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.

Get Ready to Respond to Customer Email Within One Hour

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.

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 via 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.