How Fast Should a Business Respond to an Email?

Email is a critical customer service channel.

A 2017 study from inContact revealed that just 43 percent of customers were highly satisfied with their most recent email customer service interaction. Those who were happy cited speed as a top delighter.

The average company takes 12 hours and 10 minutes to respond to an email, according to a 2018 study from SuperOffice. That's certainly better than the old one business day standard, but is it fast enough?

In April 2018, I surveyed more than 1,200 consumers to learn exactly how fast they expect businesses to respond to emails. The survey also examined response time expectations for Twitter and Facebook messages.

You can read the analysis below or browse the data yourself.

Customer typing an email message to a company.

Study Overview

This is the first time I've done this study since 2015, when those results revealed the new email response time standard was just one hour.

The 2018 study surveyed more than 1,200 consumers to see if this has changed.

Participants were asked how quickly they expected a response when contacting a business via email. Response time expectations for Twitter and Facebook messages were also assessed.

Finally, the study examined whether response time expectations varied by age group. For instance, do Millennials expect a faster response than Baby Boomers?

The age groups were defined using definitions from the Pew Research Center. One note, too few members of Generation Z (ages 21 and under) and the Silent Generation (ages 73 and over) participated to include their perspective in the age group portion of the study.

 

Email Response Time Expectations

Businesses should target a response time standard of one hour, with 15 minutes representing world-class service..

Email response time expectations

This conclusion comes from looking at the response time that will meet the expectations of at least 80 percent of customers

This can be a little confusing at first because the top choice was one day, with 43 percent selecting it. But one day only meets the expectations of those who selected one day or 2+ days, which is a total of 56 percent. You pick up 14 percent of customers if you can respond to email within four hours, though that's still just 70 percent of the total.

A one hour email response time will meet the expectations of 89 percent of your customers. Companies aiming for world-class customer service should respond within 15 minutes or less.

The study looked at response time expectations by age. The responses were fairly close together, but there was a mild surprise. Baby Boomers want the fastest response.

Email response time expectations by generation

A smaller group of 206 respondents was asked an additional question: How quickly do you expect a response when emailing a coworker?

Chart of email response time expectations for coworkers.

Response time expectations for this group are very high and arguably unreasonable, with 41 percent of people expecting coworkers to respond to email within one hour. 

The pressure to respond quickly causes many people skim and scan emails from colleagues. They then send partial responses which generates a lot fo unnecessary back and forth. One study found that the average email conversation at work includes 4.5 messages.

Which generation has the highest expectations for coworkers? Generation X leads the pack on this one.

Chart showing how quickly each generation expects coworkers to respond to email.

Twitter Direct Message Response Expectations

Businesses should target a response time standard of 15 minutes.

Twitter response time expectations.

Anything slower that 15 minutes risks disappointing a large portion of customers. This can present a challenge for businesses as Twitter is not as popular as more traditional service channels such as email, phone, or even chat. There may not be enough volume to justify staffing for a 15 minute response time. 

Once again, Baby Boomers have the highest response time expectations:

Twitter response time expectations by generation

One note from the study is only 40 percent of participants message businesses via Twitter. That percentage is only slightly lower for Baby Boomers, with 35 percent saying they use Twitter for customer service.

 

Facebook Message Response Time Expectations

Businesses should target a response time standard of 1 hour, with 15 minutes representing world-class service.

Chart showing Facebook message response time expectations.

A one hour response time may be adequate for most customers, but 17 percent still want to hear back more quickly. For Facebook, it's Millennials who want the fastest response.

Chart showing Facebook message response time expectations by generation.

Only 50 percent of participants message businesses via Facebook. Millennial Facebook usage is slightly higher than the group average, with 55 percent saying they have contacted a business via a Facebook message.

 

Get More Insights

I hosted a webinar where I shared some more granular data from the study along with several tactics for meeting customer demands for fast responses. You can watch the webinar replay.


Survey: How quickly do you expect a response to an email?

I'm conducting research to learn how quickly people expect a response to the emails they send. The survey also asks for your response time expectations for Twitter and Facebook messages sent to businesses.

  • The survey is open now through Friday, April 13.
  • The results will be posted on this blog on Tuesday, April 17.
  • The survey should take approximately one minute to complete.

Take the survey


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'.

 

Solutions

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.