t etc.  This portrays the wrong image to the customer about the business.  E.g. So instead of writing Unfortunately we can’t deliver your table for 2 weeks as it won’t be in stock until then, put a positive slant on it and try There is a short delay on delivery of this table, however I am happy to confirm we will be receiving further stock in 2 weeks.
  • Never use the phrase All I can do is apologise. Again, it’s a negative response and makes the customer think you don’t care.  An example replacement for this phrase could be: I am very sorry you feel we didn’t resolve your issue when contacting us by telephone, I will do my best to help you.
  • Advisors should not try and pad out an email with waffle just because it looks too short.  If a 1 or 2 line email gets the message across and answers the customers’ enquiry, that’s fine.  Likewise, advisors should be trained and then coached to answer customers’ enquiries without the need for repeating things that were written in a previous paragraph.  It all adds to their response times and is unnecessary.  The use of pre-written paragraphs helps to cut out this problem and regular coaching by team leaders is another good method.
  • Agree a time and date format for replies then ensure advisors are made aware of it during training.  Try and avoid the 24 clock as not all customers’ will understand it.  I prefer to put the time and date in full, particularly when referring to deliveries, it helps to avoid any customer confusion. E.g. I have arranged delivery of your table between the hours of 7.00am and 1.00pm on Monday 1st May 2009
  • Advisors should always read and understand the customers’ email, then make sure the reply fully answers the question or where possible resolves the issue.  Ideally, the only reason a customer should need to email back in is if they are asked to provide further information or to say thank you for great service!  

The cost of not answering a customers’ email correctly at the first point of contact can be significant.  If say 5% of customers’ sending an email get in touch again (by whatever means) because they are unhappy with the initial response, you now have a 5% increase in advisor costs and additional emails etc adding to service level times.  This is not to mention the even bigger cost of the effect of poor customer service.

Other rules which could be included in training are insisting on the use of pre-written paragraphs where applicable and if available, layout of replies, how to address the customer, use of subject headings etc

6 – Factor in check time

Meeting SLAs is an important area of any contact centre or customer service department.  However, it’s essential to factor in an element of time for advisors to quickly check their emails before clicking the ‘send’ button.  Train and encourage your advisors to check that their emails are grammatically correct and fully answer customer enquiries.  Believe me, this short amount of time spent having a quick read through will save your business time and money in the long run.  Instead of adding time to the SLA, it will actually help to reduce it.

7 – Auto acknowledgement email

Make sure your customers’ receive an instant automated acknowledgement to show not only you’ve got their email, but also to advise them how long a reply will take to arrive.  Be realistic about the SLA; don’t tell them they will receive a reply within 24 hours if you’re currently running at 48.  Do that and you’re on to a loser straight away.  Make sure the auto acknowledgement email is updated in line with the SLA as changes occur.

8 – Team leaders

I mentioned earlier about only using competent advisors on email.  Well the same applies for team leaders, more so in fact.  After all, they are the people who will hopefully be monitoring advisor email quality and providing mentoring/coaching to them.  It’s therefore very important that team leaders working on email customer service understand all of the agreed formatting rules etc and have a good grasp of the written word.  I’ve seen all too often, team leaders used to running a call section of the contact centre trying to do the same for email.  It just doesn’t work, quality slips as team members are badly advised and outgoing emails are not checked.

9 – Quality control

Just as call quality is usually monitored, the same should be done with email replies sent out to customers’.  Make sure that team leaders check at least 2 emails a week from each of their team and feedback any comments.  Its important advisors are kept aware of their email reply quality as standards can quickly slip if errors are not pointed out to them on a regular basis.  Provide team leaders with a simple checklist to ensure uniformity between teams:

10 – Pre-set template

It’s a good idea to provide advisors with a pre-set template to work with.  It saves time and provides an element of uniformity for email replies to customers’.  Below is a simple example template:

Dear

Subject:

Thank you for your email regarding

 

Kind regards

 

Ecommerce Customer Service Advisor

The advisors work from this template for every email reply they send and fill in the missing bits.  Most systems will allow for a pre-set template to be written and used whenever you click to compose an email reply.

Well there are my tips for improving your email service.  Remember letter writing isn’t as widely taught in schools as it used to be particularly with the introduction over the years of email and phone texting.  However, customers’ still expect and should receive a high degree of quality and service from any communication with a business.  It’s an opportunity to show the customer you do want their business and you are a professional company that cares about quality.

Publish Date: November 25, 2009 10:16 AM


The benefit of empowered advisor common sense customer service: Andrew King Stafford

So what is empowered advisor common sense customer service?  Well it’s all about giving call centre customer service advisors the ability to make a common sense judgement when dealing with customer issues.  Let’s look at an example:

A customer purchased and had delivered a £60.00 vacuum cleaner 13 months ago from a leading UK high street and online retailer. The original machine developed a fault after 6 months and a replacement was provided.  Now 7 months on the replacement too had failed with exactly the same fault.  The customer took the broken vacuum into her local store to see if anything could be done as the machine was now 1 month over the original 12 months guarantee provided by the retailer.  The customers’ argument was threefold; firstly the replacement was just 7 months old and she felt that the 12 month guarantee should perhaps begin again when that machine was delivered.  Secondly she was upset that an identical fault had developed twice on the same model in a 13 month period, finally the fault in question caused the vacuum to emit sparks and flames, hence there was an obvious safety issue.

The store assistant informed the customer that she would need to seek advice from the delivery section of the business as it was they who supplied the item.  Now this is where the empowered advisor common sense customer service should have kicked in.  The advisor could have taken it upon herself to apologise for the problems, offer the customer a pickup of the faulty vacuum and delivery of a new but different brand machine to the same value of the original.  Cost to the business, one five minute phone call from the store and delivery of a new vacuum to the same value of the original sale.  Benefit to the business would be a happy customer who would more than likely use the business again in the future, but more importantly, make recommendations to family and friends etc.

So now let’s take a look at what really happened and see what effect it could have on the business if multiplied throughout the call centre on a daily basis:

The original telephone call from the store took 5 minutes.  The customer was advised that she would have to obtain and pay for an independent electrical engineers report, send it into the business and if the machine was deemed to be at fault, a replacement would be provided.  The customer left the store with the faulty vacuum feeling disgruntled that she now had the hassle and delay of seeking a report.

On the way home from the store the customer was surprised to receive a call on her mobile phone from the same customer service advisor she had spoken to a few minutes ago.  The advisor informed the customer she had spoken again to her team leader and it had been decided that they were prepared to provide a replacement vacuum after all.  The customer asked if she could have a different brand of the same value as she had lost faith in the original one.  The advisor again went to speak with her team leader returning after a few minutes with a negative response, the same model or no deal!  The customer asked if she could discuss it with her partner and let them know later.  The advisor agreed and said she would place a message in the order on the companies’ computer system so any other advisor could take the call when the customer got back in touch.  This second exchange had taken a further 10 minutes of the advisors time, not to mention the cost of a 10 minute call to a mobile phone and the issue was still yet to be resolved. 

The customer contacted the company a few hours later to say that reluctantly she would accept the offer of a like-for-like replacement as she didn’t want to waste time and money arranging an engineer’s report.  However, the order was not correctly messaged with all of the required information and so a 13 minute conversation now took place while the story was explained and the facts established.  Finally the customer service advisor decided she wasn’t empowered to authorise the replacement and informed the customer that she would email another department and they would be in contact the following day. 

The call didn’t materialise as promised and so the very fed up customer sat and typed out a lengthy complaint email to the company’s customer service ecommerce section.  Within 20 minutes of the email being sent the customer received a telephone call from an advisor who had now received the original internal email from 2 days ago.  She arranged a pickup of the faulty vacuum and delivery of the same model replacement.  This took a further 5 minutes.

 The complaint email sent by the customer was answered 2 days later from an ecommerce advisor explaining that he could see the matter was now resolved and hoped it hadn’t put the customer off shopping with the company again; this email response took another 5 minutes to write and send!

So how could this episode affect the business and what if it wasn’t an isolated incident?  The following information gave us the answer:

Assuming the following figures –

Customer service advisor hourly rate = £6.70

Customer average spend per transaction for the business = £32.30

The total customer service advisor time spent on this particular issue was 38 minutes.

Multiply this time by the hourly rate that we know to be £6.70 and we get an advisor time cost of £4.24

However the real cost comes when we start to look at the effect of poor customer service and how many times this type of problem occurred each day in the contact centre.

It was established that similar incidents took place on average 200 times daily.

Therefore the advisors cost worked out to approx £309,520pa.  Subtract the £40,734pa - 5 minute per advisor per call cost if the issue was resolved at the first point of contact and you get £268786pa.

The issue occurs 200 times per day = 73000 customers per year (assuming no duplicated customers).  Multiply this by the average spend and you get a total of £2,357,900pa.

If just 10% of these customers chose to switch to a competitor then the loss of revenue would be £235,790pa.

It costs 5 to 6 times as much to obtain new customers as it does to service existing ones and so the amount needed to replace those who defected would be approx 66% of lost annual revenue, i.e. £155621.

Research shows that a dissatisfied customer is likely to tell 10 friends, family, colleagues etc about their bad experience with a business.  So again, assuming that just 1 in 10 of those told about the experience chose to shop elsewhere we have another possible revenue loss of 7800 potential customers multiplied by the average spend = £235,790pa.

So what does all this add up to?

Unnecessary advisor time spent resolving issues = £268786

Loss of customer revenue from defection = £235,790

Cost of new customer acquisition = £155621

Loss of potential new customer revenue = £235,790

Total possible annual loss by not empowering advisors to make common sense decisions = £895,987

Compare this to a cost of just £40,734 by empowering advisors, allowing them to resolve the same issues at the first point of contact.  This doesn’t include any additional revenue generated by a happy customer telling others about the good service which would almost certainly negate the cost many times over.

As you can see, simply by empowering customer service advisors to make common sense decisions themselves, not only can large savings be made but a company’s reputation for providing good customer service can be enhanced.  Remember, these are decisions that will probably be made anyway so why not let advisors make them at the first point of contact instead of by a team leader or manager some way down the line.

A final thought on empowered advisor common sense customer service

You might be worried that by empowering advisors to make decisions themselves they will simply agree to all customer requests or demands thinking they are providing good customer service.  You may be surprised! 

The same company referred to above, found that compensation being issued to dissatisfied customers’ was rising steadily year by year.  They experimented by empowering one team of customer service advisors to make the decision on compensation levels themselves instead of having to wait and ask already busy team leaders likely to snap judgements.  The result; compensation levels fell by 40% over a 3 month period for the empowered team with no apparent loss of customer service.  The team members also reported a greater sense of work satisfaction having been given the extra responsibility.

These are just 2 examples, there are lots of ways to empower your advisors enabling them to provide a more efficient and customer focussed service.  

Publish Date: November 25, 2009 10:15 AM

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