Email response times for your own inbox can be tough enough to tame, but a bigger challenge awaits. Your organization can no longer rely on the “ole good enough” customer service email reply time standard of 24 hours.
Throughout the past decade, people’s expectations have changed—and customers aren’t happy with businesses who take too long.
San Diego-based Toister Performance Solutions views email as “a critical customer service channel.” They regularly examine business email response times and the public’s expectations. Toister’s 2018 survey of 1,200 consumers shows businesses need to step up to meet customer expectations for email reply times:
“Businesses should target a response time standard of one hour, with 15 minutes representing world-class service.”
If that’s got you wondering how in the world your team could reply so quickly, take a deep breath.
No matter your organization’s current response time, you can find ways to meet customer expectations in the right way that works for your business. After all, the end result can be not just better email response rates, but happier customers who stay with your business instead of moving to a competitor. And all that contributes to a healthier bottom line.
Steps to reduce customer service email response times to one hour or less
The first steps to enhance your customer’s experience include evaluating your current setup.
Do you have enough staff support? Are you using collaborative email management tools to help you and your team be more efficient and productive? Does your organization prioritize email support, or does it take a backseat to phone support?
“Many businesses place a higher priority on other contact channels such as phone calls. For example, a contact center will have agents take phone calls throughout the day and then turn to emails when call volume slows down,” says Jeff Toister.
The author of The Service Culture Handbook and Service Failure, Jeff founded Toister Performance Solutions in 2005 to help companies develop service cultures. “Overall, businesses that respond quickly to emails put email on equal footing with other channels,” he says.
Prioritizing email can mean adding personnel who focus exclusively on email support—which gives a side benefit. “One client I worked with stopped having employees respond to emails in between phone calls and created separate teams,” says Jeff. “Email response time immediately decreased while quality went up. The quality of their phone calls went up, too, since phone agents were no longer distracted by emails.”
Organizations also need to examine their setups for obvious and not-so-obvious problems. Did team members ignore the sender and let an email slip through the cracks?
Could you prevent the need for a support email in the first place, by addressing common questions in your website’s FAQ? Are emails going to the wrong person, or getting mismanaged with duplicate replies from multiple team members?
Does it take too long to get up to speed on the customer’s issue, further delaying response time?
The goal, says Jeff, is to figure out an email response time that can meet expectations for at least 80 percent of your customers. A one-hour response timeframe nails it, but that doesn’t mean you can get there immediately. First, there may be some problems to solve.
Common roadblocks and bottlenecks delay email responses
The path to fast customer service email response can have many bumps, blocks, and bottlenecks along the way. The more you can reduce or remove those problems, the sooner your customer support team can attain and maintain a faster email response rate.
Common bottlenecks include too much internal email, overall disorganization of resources, and a lack of team coordination.
How long does an email sit unread?
“Look at how long it takes from the time an email is received by your company until someone is actually reading it,” says Jeff.
Aim to minimize that time, so that emails are being read by the right person quickly. Also make sure emails aren’t getting missed: Are all email addresses and web contact forms being monitored on a regular basis?
Does your support team have response templates?
Just as call centers utilize scripts, email support needs solid, quickly accessible, well-organized email templates.
“The second place to look for a bottleneck is your template library,” says Jeff. “Employees should be able to personalize each email, but it will take a lot of extra time to write every email from scratch. A best practice is to have templates that agents can quickly customize.”
Is issue research delaying a good response?
“A third place to look is your knowledge base,” says Jeff. “Emails will take longer if employees have to spend a lot of time researching the answers to customer questions. Give them the resources to find the answer quickly and response time will go down.”
Is there too much internal chatter?
Endless back-and-forths, CCs, BCCs, and forwards not only clutter up your team’s inbox, they make it hard to find and comprehensively resolve customer emails.
Clear through the clutter by saving email for the actual customer interaction, and rely on other tools, such as Slack or internal, team-only notes to collaborate on email replies.
Set a customer service email response time that is realistic for your business
Now, let’s touch base with reality. Not every email can be dealt with immediately, or within an hour, or even within 24 hours. If your organization sets an unattainable expectation for response times, neither staff or customers will be impressed. Instead, what will happen quickly is frustrated staff, angry customers, and potential harm to your revenue and customer retention.
So let’s not announce your new “immediate responses, all the time, effective immediately” email initiative. The path to customer support success means setting a realistic expectation that your team consistently meets or exceeds.
For starters, customers don’t just want a quick reply—they want their issue sorted out in a timely yet comprehensive manner. If the customer knows you understand their issue and are working on it, then that customer knows they’ve been heard and are being taken care of. As long as your team is working the problem and aiming for as timely a resolution as they can, odds are you can keep the majority of customers happy, even in circumstances where resolution takes time.
“Not every business can realistically respond within one hour,” explains Jeff. “You can reset customer expectations by including an automatic response with each email that acknowledges the email was received, provides an approximate time when the customer should expect to receive a response and provides a phone number or alternative contact method if the customer desires a faster resolution.”
What you can also do internally is set a range of timeframes for support staff to aim for. Consider having a realistic response time that you publicize, plus internal timeframes to guide your team and help you apportion support resources and staffing accordingly.
One business day/24 hours:
Especially for a complex issue, a day can be a realistic timeframe, or it can be used as a minimum reply threshold.
Again, make sure the customer receives a quick reply that you are working on their issue and that you expect to have a response and resolution within one day.
As part of that initial contact, also ask any follow up questions and get all other information needed to help your team resolve the issue.
Up to one hour is the expectation now.
Not only will it make for happier customers and staff who feel more fulfilled about their work, but a one hour email response time can help your team have more bandwidth for when there are critical issues or high volumes of support emails.
Jeff considers 15 minutes or less to be “world-class service.”
The reason is both two-fold and simple: The customer receives near instantaneous resolution, increasing their satisfaction with your company. Your support team is also quickly working through support issues, clearing the decks and preventing backlogs.
Aim to resolve the customer’s issue with one email
Support issues that take multiple emails contribute to inbox bloat, suck up resources, and create delays.
Fast is good, but “another consideration is speed versus quality,” says Jeff. “A fast response will do your company no good if you aren’t answering the customer’s question or making the customer happy. It’s better to take a little extra time to get it right on the first try.”
Companies should work hard to fully resolve customer issues on the first email. “This is just good customer service since customers don’t like a lot of back and forth,” explains Jeff. “It will also decrease your email volume, so you can respond faster to new emails with fewer resources.”
Improving email response times needs balanced staffing and the right tools
Fast yet comprehensive customer service emails need both balanced staffing and the right tools that help you decrease email response time. Email filters and sorting rules are two ways your inbox can prioritize for you and your team. Team access to shared inboxes, the ability to assign emails to team members, internal notes, templates, and real-time status of emails are all needs for today’s fast-paced workplace.
“Maintain adequate staffing for your email volume and give employees the necessary tools and resources to respond within an hour or less,” explains Jeff. “Businesses that respond quickly to emails tend to have people who are focused on email.”
Having the right staffing at the right time is also key. “A great starting point is to forecast email volume the same way you would forecast phone volume or other channels.”
Jeff recommends that companies analyze what days of the week and times of day have the highest and lowest email volumes, as well as particular events, such as a new product launch, that tend to drive up email volume. All of these factors can help you predict how many emails you’ll receive when, so you can staff accordingly.
Your business can have better email response rates, happier customers, and a healthier bottom line
Getting email response time to an hour or less won’t necessarily be an easy journey, but it will be a worthwhile one.
No matter what, the better your team is set up to deal with support issues, the more likely your business is to have not only better email response rates, but more satisfied customers—and that can lead to a higher customer retention rate and healthier bottom line.