I recently sat with a group of customer service leaders who declared that email support was dead for their company. They were turning off their [email protected] email address(es) and instead channeling their customers to phone, web form, text(SMS), chat, and other messaging channels.
This news surprised me a bit having worked with numerous startups that chose to ONLY offer email support when founded. Some of this early preference toward email was driven by engineers turned company founders who found email most palatable when dealing directly with customers. And that lasted well into the time where the responsibility for supporting customers was handed off to the contact center.
So is moving away from email support a natural step as companies mature? Do other channels offer better customer experiences? Is email still a relevant support channel and what factors are pushing companies to transition away from it? In this article, I’ll share four reasons why you might want to dump email, or at least minimize it as a customer service channel, and then I’ll share some recommendations for doing this most effectively.
#1- Email is slow
One thing I’ve seen firsthand and that’s also confirmed by 2018 Zendesk Research is that customer satisfaction for email support lags behind chat by 3% and behind phone by as much as 9%. Why is this the case? Phone and chat are typically both synchronous communication channels where, even if there’s a wait for a call or chat, when you eventually do connect with an agent, you have a live, captive audience. And contact center phone providers have innovated tools like Queue Callback to make the phone wait experience much better.
Email, on the other hand, is asynchronous which means that you’ll wait for however long it takes the company to reply — magnifying the impact of a wrong or incomplete response from support that requires multiple replies. Unless a company is committed to staffing up its email team to respond in minutes instead of hours or days, customer satisfaction will suffer.
Recommendation: Add live channels to your support channel mix. If you either don’t offer live channels or they’re minimized in your operation, It may be time to consider adding phone, chat, and other emerging messaging channels and staffing appropriately. In addition, adopt an omnichannel strategy and equip your agents to move a conversation to a live channel if the situation demands it.
#2- Email is expensive
Another catalyst for the move away from email is the cost — and part of the problem is that understanding the cost per contact for email is tricky for a couple of reasons. The first is that many customer service professionals aren’t solely focused on handling email. They might instead be tasked with handling email in between calls and chats. So one can’t easily determine how much time was spent handling email versus other activities, whereas phone and chat have a clear handle time that’s tracked.
Second, consider the major selling point of chat that agents can handle more than one conversation at a time. Doing the math, if it takes your agents 10 minutes to handle 2 chats from start to finish, but it takes them 7 minutes to respond to one email, you’d be wise to push more of your customers to chat.
Recommendation: Understand and reduce cost per contact. As mentioned, it can be a challenge to understand cost per contact for email but it’s almost certain that there’s money to be saved by moving email volume to chat because of the ability to handle multiple conversations concurrently. But when you look at the amount of back and forth to solve an email, the live support of a phone call likely comes out on top as well.
#3- Email is unproductive
Tracking the productivity of contact center agents handling email can be very challenging and something I’ve found keeps operations leaders up at night. While modern phone systems can track nearly 100% of activities while an agent is logged in, email falls short. Sure some email platforms can track how long an agent had a ticket open, but what do you do with the many occasions where agents open an email and keep it open while handling a phone call. With such outliers, handle times for email are likely an approximation at best.
This leaves leaders to measure email productivity based on volume instead of time. Some measure the volume of total responses sent while others look at the volume of cases actually solved and then rely on quantity per hour or day goals to determine how productive their agents are. This mentality can lead to issues with quality and first contact resolution if the right balance isn’t struck.
Recommendation: Favor channels that better track agent productivity. The inability to track agent productivity makes it difficult to scale email support without wasting time and money. The ability to measure quantity AND quality of work is the first step in improving both and optimizing staffing as you grow.
#4- Email limits self-service options
According to GetFeedback, 91% of customers will self-solve their issues if given the option. The problem with customers having your direct [email protected] email address is that customers don’t have to go to your website. This limits self-service options to an email auto-response — and how many of us actually read auto-responses?
When customers are prompted to either submit an email or a chat via webform, companies can leverage natural language processing to first understand what a customer is asking and then use machine learning to present the best answer to each customer. While this won’t solve all issues customers have, I’ve seen a reduction in emails ranging between 15 and 50%. This also means that the volume of email reduced by removing your [email protected] address won’t necessarily increase call and chat volume by the same rate.
Recommendation: Use web forms instead of direct email and beef up self-help content. The ability to present solutions to customers based on the question they asked is becoming standard in many platforms but it’s predicated on two things. First, a robust knowledge base is required so there’s relevant content to share with customers. And second, train your customers to fill out a web form on your website rather than sending an email. This also has the added bonus of collecting additional information from them upfront, increasing the likelihood of solving their issue on the first try.
Does this mean that email should completely die for most companies? That’s a difficult call to make. In an omnichannel world where the name of the game is increasingly about giving our customers choice over the channels they select, you may find that there are still cases where email makes sense. Perhaps you’re using it to complement a live channel, sending important documentation or follow up to customers. Or perhaps you have a high-value client that prefers email.
That being said, channeling customers away from email promises improved customer satisfaction, faster response and handle times, reduced cost, and increased agent productivity. It’s quite possible that email, especially those sent to a direct email address, should die for many more companies in the coming days. Before you follow suit in your contact center, however, be sure you take the time to educate customers on the support channels you do provide, staff them appropriately, improve your self-help content and understand your productivity and cost metrics for all support channels to ensure you do what’s truly best for your customer experience.