E-Mail Customer Service Is Bad, Bad, Bad -- Report

Less than half of the responses actually answered the question that was asked.

John Dickinson, Contributor

March 7, 2005

5 Min Read

Forrester Research has issued a scathing report on the state of e-mail as a customer service tool. Not the technology, mind you, that works just fine as far as the mechanics of it go. What's failing here is how companies are using e-mail to communicate, or rather using it when failing to communicate, with their customers.

The report which is called Best And Worst Of E-Mail Customer Service, 2005 starts out with the not very surprising assertion that 54% of U.S. consumers use e-mail to contact organizations for help in using their services or buying their products. Forrester has tested other forms of customer service in the past, including web sites, telephone self-service, and kiosks, and has developed a standard methodology that they have also now used for testing e-mail as a customer service tool.

Forrester's general conclusion seems to be that most electronic customer service experience don't get passing on 80% of the criteria researchers use and, "The results for e-mail aren't much better." In the study, a passing score would be +10 on a scale of -20 to +20, but none of the firms in the study did better than a +9.

The way the study was carried out, a standardized query of the form, "Is it possible to do X, and if so, how?" Five categories of industry were selected, including airlines, state government agencies, hotels, mortgage brokers, and retailers, and four companies were selected within each category.

When the responses were received, they were evaluated for their value, their presentation, and the level of trust they generated. Each of the criteria was graded on a scale that ranged from strong failure (-2) to strong pass (+2).

Grading The Responses

When evaluating the value of the response, Forrester researchers looked for content that addressed the question, sufficiency of the response, and speed of the response. In evaluating the presentation, the researchers looked to see if the e-mail responses maintained the context of the question, if they used language that could be easily understood, and if the layouts were designed to be easily scanned or read.

When it came to trust, it was almost as if they were looking at a sender accreditation scenario. Were the message headers communicating that the message was of value, for example was the company name clearly spelled out? Could the message be easily responded to, or did this represent the end of the line? And was the company's privacy policy clearly presented?

The average score across all companies in the study was -0.7, the highest score of +9 was achieved by Wells Fargo Bank's Mortgage unit, and the lowest score of -9 was achieved in a tie between Caesar's Entertainment and JCPenny. But even the top scoring firms were not consistent in their scores. For example, Marriott topped all the hotels with a +4, but got poor trustworthiness scores because its responses did not include a trustworthy subject line.

And trustworthiness was the biggest problem in general for the companies in the study. On average all fie industries on average failed the trust questions, and not one firm scored above a zero out of a possible +8 in the trust categories.

Key Problems

In analyzing the results, Forrester researchers cited several key problems that explain why organizations did not get better customer service e-mail experience marks in their study:

  • Failure To Deliver Essential Content: Only 45% of the responses received in the study were adequate to answer the query. For example, the California DMV's response to a question about transferring an out-of-state license explained how to carry out an in-state address change.

    Missing Context and Confusing Layouts: The two sources of problems in this area were the failure to maintain the context of the original question in the answer, and bad layout and typography. Poor Message Headers: Companies tended to use unrecognizable subject lines, including such things as coded response numbers instead of something having to do with the question. JCPenny's response, for example, got trapped in Yahoo! Mail's spam filter. Most also failed to include their privacy policy information, which Forrester considers a serious trust breach.

This of course leads to some recommendations from Forrester about what you should do when implementing e-mail as a customer response mechanism in your company:

  • Answer The Question: While most organizations provided some sort of answer, less than half of the responses actually answered the question that was asked.

    Format The Message For Scanning: If customers have to struggle through a lot of text, especially if it's extraneous to their question, they will not get to the answer they are looking for. Use Senders And Subject Lines For People: Customer responses are for reading by people, not computers. These days a for-computer-eyes-only subject line is as likely to send an e-mail to a spam bucket as it is to get it to the person making the query. Expose All Processes: If a customer is uncomfortable or uncertain about what to do next, they will move their query to another channel, so you need to make sure that further steps, if required, are clearly spelled out. Always Provide Privacy Information: You should always insert your privacy policy to allay any fears a customer may have about divulging personal information.

For further information, and to get a copy of a report in order to find out if your company flunked Forrester's test, visit www.forrester.com.

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