E-mail has become the UK's worst channel for customer service, according to the 3rd annual 'Multi-Channel Customer Service Study' from e-service provider Transversal, which found that e-mailed customer service requests are far less effective than using an automated online system or calling a contact centre.
The company found that less than half (46%) of the routine customer service questions e-mailed to 100 leading organisations were answered adequately, and that the average time taken for replies was nearly 2 days (46 hours), with 28% of organisations not even replying at all.
E-service is deteriorating
However, proving that fast and accurate responses by e-mail are still possible, some companies responded with useful answers within ten minutes. But, overall, the figures showed a serious deterioration in the e-mail customer service channel since the 2006 study (at which time companies answered 60% of e-mailed queries, and kept customers waiting only 33 hours on average).
While web site-based support averaged 5 out of 10 correct responses, and 55% of telephone calls were answered within 2 minutes, e-mail responses continue to deteriorate year after year. According to Dee Roche, director of marketing for Transversal, "Companies are playing 'ping-pong' with e-mail enquiries, pushing them back to the web or forcing consumers to call contact centres. What is the point in paying staff to respond to customers' questions badly?"
Don't just push customers around
With consumers increasingly demanding personalised service, e-mail should be at the forefront of providing the kind of tailored responses that convert browsers into customers. But an analysis of the survey's responses showed that too many companies simply use the e-mail channel to push consumers into other channels for their support needs, rather than even attempting to provide a useful answer first time.
Some 63% of the inadequate replies received simply told the customer to call a contact centre, while nearly half (48%) pushed the customer back to the company's web site - where they started - to generic web pages that didn't really answer the specific question. Not only does this increase customer dissatisfaction but it also multiplies the number of contacts that a potential customer has to make, with many having to resort to a telephone call to get their question answered.
Winners and losers
Even though many companies have improved e-mail question response times, this has generally been achieved by sacrificing the effectiveness of the reply. For example, in 2006, utility companies took an average of 102 hours to reply to e-mail questions, with 70% of replies actually answering the question. But, while 2007 e-mail response times improved to only 53 hours, only 15% of the replies answered the question. Telecoms also suffered from the same problem, but it was insurance companies that paid the least attention to e-mailed questions (only one reply answered the question, and 50% didn't even bother to reply).
However, 80% of CD/DVD retailers provided correct answers, with the quickest response being received within one hour. Fashion, grocery and electronics retailers, as well as consumer electronics manufacturers, also scored relatively highly, even though only 50% actually responded satisfactorily.
"Our analysis demonstrates the scale of this problem and how dramatically the usefulness of e-mail replies has deteriorated over the past three years. There seems to be a lack of monitoring of the quality of responses, with a narrow focus on agents answering questions to hit service level targets rather than spending time to properly resolve customer queries. With many contact centres outsourced this also has a financial aspect: companies that are paid a set amount for every e-mail answered have no incentive to ensure that agents are providing detailed, useful responses."
The study's full results have been made available for free download from Transversal's web site - click here (free registration required).