Customer Support Principles: An Epic Guide to Email Management
In many cases, email is the first interaction with an organization. In the last 12 months alone, companies have seen a 78% increase in email engagement, according to a global survey done by HubSpot. With the steady growth in inbound email volumes, organizations are increasingly faced with the challenge of not only responding to their customers in a timely manner, but actually resolving customer issues via email too. Failure to do so means higher customer service costs using traditional channels, like phone support, as well as reduced customer satisfaction which increases customer churn and lowers sales.
As organizations grapple with this challenge, customers are expecting email response times to grow shorter and shorter. According to HubSpot Research, ninety percent of customers expect an immediate response when it comes to dealing with customer service. Furthermore, high-value customers prefer email over the phone channel and are 2.4 times more likely than low-value customers to use email for customer service.
Once you have the foundation of email management for customer service, the various best practices, procedures, and techniques for effective email management can be classified into three areas core areas: receiving strategies, routing practices, and responding techniques.
#1: Customer Service Email Receiving Strategies
At times, it may seem that you do not have any control over how your contact center receives emails. There is hope. Significant productivity gains can be achieved, response times decreased, and even email quantities reduced. Use the following as guidelines to determine exactly how to receive customer emails to gain back control of your queue.
Always receive email but set expectations on response times
Email is not a real-time communication channel. It does not require a customer service agent to be present on the other end at all times. Regardless of your agents’ availability or working hours, customers should be able to write at any time, all the time.
By clearing publishing response times, organizations can set different expectations during peak holiday seasons or new product launches. Many businesses use a simple autoresponder that lays out typical response times to inquiries.
Consider “closing” the email option only in extreme scenarios like a system failure or a natural disaster.
Better manage inquiries by originating service requests via web pages instead of direct email
It became a common practice, to include generic email addresses (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com) on all company communications, product packaging, shipping boxes and labels, and brochures. Consider changing these email addresses to web page links (www.acme.com/info, support.acme.com, www.acme.com/feedback). Many contact centers benefit from a web form as opposed to a direct email.
Customer requests can be managed better if they come via web forms filled out on the website. Don’t remove all email addresses from everywhere. But do consider originating email via web forms as part of the overall multi-channel customer service strategy.
Before you even receive an email, make web forms work for you
Create simple and effective web forms by using appropriate category and subcategory dropdown options, check boxes, radio buttons, and space for the customer to type free-text. Avoid asking the customer to select a priority or a severity (as that will typically result in only the highest option selections). The golden rule of three fields applies: try not to ask more than three questions in the web form.
Provide self-service options around the email web form, including the top five or ten frequently asked questions (which could be dynamically presented based on category selection). If the customer can be identified using a log-in process, personalize self-service options based on customer value, recent purchases, and past history. If not, capture parameters such as customer email address or order number to identify the customer at a later stage.
Utilize web form “preview before submit” features
Instead of having a “submit” button under the email web form, use a “next” button to first present a preview to the customer with options to cancel, modify, and submit on this preview page. Not only will it allow the customer to cross-check and modify the message if required, it will also help to identify the customer using information they enter on the first form page. Use tools such as a Natural Language Processing (NLP) engine to present additional (and more relevant) self-service options on the preview page.
Presenting a preview page also provides an avenue to set modified expectations if the problem is particularly critical or complex and include links to other channel options such as online chat or a specific phone number for a high-value customer.
Manage SPAM and other unwanted emails
Use specialized SPAM filtering software or features available as part of commercial email servers to minimize the number of non-customer emails that actually arrive in the email management system. In case the email web forms are targeted by malicious crawlers or bots that overload the email system with automatically generated web form emails, consider using techniques like CAPTCHAs—the customer is requested to decipher the letters in a distorted image in order to submit the web form.
Also use the required anti-virus tools to scan all incoming email as well as attachments for potentially harmful viruses. Do not categorically block these emails, as they could be from legitimate customers. Instead, tag them separately and create rules to automatically inform the sender that their email had a virus and could not be opened.
#2: Routing Best Practices
Specialized email management systems offer sophisticated features that enable an organization to route incoming email messages using a wide range of parameters. Email can be routed into queues, automatically escalated or sent to a different department, routed based on agent workload, delivered to a particular agent, and more. Although routing rules and configurations will depend on specific organizational processes, apply relevant best practices to optimize the routing strategy.
Keep routing logic as simple as possible
Most email management applications make it simple to configure routing rules via an intuitive administrator user interface. While this is essential, ad-hoc creation and modification can result in interdependent and conflicting rules that may cause havoc as opposed to improving productivity. Hence it is important to keep routing rules and logic as clear and straightforward as possible.
Instead of directly configuring routing in the email management system, first document it in an up-to-date Routing Document using “If-Then” logic. (For example, “If the email has this, then do that.”) Analyze new rules and modifications to ensure that they do not conflict with any existing rule or potentially create a cyclical loop. Utilize features available in most email management systems to test routing rules for potential conflicts and cyclical logic.
Use system permissions to control access such that only selected administrators can create and modify routing rules. Ensure there are at least two individuals at any time who are well-versed and capable of administering all routing aspects, and mandate clear and up-to-date documentation.
Route based on departments and queues, not named individuals
Individual agents go on vacations, fall sick, show up late, or leave the organization. Routing logic directly based on individual agents will result in email that either remain unanswered or have to be manually moved from one agent’s inbox to another. Create appropriate queues or mailboxes, as well as roles and departments, and first configure rules based on these parameters. Routing should always be based on the “best available agent” as opposed to a predetermined, named agent like “John Doe”.
Within a particular queue or mailbox, employ automatic push-routing based on agent workload, departments, and other relevant parameters. This will ensure that certain agents cannot cherry-pick the easy emails or return more challenging queries back into the queue for someone else, and so on.
Use customer information for intelligent routing
Provide priority service to high-value customers by utilizing customer information when routing a particular email. Customers can be identified using information gathered via the email web form, the incoming email address, or via intelligent email content scanning. Use information stored within your email management system or an external CRM system as criteria to use within your routing logic.
Configure and utilize agent skills to increase FCR rates
If the company has a wide range of products and services, and appropriately skilled teams in various areas, configure skill-based routing to send the incoming email to the appropriate team and then to the best available agent. This will directly result in improved First Contact Resolution (FCR) rates as agents will not have to spend valuable time reading, understanding, and transferring email to different queues. Furthermore, email will not just wait in the wrong queues while valuable SLA time is lost.
If the company has a multi-lingual customer base, ensure that the email management system can automatically identify incoming email languages and then route them appropriately to service lines and available agents who have the required competency to respond in that particular language.
Automate escalation routing and exception scenarios
Routing does not just apply to incoming email, but also to email that might have already been routed once. Agents might transfer emails to other service lines or teams, or might even return them to the queues, if allowed. However, as email volumes increase, often certain inquiries remain unanswered for longer-than-desired periods. Configure routing rules to prioritize such email, based on individual email SLAs, and push them to special mailboxes or escalate them appropriately. Utilize routing functionality to tackle exceptional scenarios, such as an email getting transferred by agents multiple times, or an email getting transferred back and forth between the same mailboxes.
#3: Responding Techniques
Receiving customer email and then routing them appropriately (and intelligently) covers the basic prerequisite for effective email management. Respond times and what information is included in the response are two key factors that determine successful customer service. Responding techniques include using effective auto-acknowledgements, personalizing responses, keeping the customer informed, and using agent productivity tools as well as an integrated knowledge base.
Use effective automatic acknowledgements
Although an auto-acknowledgement is rarely adequate as a response, it can be used effectively to inform customers that their email has been received and also to avoid getting repeat email from the same customer on the same issue. Apart from this basic task, acknowledgements should be personalized based on customer information (if available), and is also an ideal mechanism for setting customer expectations.
Include any issue tracking number or case ID, establish SLAs based on customer value or problem complexity, and provide information about any service delays or outages as part of the auto-acknowledgement. Outline options for self-service or, if needed, provide escalation methods for emergencies.
With a variety of SPAM filters working on most email systems, do not use strange or obscure email aliases like firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Clearly mention whether or not the customer can reply to the acknowledgement. Thread any such response into the original email within the email management system instead of creating another separate issue or case.
Personalize responses and keep them simple
Starting with the acknowledgement, personalize every email by including the customer name in the greeting, the agent’s signature, and other pertinent customer information. Utilizing web forms that ask for first and last names will help automate this process. Respond to the query directly and as completely as possible with existing information. However, keep the response short and to the point. Avoid heavy formatting and do not include unnecessary HTML and graphics. Do not attempt to up-sell, cross-sell, or use other marketing techniques unless the customer issue has been resolved.
Always keep the customer informed
Apart from the first acknowledgement, it is also a good idea to keep the customer informed of progress, particularly delays. If the stated SLA is a 24-hour response and you are not going to meet it, customers will typically allow additional time— provided they are informed that their problem is being worked on. Depending on email volume, employ automated rules or have agents respond with a personalized note. In either case, mention the nature of the delay and the expected resolution time.
Empower agents with productivity tools
Email management systems provide value and lower total cost of ownership due to a large set of features, including agent productivity tools. Train agents to use them effectively. Such tools include automatic spell-checking in multiple languages, ability to personalize messages using templates for various parts of the email (like header, greeting, body, footer, etc.), ability to preview emails, use pre-configured responses, insert knowledge base articles, use short-cut keys, and many more.
Consider auto-suggest and auto-response capabilities
Consider investing in intelligent tools that can scan email content, understand the specific request, and suggest appropriate responses to an agent or even automatically respond to the customer. Use automated responses when email has been received via a structured web form and when there is a high degree of confidence in the response accuracy. Access the specific service organization and decide on an acceptable degree of error (for example, five percent of all automatic responses) based on the value of a customer segment and the volume of incoming email.
Utilize the power of an integrated knowledge base
An integrated knowledge base is a powerful tool to provide consistent, relevant, and quick email responses. It can also be used for other customer service channels such as self-service, online chat, and phone. Empower agents to author new knowledge base articles and modify existing ones. Use access control and approval workflow to leverage agent knowledge while ensuring quality and consistency across the customer service organization.
Be selective in sending follow-up emails
From the customer’s perspective, the only thing more annoying than an unresolved service request is an unsolicited follow-up email asking for feedback. Many organizations take the notion of following up every customer query resolution literally. This costs time and money, and most customers ignore it, respond with irrelevant or wrong data, or even worse, mark the email as SPAM.
The best service resolution metric is whether or not the customer contacts the company again for the same problem, especially via a different channel (usually the phone). Use follow-up or feedback emails in cases where resolution was delayed or might have been poor, and consider combining it with a promotional offer or a gift certificate.
Employ quality assurance techniques
As with personal email, there is always the possibility that an agent will realize an error or omission after hitting the send button. Use the Outbox feature available in most email management systems to keep outgoing emails for a specific period of time before they are actually dispatched. This will allow agents to pull email back and modify them. Create quality assurance processes where team leads, subject matter experts, and supervisors monitor email responses for quality on an ongoing basis, improve the knowledge base content, and review agent performance. Automate this process by designating a certain percent of email blind-carbon-copied to a quality assurance mailbox.
Improving Ongoing Email Management
As with any other ongoing process, it is critical to gather metrics, measure performance, and make continuous improvements to the overall email management initiative. Real-time statistics present a live snapshot of the system and agents—number of emails in queues, number within service levels, agent workload, response times, and more. These are essential to monitor ongoing activities and take immediate preventative or remedial action. Historical metrics should be gathered and analyzed to determine trends, identify issues, evaluate agents, determine staffing levels, and escalate product or service problems to other departments in the organization.
Given the multi-channel nature of customer service, it is important to look at the holistic set of metrics related to all the channels offered—self-service, phone, email, and online chat. Utilize the success of an initial email management initiative to deflect customers from more expensive channels, such as phone, to email.
Pay specific attention to ongoing performance versus published SLAs. Metrics gathered should help not only track past performance, but also predict future performance. Monitor trends associated with specific organizational events, such as new product releases, product recalls, marketing promotions, and holiday seasons. Make ongoing corrections and instill a continuous improvement process around the entire multi-channel customer service strategy.
Email has evolved into the default medium for personal and business communications. In recent years, it has also been widely adopted as a critical channel for contact centers– with 54% percent of 2019’s customers using email channels for customer service inquiries, according to Forrester. In addition to websites, organizations also provide customer service email addresses throughout social channels, printed on their brochures, inside annual reports, within packaging, and many other corporate communications. Email is everywhere!