Employees Waste 24 Percent of Their Day on Useless Email

No, the title of this post is not an exaggeration.

Email is a huge time suck. Many of us feel stuck on a perpetual hamster wheel of back and forth communication.

Here’s how I calculated that scary number:

A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker spends 28 percent of their day responding to email. 

A 2012 study from Mimecast found that 86 percent of the emails we receive are useless.

So, 86 percent of 28 percent = 24 percent of our day wasted. Ouch.

What’s causing this problem? There seem to be a few culprits.

One challenge is time pressure.

My latest research on email response time expectations revealed a new one hour standard for replying to email sent by customers and co-workers.

Those expectations pressure us into responding quickly without putting much thought into what we’re writing. 

A 2014 analysis by Front revealed that people average 4.5 emails per conversation. All that back and forth is pretty inefficient.

People expect fast responses, but actual response times are much longer:

  • Most businesses still adhere to a one business day standard (source: TPS).
  • The average response time for individuals is 27 hours (source: Front).

That triggers a lot of “Did you get my email?” calls, texts, IMs, and emails. More clutter.

Here are a few more examples of email time sucks:

  • 19 percent of email is spam (source: Radicati)
  • Reply all abusers
  • Updates on the status of cake in the conference room
  • Checking email constantly
  • Email alerts that remind you to check email constantly

So, what can we do about it?

Check out my Google Hangout with customer service writing expert Leslie O'Flahavan. Most of the interview focuses on how businesses can do a better job of responding to customers, but she has some terrific advice for co-workers towards the end of the 30 minute interview.

Get Ready to Respond to Customer Email Within One Hour

There’s a new standard for email response time.

You can toss out the old school one business day standard. That's so 1999. Even 2014’s four hour response time standard is old news.

The Toister Performance Solutions 2015 email response time survey revealed that customers now expect businesses to respond to their emails in just one hour.

Over 1,000 adults in the U.S. ages 18+ participated in the survey.

Here’s the breakdown of the survey results along with an invitation to tune in to an exclusive interview with customer service writing expert Leslie O'Flahavan.


A Big Challenge for Business

This isn't good news for most companies.

A separate 2014 Toister Performance Solutions survey revealed that 66 percent of companies currently take 1 day or more to respond. (Take the survey yourself and see how you stack up.)

One business day is still favored by many customers, with 43.4 percent of survey respondents selecting this option. The problem with this standard is 43.9 percent of customers expect a faster response.

That means the one business day standard could be alienating nearly half of your customers.

The new one hour standard reflects the longest response time that will meet at least 80 percent of customers’ expectations.


The survey looked at response time expectations by age, but found no significant difference between generations. It seems we all want it now.

More bad news?

In 2014, just 4 percent of survey respondents said they expected businesses to respond within 15 minutes. That jumped up to 14.5 percent this year.

You can see where this is going.


High Expectations for Co-Workers

The survey also revealed that people expect their co-workers to respond quickly too.

The most popular selection on the survey was four hours, but nearly as many people responded “one hour” as did “one day.”

Using the 80 percent rule, the new expectation for co-worker response time is just one hour too.

This is really bad news for workplaces already beleaguered by email overload. 


Learn How to Respond Faster

Check out my Google Hangout On Air interview with customer service writing expert Leslie O’Flahavan. 

Leslie and I discussed ways that companies and customers service agents can respond faster without compromising quality.

Image courtesy of Leslie O'Flahavan

Image courtesy of Leslie O'Flahavan

Leslie O’Flahavan is principle of E-WRITE, a company that helps customer care organizations write well in any channel: email, chat, social media, and SMS.

You can connect with Leslie on Twitter, the E-WRITE website, and of course vial email.

You can also watch a video of the interview here.


Extra: Some Good News

The survey did reveal some good news.

We still give our friends a bit of leeway when it comes to response times. The standard is unchanged from 2014. It’s still one business day.

Are Your Customer Service Reps Suffering from TMI?

The chain restaurant branded itself as a fun place to eat. In reality, it often wasn’t.

Servers struggled to provide fun service because they had too much to think about. The company had a litany of service steps, procedures, and brand promises to follow.

It was enough to make your head spin:

  • Four service focus areas
  • Four separate cornerstones of guest experience
  • Sixteen steps for serving every guest
  • An internal customer service slogan
  • A customer-focused mission statement

It was a challenge to keep all of it straight. Even the chain’s executive team didn’t agree on what was most important. Servers often found themselves just trying to be efficient.

These servers were inundated with Too Much Information, or TMI. It’s an epidemic that affects many customer service employees in a wide variety of industries.

TMI’s Impact

TMI causes employees to divert critical brain power away from focusing on their customers. It’s harder for them to build rapport and critical opportunities to serve are missed.

TMI comes in many forms. We know that excessive feedback can impact performance. So too can having to memorize too many product facts, procedures, or processes. 

In many organizations, customer service TMI comes in the form of too many service steps, standards, and principles. One contact center asked its agents to follow 35 steps on every call. A credit union asked its tellers to follow 21 steps with every member interaction. 

TMI can even have a negative impact on customers. The venerable McDonald’s brand has suffered in part due to a dizzying array of menu options. Their menu has bloated to 121 distinct items (not counting different sizes), up from just 26 in 1980.


Reducing Noise

TMI creates noise that makes it hard for customer service employees to prioritize service. The solution is to cut out the noise.

Home Depot is a success story that I profiled in my book, Service Failure

Between 2007 and 2010, they embarked on an ambitious simplification program in an effort to improve customer service. Marvin Ellison, Vice President of U.S. stores, said in an interview:

First, we simplified things for the stores, giving them three primary things to focus on: remaining in stock, store appearance, and customer service.

One example was 200 weekly reports and emails that were sent to each store. These were merged into a one-page scorecard. Information and tasks had previously overwhelmed both managers and employees. Now, their top three priorities were clear.

The results were impressive. Home Depot increased their American Customer Satisfaction Index score from 67% to 75%. Their net promoter score increased from 48% to 68% during this same time.

The restaurant chain improved service quality by taking a similar approach.

First, their executive team and store managers all agreed that the company’s mission was the most important description of outstanding customer service. This gave everyone a clear customer service vision to follow. 

They also paired the sixteen service steps down to eight guidelines. These guidelines emphasized fun service over efficiency, which was the hallmark of the restaurant’s brand.


Reducing TMI

Cutting through the information clutter requires organizations to identify what’s truly important. Here are three steps you can take.

Step 1: Articulate a customer service vision. This is a clear definition of outstanding customer service that is shared by all employees. It should serve as a compass to help point employees in the right direction. You can download the customer service vision worksheet to create one for your organization.

Step 2: Measure what’s most important. Companies measure a lot of stuff, but often ignore what should be their top priorities. If service is your top priority, then make those metrics front and center. Better yet, set a goal around service. You can use the SMART goal worksheet to do this.

Step 3: Focus on the priority. Employees understand something’s importance by how often you talk about it. Simplify your messages to focus on the top priority. Written communication, team meetings, and one-on-one conversations should all be focused and concise. 

Customer service TMI comes from the top. Elite customer service leaders know this and obsessively protect their employees from TMI to help them stay focused.

New Discoveries: Crack the Customer Code Podcast

I have a confession to make.

My friend Adam Toporek recently asked me to be a guest on the Crack the Customer Code podcast that he co-hosts with Jeannie Walters. I was honored to be a guest so of course I said yes. 

Here’s my confession: I had never even listened to a podcast!

Podcasts didn’t seem like they were up my alley. I couldn’t imagine sitting at my desk and just listening to something.

I didn’t want to be a podcast neophyte when I recorded my session with Toporek and Walters, so I downloaded a few of their previous episodes. I queued them up on my phone and listened to them one day while I had some driving to do.

Three things immediately struck me:

  1. Their podcast is awesome! It's crisp, informative, and entertaining.
  2. I really do have plenty of podcast time (more on that in a moment).
  3. Podcasts actually work for me!
Image courtesy of Crack the Customer Code.

Image courtesy of Crack the Customer Code.

Crack the Customer Code’s brisk, informative format makes for easy listening. Each episode features topical discussions between Toporek and Walters, a guest interview, and a segment on customer heroes and zeroes.

Listening to the podcast in the car made it easier to pay attention. It was a nice substitute for the music or talk radio that I’d normally listen to. The engaging content made my trip seem a lot faster.

It also got me thinking about all of the “podcast time” I really do have. I travel a lot. Planes, trains, and automobiles all have a lot of built-in podcast time. 

Soon, I was checking out other podcasts. I started listening to a podcast from my local online newspaper, Voice of San Diego. I even discovered Serial and got hooked. 

Check out the Crack the Customer Code podcast if you have some “podcast time” on your hands. I haven’t missed an episode yet.

You can also listen to my episode here or find it on iTunes or Stitcher.

Are You Giving Employees Too Much Feedback?

It only took a few throws for the young softball pitcher to get frustrated.

Her dad would take her to a local park to practice. She’d pitch and he’d catch. After each pitch he’d have something to say.

He actually had a lot to say. The father gave his daughter at least three pieces of feedback after every pitch. There was a lot of room for improvement.

Instead of getting better, the constant stream of feedback made her worse.

It sucked the joy out of the game for the girl. It would get inside her head. She’d overthink a process that’s meant to rely on muscle memory.

It was never long before she’d ask in an exasperated voice, “How much longer do we have to do this?” 

She wanted to quit.

Many customer service employees face a similar feedback deluge. A lack of feedback is clearly a problem, but there’s mounting evidence that too much feedback causes problems too.

The Impact of Too Much Feedback

Some might call it micromanagement, but it’s not just the formal supervisor to employee conversations. Employees get feedback from multiple sources.

Here are other examples:

  • Informal dialogue with supervisors
  • Conversations with co-workers
  • Reactions from customers

Employees in some industries, like contact centers, are inundated with metrics. Data is also feedback. It tells us how things are going and helps us make decisions for the future.

Too much feedback can hurt performance.

A 2007 experiment by Nicholas H. Lurie and Jayashankar M. Swaminathan consisted of an inventory management simulation where certain participants received more feedback than others. The group that received the most feedback performed 11 percent worse than the group that received the least.

A meta analysis of feedback experiments published in 1996 revealed that 38 percent of feedback interventions result in decreased performance. The authors of the paper noted two conditions where performance was most likely to decline.

The first was complexity. The more complex the feedback, the more someone has to think about it. The young softball pitcher is a great example of what happens when you overthink something.

The second was personal. The more personal the feedback, the harder it was to process. “Make sure you give each customer a friendly greeting” is easier to swallow than, “You really need to work on your abrasive personality.”


Real-world Impacts

An overabundance of feedback causes three types of problems.

The first is a lack of priority. Excessive feedback obscures priorities. For example, a contact center agent might be asked to maintain a certain average talk time and achieve a first contact resolution rate.

Which one is really the most important?

You might be tempted to say first contact resolution, but talk time will probably be the highest priority because agents get continuous, real-time feedback on that metric. 

Ironically, companies that have re-focused agents on first contact resolution haven’t experienced a spike in talk time. Both metrics look good when agents focus on the top priority.

The second problem caused by too much feedback is a lack of focus. 

Like the young softball pitcher, an employee thinking about a million ways they need to improve will have a hard time staying in the moment.

An overbearing manager might be tempted to give employees instruction at every turn. Soon, employees become so focused on not doing it wrong that they lose the ability to trust their own instincts to do things right.

The final problem is ego. 

Feedback that challenges the ego is hard to listen to. Constantly challenging an employee with feedback that feels personal causes their emotional defenses to dig in. 

Any manager who has delivered a poor performance review to an employee who expected stellar marks has seen how quickly an employee can get defensive.


Finding the Feedback Sweet Spot

Too much feedback is bad. Too little feedback is bad. So, how do you find just right?

Here are a few suggestions.

Agree upon performance

Make sure you have a clear agreement with employees on what good performance looks like. This makes it easier to provide feedback that’s about results and doesn’t feel personal.

One at a time

Try to keep feedback focused on just one thing at a time. If it’s a behavior, hone in what the employee can do that will have the biggest impact. If it’s a metric, select the most important one.

Give them space

Nobody likes to be micromanaged. Give your employees some space to apply feedback and make their own adjustments.


The extreme opposite of micromanagement is no feedback at all. Avoid this problem by providing periodic, focused feedback to help employees continue to improve performance.