7 Ways to Provide More Responsive Customer Service

It's a race to respond quickly to customers.

It's a race to respond quickly to customers.

Note: This post originally appeared on the AMA Playbook blog.

Customers expect responsive customer service. A 2012 Oracle study found that customers expect responses to Facebook and Twitter inquiries within two hours. My own 2013 study revealed customers expect a response to email within one business day. Customers often expect an immediate resolution via other channels such as chat, phone, and in-person.

Not responding quickly can be bad for business. It irritates customers, wastes time, and can ultimately lead to lost business. A 2013 Zendesk whitepaper estimated the cost of waiting one extra day to respond to a customer can increase the cost of resolving that problem by 66 percent. It’s a busy world out there, and responding to customers quickly isn’t always easy.

Here are seven things you can do to respond faster.

  1. Stop making excuses. It’s easy to excuse a delayed response because you were buried under an avalanche of work or something unexpected came up. Making excuses can also make being unresponsive a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you want to find ways to respond faster, don’t try to convince yourself that a delayed response is okay.
  2. Get a system (and use it). Our memories are notoriously poor at reminding us to return a call or send an email. (Little sticky notes on your computer are equally bad.) Get a system to organize and track customer communication, such as Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, Microsoft Outlook, even an old-fashioned memo pad.
  3. Keep your email inbox clean. The typical email inbox is overflowing with messages. Important emails get overlooked and ultimately forgotten because the inbox is so crowded. Keep your inbox clean by making decisions about each message you receive. Respond immediately to simple inquires and create various folders to file away other messages for future reference.
  4. Manage expectations. Customers expect a rapid response, but they’re often very forgiving if they know up front it can take a little longer than normal. When things get busy, set up an automatic response to incoming email send a quick note to let people know when you’ll get back to them.
  5. Monitor all channels. Customers will often contact a company via multiple channels if one channel is unresponsive. For instance, they might Tweet about their problem if they don’t get a quick response to an email. You can avoid this by making sure you monitor all of your customer service channels on a regular basis. There are even software programs like Hootsuite that can make it easy to monitor and respond to multiple social media streams all in one place.
  6. Choose the right channel. Each of communication has distinct advantages and disadvantages, so choosing the right channel can speed things up. For example, it may be easier to schedule a phone call or a video chat with customers experiencing difficult problems rather than go back and forth via email.
  7. Align your schedule. Responsiveness often comes down adjusting your schedule to peak times. Keep track of when you receive the most phone calls, emails, and other messages? Adjust your schedule accordingly so you can put aside less urgent work during those times and respond faster.

Bonus Tip: Keep in mind that customers don’t just want a fast response – they want their problem solved as they expect responsive customer service. Try to help each customer on the first contact and you’ll gain two benefits. First, your customers will be much happier since they won’t have to contact you a second time. Second, reducing unnecessary contacts translates to a lighter workload so you can respond to people even faster.

How quickly should you respond to an email?

Update: This study was repeated in April, 2018. The new study includes response time expectations for Twitter and Facebook messages. You can read the latest results here.

Nearly 75 percent of us expect co-workers to respond to emails within four hours or less, according to a recent email response time survey. This is a slight increase from 2012’s results, where 68 percent of respondents expected a response within the same time frame.

emailresponseco2013.png

One surprise in this year’s survey was respondents belonging to Generation Y (born 1977 or later) didn’t skew the results with their high expectations for quick responses. In 2012, 43 percent of Generation Y respondents expected co-workers to respond to email within 1 hour, but that number was down to 29 percent in 2013.

emailresponseonehour2013.png

People have a little more patience when it comes to receiving a response to emails sent to a business, but 90 percent of us still expect a response within one day.

emailresponsebiz2013.png

The survey also asked how quickly we expect our friends to respond to email. Here, we are a bit more lenient with an average expected response time of 1.25 days.

emailresponse2013.png

What does all this mean?

Businesses should respond to customer emails within at least one day. A future target should be four hours since nearly 90 percent of customers expect a response within that time frame. The caveat is a quick response does nothing for a customer if it’s not a good response. Several months ago, I documented an email service failure where the company was responding in less than 20 minutes.

Co-workers must also be careful with their high expectations for response times. Constantly checking email can be unproductive and lead to more errors. In many cases, the rush to respond quickly generates more email than necessary to answer a question or provide the requested information.

You can find some additional resources from a few of my previous posts on managing customer service email and my top 10 ways to avoid email overload.


Why people don't respond to email

We all know how annoying it is to send an email to a co-worker, vendor, or even a client and not receive a response. If this happens to you, it may be helpful to know why you aren’t getting a response. Here are my top three reasons why this happens. Please leave a comment and let me know yours.

Reason #1: Your Email is Hard to Read
The sender is often to blame for a lack of responsiveness. Unsolicited emails aside, some emails just aren’t written with our busy lifestyles in mind. They contain run-on paragraphs or it’s hard to quickly decipher what the person is asking you to do. One person I know averages over 500 words per email, which is longer than this blog post!

I’ve compiled a short list of tips for writing more effective emails, but the biggest one of all is to make your email easy to read and respond to.

Reason #2: Your Email is Not Important
We all lead busy lives and are constantly reprioritizing our tasks, but most people agree that a timely response to business email is a professional courtesy. According to a survey I conducted earlier this year, 68 percent of us expect co-workers to respond to an email within four hours or less and 63 percent of us expect businesses to respond within one business day. When people don’t respond because they’re too busy, they’ve opted to do other tasks instead of replying to the sender.

I recently came across a post on a blog about business writing where the writer described a follow-up message she had received from her graphic designer. The graphic designer had emailed nearly two weeks prior, hadn't gotten a response, and so she sent another message. The blog writer felt it was a professional and thoughtful way to handle the situation. Interestingly, the writer wrote the blog post before responding to the email. 

Reason #3: They Can't Handle Their Business
Many people fail to respond quickly to email because they simply don't know how to properly manage the avalanche of email they receive each day. It becomes overwhelming and email messages simply get lost in the shuffle.

The skills required to effectively manage email are well-documented, but that doesn’t mean they’re well-practiced! Here are some of my favorites that are simple and effective:

  1. Use an out of office message when you will be unable to respond to email within one business day. (Don’t forget to turn it off!)
  2. Clean out your inbox daily. Messages often get lost in cluttered inboxes. (See Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity for more fabulous tips on inbox management.)
  3. Dedicate several blocks of time per day to focus on email rather than constantly scanning and skimming messages. (A terrific tip from The Four Hour Workweek.)

Why else do you think people fail to respond to emails?

How quickly should you respond to an email?

Note: This study was repeated in April, 2018. The new study includes response time expectations for Twitter and Facebook messages. You can read the latest results here.

More than two thirds of us expect co-workers to respond to emails within four hours or less, according to a recent email response time survey. Perhaps its no wonder that so many workers can't go five minutes without typing away on their smart phone or losing focus on an important task to answer another message in an endless series of email exchanges.

coworkeremail2012.jpg

Of course, the results are a bit skewed by Generation Y (born 1977 or later). Members of this generation aparently do their best Veruca Salt impersonation when it comes to receiving email, since 43% of them expect a response within one hour.

coworkergens2012.jpg

People have a little more patience when it comes to receiving a response to emails sent to a business. Companies should always try to respond to customer emails as quickly as possible, but 75% of us are willing to wait at least a day:

bizemail2012.jpg

The survey also asked how quickly we expect our friends to respond to email. Here, we're a bit more lenient, with 88% of survey participants saying they thought they should receive a reply within 1 or more days.

I conducted the same survey last year (see the 2011 results), so have there been any changes? The short answer is no, not really. The only thing noticeable was members of Generation Y have grown slightly more impatient, since 35% of them expected co-workers to reply to email within one hour in 2011, but that number has risen to 43% in 2012. 

What does all this mean?

Service, whether it's external to your customers or internal to your co-workers, is all about expectations. Should our co-workers be more patient? Certainly, but the reality is right now they're not. Do people misuse email? Yes, but screaming at your computer won't change that.

While we can't change others, we can lead by example. For businesses, I wrote a short post on managing customer service email three years ago that still feels relevant today. The top tip? Track email response times and set a goal of 1 business day for everything. (You can read it here.) For individuals, I wrote a post on 10 ways to avoid email overload. (Read that one here.) Perhaps the most important lesson there is to have the discipline to use email correctly rather getting sucked in to becoming part of the problem.