Why Companies Fail to Respond to Customers

Matt Beckwith is a huge Chick-fil-A fan. Well, at least he was until the company repeatedly failed to respond to a simple question about ice cubes.

Beckwith tried calling, but wasn't able to get a live person on the phone. So he turned to Facebook Messenger and sent a message on two separate occasions without getting a response.

As he wrote on the ICMI blog, his enthusiasm for Chick-fil-A has suddenly dampened.

Companies failing to respond to customers is an epidemic. Customer relationship management software provider SuperOffice emailed 1,000 companies for its 2018 Customer Service Benchmark report; 62 percent did not respond.

Social media software company Sprout has found that, on average, brands reply to just 1 in 10 social media messages from customers.

Surely we can all agree that not responding to your customers is a recipe for failure. So the really big question is, "Why don't more companies respond?"

Here are a few reasons.

Man waiting for a call to come through on an old, red, rotary phone.

Reason #1: It's Not a Priority

Most customer service leaders would say that responding to customers is a priority. But there's a big difference between saying something is a priority and actually putting the investment and resources into making it a priority.

Companies routinely fail to provide customer service channels with adequate staffing and resources. This is especially true with written channels such as email and social media.

For example, smaller companies often have phone agents handle email in between phone calls and other tasks. This workflow naturally puts email in a backseat position. Customer messages languish in a general inbox until someone has a free moment to check them.

Data released in 2017 by the consulting firm Execs in the Know showed that the customer service department does not have any ownership of social media in 49 percent of companies. The same report also revealed that 22 percent of companies don't train their social media agents.

Graphic showing which departments own social media.

Companies that truly want to respond to customers provide adequate resources.


Reason #2: It's Not in the Plan

Contact center consulting firm Services Triad conducted a survey of 32 contact centers in Quebec to see what actions they took to ensure they had adequate staffing. While narrow in scope, I believe the results mirror what you'd likely find around the U.S. and Canada.

One question asked contact center leaders whether they forecasted customer contact volume for various channels. This is critical, since accurate forecasting allows you to have the right number of agents available to meet customer demand.

The results were startling:

Chart showing percentage of contact centers that forecast volume for various service channels.

The data shows that 35 percent of contact centers have no idea how much email volume to expect on a given day. That number jumps to 66 percent for social media. These contact centers simply react to what they get. Many customer service leaders have told me their teams often get overwhelmed.

The same survey found that even the phone forecasts were lacking. For example, 56 percent of contact centers do not include time for customer follow-ups or callbacks in their schedules. Many contact center agents are closely monitored for how well they adhere to their work schedule, a practice which actually discourages responding to customers.


Reason #3: Automation

Automation has been offered as a solution to help companies respond faster to customers, but it's not without challenges.

Sometimes automation doesn't work. We've all suffered the embarrassment of trying to use the self-checkout kiosk at a store, only to need an associate to help us out. There are also plenty of examples of tone-deaf automated messages inserting themselves into social media conversations, like this one.

Other times it just feels cold. There's nothing like getting a boilerplate "Dear Valued Customer" email to make you feel like you are anything but valued.


Take Action!

I recently joined forces with my friend and customer service writing expert, Leslie O'Flahavan, to host a webinar to show you how to balance speed and quality when responding to customers. You can watch the webinar here:

Report: Companies Struggle with Email Support

A new report from CRM software provider SuperOffice revealed some dismal trends for email customer service.

The company sent an email to 1,000 companies. The email asked two questions:

  • Do you have a phone number I can call you on? 
  • Where can I find pricing information on your website? 

The results were not good. Response times were too long, if companies responded at all. Replies felt canned and the substance of the answers often left these two simple questions unanswered.

This post highlights five email best practices and compares them to the results in the SuperOffice report. You can download the entire report here.

Customer rubbing his temples due to a customer service headache

Best Practice #1: Respond

OK, stop laughing because this is a real challenge. The SuperOffice study found 62 percent of companies did not respond to an email.

This is almost always a systematic issue. Common causes include:

  • Unmonitored email boxes
  • Emails that go to an individual (who may no longer work there)
  • Insufficient standards or processes for handling email


Best Practice #2: Acknowledge Emails

An automated message should be triggered by every customer email. That message should do three things:

  • Acknowledge the email was received
  • Set expectations for a response time
  • Provide alternative ways to solve the issue (i.e. phone, FAQs, etc.)

Only 10 percent of the companies SuperOffice tested acknowledged an email.


Best Practice #3: Respond Within One Hour

My own research from 2015 revealed that companies should set an email response time standard of one hour or less.

The average response time in the SuperOffice study was 12 hours. That's too long, and may cause customers to contact your company multiple times which increases their frustration and wastes your resources.


Best Practice #4: Answer the Question

This one shocked me. SuperOffice reported that only 20 percent of companies answered both questions (phone number and pricing) in the first email. 

I double-checked the math and realized the report was counting the companies that did not respond at all in the group of companies that did not answer both questions in the first email. When you adjust for companies that did respond, that number rises to 56 percent. Still not good.

Support agents typically fail to answer customers' questions for two reasons:

  1. They are working too fast in an effort to handle a large queue
  2. They rely too much on pre-written templates to respond quickly

The fix here is simple:

  1. Train your agents to slow down, fully understand the customer's request, and answer it
  2. Monitor emails for quality, just as you would phone calls

When I started monitor email as a customer service manager, I was surprised to find an issue with more than 50 percent of the emails my team sent! Some training and improved coaching helped the team quickly improve, but it was a lesson that stuck with me.


Best Practice #5: Convey Some Personality

The SuperOffice report discovered that just 39 percent of companies responded with an email signed by a person. The rest used generic identifiers such as "Customer Service" or even "Secretary."

Yes, templates are an essential part of email support. That doesn't mean your support agents need to sound like anonymous robots. 

Let your people add just a little flair to each email so they can make a more positive connection with the customers they serve. Some companies even encourage agents to put a micro-bio in the signature line of their emails, which creates an even stronger connection. 


Take Action

These basic best practices are table stakes for an effective email support operation. Your company will struggle to serve customers if you can't do these things well.

I recommend auditing your own company. Navigate to your website just as a prospective customer would and send off a simple email inquiry. Start a timer and evaluate how quickly you receive a response, whether that response answers your question, and whether that response conveys warmth and personality.

Don't Let Poor Reading Skills Crush Your Support Queues

It seemed like a simple question.

My wife, Sally, and I want to install a smart thermostat at our vacation rental property to make it easier to control heating costs when we don't have guests. I went to the website for a popular brand and searched for documentation on vacation rentals.

Finding nothing, I started a live chat session. "Can you share documentation on using your product in a vacation rental property?" I asked.

The response was a link to an article about going on vacation. Not quite right. After a few back-and-forth messages the agent agreed to search for something and email me.

The email was a link to articles about setting the thermostat when you go on vacation.

Situations where agents don't apply basic reading comprehension skills are frustrating. It unnecessarily wastes customers' time. In my case, it drove me to a competitor.

Here's a closer look at the problem and a few solutions.


The Comprehension Problem

The NBC app wasn't working on my iPad, so I submitted an online support ticket.

(While I normally hide company names when I share my own negative service experiences, I've provided this feedback to the company multiple times.)


The text from my support ticket is at the bottom with the response at the top. This response had two big misses that show the responder didn't fully read or understand my question. 

First, the response asked me to search for my provider, even though I clearly state my provider in my message. 

Second, the emailer asks for the type of device and OS I'm using, even though that information is clearly identified in the personal data attached to the email. (I removed that portion for privacy.)

**Bonus question to my technical friends** Do you think this response came from a human, a bot, or a human pretending to be a bot?


What Causes These Reading Issues?

Let's set aside an obvious possibility, that the agents hired for these jobs are not screened for appropriate reading skills.

That may be true, yet there are still other possibilities.

One is a focus on productivity, not quality. Look back at the email and you'll see some signs:

  • The ticket is marked at the top of the email as solved. (Makes ticket closing numbers look good.)
  • This is clearly a pre-written template.
  • The sender ignored information I provided.

Another possible root cause is a lack of quality monitoring. Here's a sneak preview from a study that will be released by ICMI in October. The chart shows the percentage of contact centers that monitor various channels for quality.

Source: ICMI

Source: ICMI

This graph shows that most contact centers are monitoring calls while more than half aren't monitoring email or chat. The stat for social media is just sad.

So if an agent exhibits poor reading skills, chances are the boss isn't paying attention. And if the boss isn't paying attention, you can be sure the agent isn't getting any feedback on how to do better. 



An immediate action is to review a sample of written communication from your agents.

I did this exercise as a contact center manager and was shocked at how many emails contained a mistake or weren't as helpful as they could be. 

You may also consider changing your support procedures:

  • Create a customer service vision that focuses on customers, not transactions.
  • Implement quality monitoring for written channels.
  • Incorporate a reading comprehension assessment in your hiring process.

Of course, all agents could use help with some skill development from time to time. Check out online courses from customer service writing expert, Leslie O'Flahavan:

How to Avoid Dial-up Quality Email Support

Expectations were different in the early days of email support.

Customers typically accessed personal email from a dial up account. If you don't remember this, here's the tedious process:

  1. You'd unplug your phone line and plug in your modem.
  2. The modem would make a series of awful noises while it connected.
  3. Several minutes later, You've Got Mail!

This meant that customers often checked email once a day.

The standard response time of one business day worked well back then. When I first supported email as a call center manager, customers would typically email in the evening. My team would get the message, respond during the day, and the customer would receive our reply when they checked their email again that night.

Our biggest challenge? Anticipating our customers' next question so we could answer that one as well to prevent another email exchange. 

Today, many businesses haven't noticed that email no longer works that way. They're still offering dial-up quality support in an age of instant connections.

Here's how you can avoid that.

Respond Faster

The easiest solution is to respond faster.

The old one business day response time is no longer adequate. My research shows companies need to respond to emails within one hour.

We now have access to our personal email 24/7. Our email is on our phones, tablets, and computers. Work time and personal time are more likely than ever to blend when it comes to personal communication.

Want to test this out?

Look at your customer satisfaction ratings for email support and segment those ratings by first response time. For example, contact center leaders at Palo Alto Software discovered customer dissatisfaction spiked when the company took more than eight hours to reply to an email.


Respond Better

Even worse than a slow response is a half response.

I recently emailed a company for support. It took over 24 hours to get a response. The response I did receive simply acknowledged my email and asked for more information.

The infuriating part?

That additional information wasn't required. It turned out I was complaining about a known issue that affected other customers, too. Unfortunately, it took the company two full days to communicate this to me.

Then, there's this example where a customer service rep was clearly in a hurry to just make the emails go away.

Want to test this out?

Look at the average number of emails it takes to resolve an issue. If your customer service software won't easily calculate this, try sampling a set of emails. Look for exchanges containing multiple messages and see how many could have been handled with fewer replies.

Those unnecessary emails are wasting your time and your customers'.



You and your customers both gain if you can respond faster and better to email.

Customers will use email if you can make it convenient for them. For low-urgency issues, it's easier to fire off a quick message than to spend 5-10 minutes on the phone or chatting with a support agent.

The advantage to you is less traffic via live channels, which means less pressure to handle contacts in real-time. 

Responding faster requires some logistics. You'll need adequate staffing and solid email routing. 

You'll also get better results if you have separate teams responding to email and handling calls. Many contact centers move people back and forth between these teams, but asking people to handle email and phone simultaneously typically slows down response times and increases errors.

Faster responses aren't always possible.

If that's the case, make sure you set up an automated email response that tells customers three things:

  • You received their message
  • When you'll respond
  • How they can contact you if they have a more urgent need

In addition to the automated response, post your response time along with alternative channels wherever you display your email address or have a web-based email form.

Customer service writing expert Leslie O'Flahavan offered several other outstanding suggestions in this interview. She also has a wonderful course on Lynda called Writing Customer Service Emails. The skills taught in O'Flahavan's course can help your team write faster, more thorough emails to customers.

Here's a 30-day trial if you don't already have a Lynda account. LinkedIn Premium subscribers can also access the course here.

Improving Email Response Time: Interview with Leslie O'Flahavan

The results of the 2015 Toister Performance Solutions email response time survey were released last week.

Customer service writing expert Leslie O’Flahavan joined me for a Google Hangout interview to discuss the results and offer some tips to help companies respond faster and better.

You may want to review the survey results before watching the interview.

Here’s the video plus some additional links and discussion below. 

Discussion & Links

The survey suggested a new response time standard for businesses: one hour.

A 2014 survey revealed the average business currently responds within one business day. Many businesses will risk disappointing their customers by prioritizing cost savings over responsiveness.

O’Flahavan raised the point that organizations trying to meet the new standard may end up compromising quality for speed. (You can see an example of that here.)

She gave us this great quote in the interview:

You have to figure out where does quick overlap with good.

O’Flahavan offered several suggestions for businesses to improve both speed and quality. One was a warm confirmation email that can be used to respond to more complicated problems and inquiries.

This is a message from a real person that essentially says, “We’ve received your email, we’re working on it, and here’s when you can expect a response.”

This tactic does a few things:

  • It lets the customer know their message has been received
  • It creates a stronger connection than a automated response
  • It buys the company some time to respond properly

You can also use this email to direct customers to other channels such as phone or a website that may be faster or more appropriate. 

Companies often face a challenge of coordinating email with other service channels. It wasn’t referenced in the interview, but O’Flahavan provides an excellent example in this recent blog post on her Writing Matters blog. 

Finally, we discussed co-workers. 

The email response time survey revealed that people also expected co-workers to respond within one hour.

O’Flahavan laid out a number of ways this unreasonable expectation might cause some workplace problems. For example, people are less present in meetings because they’re trying to respond to email on the sly.

Wasted time is another potential problem. I recently discovered several surprising email stats including this one: the average person wastes 24 percent of their day on useless email.

Do you have a question for Leslie? She’s very responsive to email.

You can also reach her here:

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.

Survey: How fast do you expect a response to email?

Email is still big.

Many of us use email constantly throughout the day. It's accessible on our laptops, tablets, and phones. And, according to ICMI's latest research, email is the second most popular way to contact customer service after phone.

So, how quickly do you expect a response to all those emails?

My annual email response time survey is designed to find out. You can complete the short survey below or click here to access the survey if it doesn't appear on your screen.

  • The survey is open now through April 13
  • You'll see the current results instantly
  • I'll post the full results on this blog April 14


**Update 4/14/15** The survey is now closed, but you can review the final results and analysis here.

Special Event

Join me on Thursday, April 17 for a live Google Hangout interview with customer service writing expert Leslie O'Flahavan of E-WRITE

We'll discuss the latest survey results and I'll ask Leslie for her tips on improving email response time.