Web Informant #117, 8 July 1998:
Using Email for customer support


As more of the world becomes conversant with email, it makes sense to build mechanisms for answering customer inquiries and tracking eCommerce using this technology. Unfortunately, there are more questions than answers here. Consider:

Who answers email that is sent to these addresses? Is it a human, a program, or some combination of the two? Do you send an immediate reply that is obviously machine-generated to confirm that you got the question and then follow up with something more thoughtful, or just route the message to the right carbon-based life form to begin with? This could create an entire cottage industry, with web sites and books devoted to sample email responses, just as there are books devoted to sample business letters for various situations.

Do you have a single address for all inquiries, or separate addresses for different kinds of communication and departments? Do you publish the actual email addresses of key employees, say, the vice president of sales and head of investor relations? What about publishing the CEO's address?

And there are plenty of other issues. What constitutes "timely" responses to this kind of email, especially if you need to have staff available around the clock to answer questions from around the world? Most of us expect to see a reply within a business day of sending a message and get annoyed when it takes longer. Finally, how do you keep track of your company's performance here?

This amounts to a lot of questions in an area that didn't even exist a few years ago. And that shows exactly how important email has become as a tool for dealing with inbound customer support.

Before you get too deep into this area, consider your corporate policies for dealing with incoming email. General Mills' Ask Betty (Crocker) email box for cooking inquires gets email from about 100 consumers daily. All the customer service representatives who answer these queries are trained by a single supervisor to ensure consistency and a similar style and wit. And General Electric, which pioneered the concept of a 24-hour-a-day telephone customer response center, gets more than 1,000 email messages a month. The same staffers who man the phones take shifts answering the email.

Does your corporation have any email guidelines in terms of usage, behavior and appropriate conduct? While you don't have to put everything down on paper, having some sort of guidelines is useful. And it helps to have the motivation to produce the guidelines because of looming customer support issues.

Is everyone in the corporation required to have at least one email identity? If not, what happens to those that don't? If you are going to support your customers, you first have to make sure that you'll be able to contact the appropriate person inside your organization.

A corporate email policy comes in very handy when more than one person shares a single email box, or if a program rather than an actual person answers the mailbox. Your corporate email policy should extend beyond just mere usage of email. It should also specify how email addresses are published both internally and externally. I recommend that email addresses should be included on everyone's business cards and on corporate letterhead. And there should be various email addresses on a corporate Web site.

Specifically, you should match email addresses on your Web pages with the responsible person or department dealing with that content. If you are ordering something, then put the email address of the person who would normally handle inquiries about orders on that Web page. If you are designing a page that has press releases and investor information on your company, it should contain the email address of someone in your public relations department. This isn't difficult, just time consuming, since you will have to update these addresses as your staff changes.

One way around this updating effort is to create a series of email aliases and link them to particular people who will be responsible for receiving the messages. For example, you could have info@example.com for general inquiries, corporate@example.com for corporate inquiries, support@example.com for customer support issues, and so forth. Again, this should be spelled out in your email guidelines document.

Once you have your policies in place, it is then time to tackle the support issue. You can either build your own, using a series of scripts and programs, or buy something off the shelf. If you decide to buy a product, you'll have two different types:

-- one that offers a turnkey solution, using packaged software that you need to install on your own network and work in conjunction with your existing email servers. These come in various shapes and sizes and prices, ranging from $100 to $100,000. That is quite a range. You can see a list of such products here.

-- others are more of a service than an actual product: what you are buying here is some very expensive consulting time.

Regardless of which route you take, I recommend that any customer support system should have the following three features.

First, it should automatically generate an immediate reply, acknowledging receipt of the message and taking ownership of the problem. This is handy because it reassures the customer that his query is being handled, and it puts a personal identity behind a faceless email box. We all like to know with whom we are dealing, especially when we have a problem with a vendor's product.

Second, it should work with your existing email system. Your users shouldn't have to run anything special to answer messages.

Third, it should track the messages sent to the system and produce reports on how many inquiries and what is the status of the corresponding responses. This is useful so you can monitor the operations of your support system.

Above all, you need to realize that email is a two-way street. Communicate with your customers and they will become loyal ones and stick around. Alienate them (or don't send any replies) and they'll go find your competitors.

This is excerpted from Rose and Strom's new book entitled Internet Messaging.

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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