Customers expect swift responses to e-mails, and they are often disappointed.

It was a cold January afternoon, and Martha Rogers was shopping online for garage shelves at Target.com. She was ready to process the order when she realized that shipping charges for the $800 shelves totaled $400. So Rogers sent an e-mail asking if she could pick up the shelves at a nearby Target store, instead. She didn't like the response. "After a few hours, I received a canned message about how shipping charges are determined," she says. "It didn't address my question at all."

The scenario would probably annoy any shopper. But Rogers, coauthor of Return on Customer: Creating Maximum Value From Your Scarcest Resource (Currency, 2005), and a principal of the Peppers & Rogers Group, a Norwalk, Conn.-based consultancy that helps companies improve customer relations, found the e-mail particularly infuriating. "I know how these systems work," she says. "It saw the word 'shipping' in my message, and sent me the pre-written response. But that's not what my question was about. It's insane that companies aren't better integrated than this."

Rogers' frustration is understandable. While email is the fastest-growing channel for customer service, expected to increase from 2.9 billion messages in 2005, to 7.2 billion by 2010 (according to Zach McGeary, an analyst at Jupiter Research), a third of all U.S. companies don't even bother to open the customer e-mails they get, let alone respond to them. Meanwhile, roughly 45 percent of companies that do answer e-mail take up to 24 hours; the rest can take as long as three days. The reason, says McGeary: Only about 25 percent of all U.S. companies have deployed an email response management system. "Companies aren't investing in the appropriate technologies," he says. "They are still relying on Outlook or other homegrown applications."

Unfortunately, software alone isn't the answer. While e-mail response systems are designed to cut costs by automating message routing, either to live agents or with an instant response to the customer, they have a host of limitations. Most cannot handle more than one query per message, leaving customers to either resend their query or pick up the phone—exactly what these systems are meant to prevent. In fact, according to a 2005 survey sponsored by the International Customer Service Association, most companies that provide e-contacts never see a decrease in telephone call volume. Moreover, automatically generated e-mail answers are often wrong, because the system merely looks for one or two keywords instead of understanding the nature of the actual query. Finally, these systems rely on knowledge management systems to route messages and generate responses. That's great if such a system already exists, but not so great otherwise. That's why virtually all companies that use these systems must continue to rely on live agents.

ERM systems can offer definite advantages, as long as they are properly designed and managed. The real value of these systems lies not just in the ability to bypass agents, but also in speeding up the routing process through automation and the ability to track results. ERM systems can generate reports about e-mail traffic volume that can help companies make better workforce planning decisions, and help agents better assist customers by providing information that's more relevant. A good ERM system can even gather data that can be used to offer better products and services, though few companies have yet to reach that level of sophistication.

This article was originally published on 02-06-2006
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