CHANNEL FOCUS – EMAIL
Email was the first of the non-voice digital channels to be used, and is still by far the most well-used, having been mainstream for well over 10 years.
Email should stand as a salutary lesson that it is not businesses that make new channels a success, but customers. Put bluntly, email in its first incarnation failed almost entirely. Too many businesses rushed to push customers to this new channel – commonly supposed to be cheaper than voice – without having the processes, solutions or staff to manage this properly. What happened next can be understood as a ‘herd inoculation’: enough customers had enough bad experiences from enough organizations that the entire channel was discredited, even for those businesses which were providing a reasonable service through email or just keeping a watching brief.
With email response times stretching into many days, if not weeks, the companies failed to understand that any communication with the business has a degree of urgency to it, else why would they be trying to speak with the business at all? Of course, even when a response was eventually provided, the issue might have gone away or been dealt with by calling the contact center, meaning that customers’ existing confidence in the voice channel was further reinforced at the expense of the email channel. It is also the case that email does not fit the type of enquiries that people make in some cases, such as the need for quick, simple and confidential information (such as an account balance), and the increasing requirements for identity checking places a cap on the usefulness of email as a channel for some types of business.
It took many years, much investment and the coaxing of customers to try new channels again for email to emerge as being credible. Of course, businesses and customers now both realize that email is more suitable for some interaction types than others (the rise of web self-service has meant email is no longer the only online communication method available), and complex issues such as complaints, or other inquiries requiring a formal paper trail are well-suited to email. In fact, much of the demise in the letter and fax as channels can be traced to a direct replacement by email. Email is also an excellent outbound channel, providing reassurance, great levels of detail and attachments, and is able to link to other specific areas of information via hyperlinks. As an inbound channel, it has inherent weaknesses: an inability to carry out customer authentication and to carry out a real-time 2-way conversation being amongst them, as well as the lengthy wait to get a response. In the longer term, it is likely to be superseded to some extent by more immediate online channels such as web chat and social media. It does, however, have the advantage over virtually every channel that there is no queue time at all – the customer writes the email and presses ‘Send’ immediately – a ‘fire and forget’ interaction.
Usually, it is the retail respondents which report the greatest proportion of inbound traffic as email, with the B2B manufacturing sector also reporting high levels of email, as in past years. The former’s email volume is often driven by sales via a website, with TMT/IT’s more about technical support.
The insurance sector again shows higher levels of email after many years of very little activity, and this may be due to a change in working practices which allows customers and intermediaries to send through documents via email rather than by the more traditional fax and letter.
Inbound interactions that are email, by vertical market
As with previous years, emails are proportionally much less important for large contact centers, with similar differences between size band seen year on year.
Inbound interactions that are email, by contact center size
The cost of email seems quite reasonable, being generally somewhat less than live telephony (which tends to be around $5-6), but more expensive than a self-service session. The cost of web chat is usually a little less than email.
Estimated cost per email
Do you need an email response management system?
An organization that has relatively small volumes of email will tend to handle it initially on an ad-hoc basis, often using Microsoft Outlook to do so. At some point, the contact center will realize that costs are going up and quality going down, and that they need to implement the more sophisticated email response management system. What signs are there that show this is the right time to do so?
- While there is no fixed figure for email volume, as it will depend on the complexity and time required to handle each one, organizations receiving greater than 100 emails per day are likely to have issues handling and tracking them
- There are a significant number of customer telephone calls that refer to emails that were sent, but which never received a response
- Prioritization and routing of emails to agents with specific skills sets is no longer a matter of a few minutes of management time
- Email handling times are not going down, despite most being about a small number of topics
- Complex emails may take days or even weeks to resolve, and different agents may be working on similar types of issue without even realizing it, thus duplicating the effort
- There is a lack of flexibility in dealing with spikes in email traffic, as it is too difficult to bring secondary email agents to bear without damaging the voice channel’s service level
- Visibility and accuracy of service levels for email channel is worse than that for the voice channel
- It is difficult to report on the content of the emails received, as this has to be done
For businesses that handle substantial volumes of email, while it is not suggested that they should aim to answer an email in the same amount of time that it takes to complete a phone call, it is desirable to manage all interactions closely to consistent business rules, and to act quickly if service levels slip. Too often it seems, contact centers have become so used to managing the telephony queue that they neglect digital interactions. The result is that digital response times (mostly email) have historically been sacrificed to meet telephony service levels, although there have been steady if unspectacular improvements in the response rates in recent years.
Email response handling times have fallen back somewhat in the past three years, with the proportion answered within one hour going back to 18% after peaking at 30% in 2014, although the proportion answering between one hour and one day has steadied. We believe this may be a factor of simple interactions being more likely to take place over self-service, social media and web chat, leaving longer and more complex issues to be handled via email and phone.
Taking longer than one day to answer an email runs the risk of the customer losing patience, and going elsewhere or phoning the contact center, placing a greater cost burden on the business than if they had just called in the first place. This figure has increased somewhat from 16% in 2014 to 21% in 2017.
What proportion of emails are answered successfully and completely within these timescales?
The most popular method of answering inbound email is to use agents, who start with templatized, editable responses and change them accordingly, thus not having to compose every email from scratch, but also being able to draw from a common pool of knowledge.
The second most popular method of answering emails is to start with a blank email, and let agents completed themselves. This is not only likely to take longer, but also leads to an increased risk of poor grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as well as a less consistent response.
Only 9% of emails have automated responses, (these statistics do not include simple automated acknowledgments), and of those, the majority have to be checked by agents before sending.
Level of automation used in email management
Respondents state that 49% of their inbound emails are queries about products or services that have already been bought, with only 17% being from prospective new customers, who have queries about products or services which they are considering buying, who may prefer to use web chat.
Complaints represent around 15% of inbound email traffic for our respondents, a similar figure to telephony.
Content of inbound emails
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