A guide to improving your customer service emails: Andrew King Stafford - Andy King - ContactCenterWorld.com Blog
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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:
Thank you for your email regarding
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