Providing customer service via email to those who don't provide any details of their problem, can't configure their email clients properly so that you are able to respond to them, or don't really understand the question they are asking can be difficult -- especially when you receive 2,000 or more such emails a month! Mark Neely offers light-hearted advice on how to deal with the crunch without going crazy while keeping your customers happy.
[Editor's Note: Since Mark is Australian, you'll notice some spelling variations. This article originally appeared in the Internet Sales Discussion List (back issues at http://www.adventive.com)]
Since I monitor a support-related e-mail address for a client, e-mail-based customer service is an issue very close to my heart. This address gets about 2000 messages a month. I answer them all personally. To keep myself from going insane, I have developed some guidelines:
(a) I use an "industrial strength" email client (Eudora Pro) - coping with that level of emails requires a sturdy program, robust filtering capabilities and the ability to send pro forma replies when necessary. Outlook Express just doesn't cut it, and Outlook has too many "resource overheads" associated with it.
(b) My personal preference is to answer all incoming emails within the same day. Now, this is a support email address. If it were a sales email address, I'd advocate a much shorter turnaround time (measured in MINUTES!).
(c) If I cannot answer within the same day and/or I have to forward the message to a 3rd party for follow-up/response, I advise the member of this. Where possible, I tell them the contact details of the person to whom their message was forwarded (so, if they don't get a response, they know who to take it up with directly, thus avoiding another "contact" with me).
(d) I try to "think ahead" - if my reply to the member is likely to flag another question, I try to answer/address that issue in my reply (again, this is designed to avoid another "contact" with me).
(e) I do make use of standard replies that I can cut-n-paste into messages, however I edit/revise as necessary to personalise them to the recipient and his/her specific query. This is not only absolutely essential in order to make my self-imposed same-day time-frame, but it also helps minimising typos/incorrect URLs/wrong telephone numbers etc. etc.
My experience with handling this kind and volume of email queries has led me to certain beliefs:
(Warning - cynicism alert :)
- The average Internet user is barely literate. [Editor's Note: at least among those who write to mark for support.]
9 out of 10 emails that I receive are poorly written. Few make it immediately obvious what the point of the email was. You should be prepared to invoke the cunning, logic and deductive capabilities of Sherlock Holmes himself in order to ascertain what it is the individual is seeking your assistance with. Don't be afraid to admit defeat and ask the individual to try re-stating their query.
- Literate users don't think.
Where I do encounter literate users (nice spelling, punctuation, paragraph-style formatting), what they write tends to resemble stream-of-consciousness rambling. You should be prepared to invoke the cunning, logic etc. etc. in order to ascertain what it is the individual is seeking your assistance with.
- Don't expect full details
When an individual does pose a coherent query, seldom do they pass on all pertinent information required to actually answer their question.
One of my personal favourites: "Why can't I connect to the Internet?" - this, via email, from someone who obviously can but who, presumably, occasionally has difficulties. No other information is proffered to help me assist in troubleshooting the problem(s).
- Don't expect a valid reply email address
Too many users have incorrectly configured email clients, with the result that clicking on the "Reply" button is in no way a guarantee that your reply will actually make it to them. Check, then double-check, that the reply email address displayed is, at the very least, a validly constituted email address (e.g. userid@domain_name). Many people "omit" portions of their email address (some do this on purpose - a form of address "munging" in an effort to combat spammers - while the rest just have no idea how to configure a reply address). Be prepared to invoke the cunning, logic etc. etc. to ascertain a reply email address. Sometimes this requires a detailed analysis of email headers. Other times it requires pure speculation/probabilities as the possible reply addresses.
- Don't expect your response to be read
Most individuals will read only the first 4.3 words in your reply. If their query is not addressed within that space, they will assume that you have an IQ that is directly proportional to the number of words that they just read, and send you another - longer AND LOUDER - email restating their question (note: at this point, their literacy capabilities may fall to greater lows).
What can be done to minimise the frustration caused by the above?
- Where you invite people to submit queries etc., always point them to a form.
- Think your form through very carefully - anticipate what information you will need from individuals to answer their queries.
- The form must strike a delicate balance. Ask insufficient questions, and you risk exacerbating the above problems. Ask too many, and you risk user resistance.
- Despite having a form, always publish a direct email address. Many people refuse to fill out forms. Others prefer to email directly. Also, in the off chance that your form is malfunctioning, it provides a "fail-safe".
- Ensure that the script used to process form data checks for basic mistakes/omissions. Check that the reply email address or phone number is, superficially at least, valid.
Finally - and this may seem like an odd thing to say but TRUST ME!
- Publicise the availability of support/FAQ-style documents heavily
(especially on the page with the form)
- Publicise alternate support options (e.g. Web-based forums)
- Consider adding an automatic site search function to your form
script: have the form pick out key words from the completed form,
perform a quick search of your Web site and, in the same screen that
you confirm receipt of the form data, point the user to FAQs etc. on
the site that could possibly answer their query.
- Publicise the availability of support/FAQ-style documents heavily (especially on the page with the form)
- Publicise alternate support options (e.g. Web-based forums)
- Consider adding an automatic site search function to your form script: have the form pick out key words from the completed form, perform a quick search of your Web site and, in the same screen that you confirm receipt of the form data, point the user to FAQs etc. on the site that could possibly answer their query.