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May 1, 1999
The Ins & Outs of E-Mail Customer Care
By Liz Montalbano
Like other web-based marketers, telecom service providers are just begging for trouble.
On their homepages an icon urges "Contact us," with a link to an e-mail address
for subscribers–or potential subscribers–to send the company an inquiry or comment. But
once an e-mail is sent on its merry way into the Internet, what happens?
In the voice world, 100 percent of customer contacts come in through
–David Cooperstein, Forrester Research Inc.
Too often it joins hundreds or thousands of other messages that deluge a carrier’s
unprepared customer service call centers to weed through them, reroute them and answer
them–a process that can take hours and even days.
"It’s kind of funny," says Mark Gainey, CEO of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Kana
Communications, a software company that develops intelligent e-mail management systems.
"I think in certain ways, the consumer has such a low expectation from an e-mail
response, there’s one of two options out there today–either I’m not going to get any
response, or well, maybe I’ll get something automated but it doesn’t answer my
In fact, companies are still grappling with how to manage customer e-mail, asserts
David Cooperstein, telecom analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., in
a 1998 report. "In the voice world, 100 percent of customer contacts come in through
customer service, but no clear organizational ownership yet exists with e-mail. Similarly,
e-mail enters the company through many places. More than 60 percent of companies manually
route messages," he writes.
According to the Forrester report, getting a handle on the mushrooming volume of e-mail
is doable. But it requires companies to buy tools to triage the inflow, to adjust call
center operations to focus on customer service rather than talk time and average speed to
answer, and to match Internet and telephone communications channels to appropriate
By leaving e-mail management to the e-mail management experts, Gainey says, customers
may be pleasantly surprised that a response from a company not only arrives, it’s timely,
accurate and suits their specific needs.
"The goal here [with e-mail management software and systems] is to be 100 percent
accurate, 100 percent personalized and 100 percent consistent," he says. "So
what you get are these great stories where the consumers will write back to our customers
and they’ll say things like, ‘I can’t believe that you actually responded back.’"
Though the ability to e-mail a company with an inquiry has been around almost since the
inception of e-mail, outsourcing e-mail answering has been a market force for only about
two years. Steve Robbins, senior analyst, Internet computing strategies, with Boston-based
The Yankee Group, says that an early incarnation of what now can be complex e-mail
management systems are simple e-mail response systems that first were launched in June
1997. While Robbins says "there’s not a strong economy for skills-based routing"
at this point, he predicts that the value of the market for e-mail management software and
hosting software systems should be about $310 million by 2001 (see chart, "E-Mail
Response Systems Revenue Forecast," below).
"The reason those have taken off is that they’re an obvious solution to a
problem," he says. "You get a lot of e-mail, it would seem that the obvious way
to make the problem go away is to send an e-mail response."
Robbins breaks the systems down into two categories: auto-response systems that tend to
send a generic, general response to a customer’s e-mail message, and queue-based routing
systems that route e-mail inquiries to an appropriate service representative. The latter
are the systems of choice for both software companies developing the systems and e-mail
For the most part, managing customer e-mail is like managing customer calls to a
toll-free call center outfitted with an automatic call distributor (ACD). Thus, e-mail
inquiries are routed to a centralized server at a facility with e-mail customer service
representatives (CSRs). A routing system sends the message to the appropriate rep to
answer, while an automated acknowledgement goes out to the sender to confirm receipt and
estimate the wait time for a response. Response times can vary from an hour to a week, but
the generally acceptable period is within 24 hours. The CSRs then use tools available to
them–usually information databases and templates–to answer the e-mail and send it back
to the customer.
There are two basic types of companies that help companies perform these functions:
software companies, such as Kana; Mustang Software Inc., Bakersfield, Calif.; and eGain
Communications Corp., Sunnyvale, Calif., which develop the e-mail management software
programs that companies or e-mail service bureaus use; and e-mail outsourcing and web
management companies themselves, such as AFFINA, Peoria, Ill.; Critical Path Inc., San
Francisco; and Extranet Solutions, Chicago, which actually provide end-to-end solutions
for companies’ customer care e-mail from an e-mail response center or by hosting a server
that acts as a virtual call center.
Who’s in Control?
In many ways, a company’s choice simply to implement e-mail management software at its
own site or to outsource and let another company assume responsibility for the entire
system is a control issue.
Some companies insist on handling every aspect of customer care from start to finish,
while others, says Chris Rechtesteiner, executive vice president of Mustang Software, are
more than happy to let someone else take care of customers for them, since the service is
transparent anyway and an end user doesn’t know the difference.
"It really becomes a matter of whether or not you want to hire the individuals or
whether or not you have the service handy," he says. "There are some customers,
some companies that have initiatives that all customer service support will be outsourced.
… And we do work with companies that say, ‘There’s absolutely no way we’d ever outsource
our customer service.’"
Between software companies and service bureaus, there are plenty of solutions available
for companies having trouble handling e-mail inquiries. But that’s not to say the solution
must be one or the other. Savvy software companies are leveraging the e-mail management
need by partnering with service bureaus that exclusively will use their software.
AFFINA, an inbound 800-number service company that now performs the same type of
service for e-mail messages, has a deal with Mustang to use Mustang’s Internet Message
Center (IMC) software for companies for which it provides outsourcing. Debbie Baer,
Internet product manager for AFFINA, says the company began to handle its call-center
customers’ inbound e-mail about three months ago by using Netscape’s mail client, but
found it was inefficient, since it didn’t have the intelligent routing and tracking
capabilities available with IMC.
"We had the system in place first [and] saw some limitations in the way we were
doing it," Baer says. "[With Netscape], it was hard to retrieve older messages
if we wanted to refer back to a previous contact with a client, it didn’t give us the
skills-based routing, and the monitoring capabilities that come with Mustang were a huge
benefit to us."
Those capabilities include the ability to set and track the response time it takes,
what AFFINA calls a "’Net rep," to reply to an e-mail; alarms that alert
administrators if e-mails are not being answered in an appropriate time frame; and
information on the nature of the inquiries end users are sending to AFFINA customers.
More importantly, Mustang’s Rechtesteiner says, is the skills-based routing aspect of
IMC, which gauges an e-mail by content and queues the message to the appropriate CSR who
can handle the inquiry efficiently.
"It doesn’t do any good to deliver a message to an individual if they have
absolutely no skills to answer it, because they’re going to sit on the phone, they’re
going to flail and the customer’s going to get upset about it," he says. "What
we really do is we eliminate all of that as a factor."
Feedback from such varied use of e-mail outsourcing and management is, predictably,
positive from e-mail management software and outsourcing companies. Robbins, however, is a
little more skeptical. "What I hear is that skills-based routing [feedback] is sort
of mixed," he notes. But, he adds, the nascent quality of e-mail response and
management systems means it’s too soon to tell if they have wide appeal to become standard
"The thing to keep in mind about these systems is they’re very new," Robbins
says. "E-mail response systems have been deployed, but they’re not necessarily
sitting on everybody’s desktop."
Indeed, the Forrester report serves as a reminder that e-mail is but one of a slew of
communications channels, and that consumers can be led to using the most appropriate
channel–whether it’s interactive voice response (IVR), e-mail, website or live operator.
Forrester recommends that companies change their processes to fully integrate e-mail
Staffing for phone and e-mail together and cross-training agents to handle both phone and e-mail inquiries;
Establishing measurable and appropriate metrics, such as response within 24 hours, 98 percent accuracy and a productivity rate of 10 e-mails per agent per hour; and
Training for ‘Netiquette, including customizing template response, using correct grammar and friendly tone, recognizing emoticons and proofreading before clicking "Send."
Liz Montalbano is copy editor for PHONE+ magazine.
Read more about:Agents
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