Two years ago, as customers and prospects began to use E-mail to contact Verisign Inc., the Mountain View, California-based software company came up with what it thought was a slick way to respond: It kicked back a file that contained the answers to the 10 most frequently asked questions it received.
That idea, which was intended to give customers some basic information while a service rep drafted a reply to each E-mail, proved not only inadequate but downright disastrous. “Customers were livid,” says Bo Wilson, senior director of customer service for the encryption software vendor. They interpreted the canned response as a brush-off, and some were quick to reply with angry E-mails. “We had to stop that approach immediately,” says Wilson.
That left open the question of what might work better, and Verisign spent considerable time and resources working out the answer. The results appear to have been worth it. Wilson says that customers now applaud the speed and accuracy of the firm’s automated E-mail responses, which take advantage of technology not available two years ago. And the company has saved considerable money on manpower, reducing the staff it devotes to E-mail even as the volume has increased to more than 500 messages per business day. Response time has been cut from four days to 24 hours or less, and the quality of the responses has been made more consistent.
Many companies are in the midst of a similar odyssey, grappling for ways to harness the potential of E-mail before they collapse under the sheer weight of it. Companies that make CRM (customer relationship management) software are looking for ways to improve the E-mail components of such products, because E-mail has emerged as a critical customer “touch point.” Makers of software specifically designed to handle customer E-mails are also emerging, often touting leading-edge technologies that can “read” the E-mail and produce smart responses with little or no human intervention.
Some companies have already had success, but for many E-mail is currently a headache rather than an opportunity. Yet companies that approach it smartly are not only saving millions of dollars but also creating stronger customer relationships that should translate into top-line growth. For some, such as Verisign, E-mail is often preferable to phone contact, because questions tend to be highly technical, and E-mail allows for a detailed, hard-copy response that customers can save and refer to.
Customers have come to expect a lot from E-mail, including quick and accurate responses from the companies they send it to. But a recent survey by Jupiter Media Metrix of 225 well-known companies that offer an E-mail option on their Web sites found that a third took three days or longer to get back to customers, and 25 percent never replied at all. A similar study by Norwalk, Connecticut-based CRM strategy consultancy Peppers and Rogers Group backs that up: It found that 20 percent failed to respond to a basic query.
The problem stems in part from the fact that E-mail service is often a byproduct of Web-site design, with no procedures or technology in place to integrate customer E-mail with other forms of customer service. Even when E-mail is handled by of a CRM package, it’s often not aligned with call-center data or accounting systems within the organization. “Many companies take a product or channel-centric approach, where there’s one person who handles the Web site, someone else who handles telephone calls, and yet another person who manages E-mail,” says Martha Rogers of Peppers and Rogers. “The real issue, though, is can you respond in a way that works for your customer?” Forrester Research senior analyst Bob Chatham agrees. “Second to call-center staff turnover,” he says, “inbound E-mail is probably the biggest point of pain companies are feeling today.”