The Death of Email Support?

I’m endlessly fascinated by support volumes by channel, seeing which support channels customers prefer.  You’ve probably all seen the figures from the consumer survey I did with Lithium last year (white paper available here) on generational differences in attitudes towards support, showing that different age groups have different channel preferences.  But when you ask support managers about which channels they prefer to use when servicing customers, one thing is clear:  everybody hates email.  The numbers show why:

  • First contact resolution.  The industry average for phone is 45%; email 27%.
  • Resolved within 24 hours.  The industry average for phone is 59%; email 44%.
  • Time to resolve.  The industry average for phone is 1 hour 29 minutes; email 4 hours and 3 minutes.

Why is email support so hard?  There are lots of reasons.  Inbound customer emails rarely have all the details necessary to troubleshoot the problem, leading to lots of back and forth emails asking for additional information.  Web forms help, but don’t solve the problem.  And free-form emails are the worst, often providing no clues to the problem or even which product has issues. Entitlement is messy too–we all have mulitple email addresses and unless the company has recorded yours previously, they don’t even know who you are.

Technology isn’t the solution this time.  While email auto-response and auto-suggest can be accurate in non-tech consumer support, for technical support, eliminating agents from the equation has proven impossible, and the back and forth emails mean email incidents cost more than phone calls due to the number of touches and agent time involved. And, customer sat is usually lower for email than phone.

So if email is not an efficient way to support customers, why don’t we eliminate email support?  Heresy you say?  Guess again!  In a soon to be published research report I’ll give the case study of a large SSPA member that just stopped supporting customers via email.  Cold turkey.  And though marketing and sales threw a fit, saying customers would be enraged, there hasn’t been a single customer complaint. 

The most interesting thing was what happened to the email incident volume.  Self-service volume went up a bit, but the majority of the email volume transferred to the customer discussion forum–there was zero increase to phone volumes.  Talk about moving from assisted to unassisted!

We have all been clinging to the idea that customers love email and you have to support them using that channel.  But survey data indicates that email is the preferred channel for a fairly small slice of consumers.  In the Lithium/SSPA survey, only 10% of Gen X respondents said they preferred email, 7% of Baby Boomers, 8% of Gen Y. 

As I start writing up the case study, I’d love to include examples from other companies.  If you are struggling with email support, let me know why.  If you are on the road to stopping email support, I’d love to hear about it.  What works and doesn’t work with your current email support operation?  Please shoot me an email or add a comment to this post–I will respond to all.  Thanks for reading!

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29 Comments on “The Death of Email Support?”

  1. Haim Toeg Says:

    John,

    The factors you list in your post are all valid, but an additional reason for poor e-mail performance is that frequently responding to e-mail support requests is done by:
    1. Agents when they have no phone customers on the line
    2. New recruits that have not yet graduated to phone support
    3. Off-shored centers
    Therefore, support management’s decision to hide cost savings and lower skills behind the impersonality of e-mail is expressed in the metrics you cite.

    When I ran customer support for a large enterprise software vendor our e-mail performance was very close to that of phone service. My conclusion is that it can be done, but as you rightly note, much easier to do on the consumer side than in enterprise environment.


  2. John,

    It must be fate… the same day I write a blog entry, summarized from an article I am working on, on the second coming of Email support, you write about its death. Now, we cannot be right – correct? That means you must be wrong!!!!

    Just kidding, I am going to have to disagree with your statement – not your logic. The main problem here is, as Haim also pointed out, that there is not a decently implemented solution out there. OK, maybe a few. These very few don’t make up for the more than 50% who never answered their emails.

    Anyways, check out my blog for more details… an article should be coming in the next couple of months with more details.

    Alas, I cannot let you get away with this!

    Hack the Planet! Hack the Planet!

  3. jragsdale Says:

    Wow–thanks for the great comments. Haim, you sure provided a spin I hadn’t thought of, and I agree completely. I have encountered many support managers who consider email a “2nd class channel,” with an attitude of, “if it is important, they’ll call,” so customers choosing the email channel are punished. The outcome? They never use the email channel again.

    I’m curious though, how did you avoid the back and forth problem with email at your support center? Really good web forms that captured enough info in the initial email? That seems to be the core problem in the complaints I’m hearing.

    Well Esteban, I’ve never had a problem saying I’m wrong, and I’d love to see some good examples of using auto-response and auto-suggest for tech support. I look forward to your article!


  4. John (and I was kidding, I don’t think you are wrong…),

    The best examples take two approaches for solving the back-and-forth:

    1. You nailed it… web-forms. Microsoft uses this model, so does Dell and IBM. They do some cool stuff where they collect information automatically from your computer, then you can either send an email or navigate with an assisted search interface to find the specifics of your problem. Nice thing, once you get to the specifics, you may be able to use self-service, meaning there is no need to use email (double-win).

    2. using a conversational engine (covered this slightly in my blog, more details on the article). you create a back-and-forth with clients, sending either web-forms via email or specific questions to make sure you have enough information to answer their questions. I have only seen this deployed by a couple of european banks, and they also use it for SMS. Again, double-win.

    Far from me to think you truly were wrong…

  5. Haim Toeg Says:

    John,

    Remember, the company I was with is at the high end of the enterprise market. The customers we dealt with were
    1. Professional and experienced
    2. Knew the products relatively well
    3. Worked with support frequently

    Therefore the customer could anticipate what the technicians would need and provide it early in the case life. Curiously, we found that e-mail cases were better documented than phone cases opened with an agent since the customer had more time and space to elaborate. We did not provide mandatory forms but did provide some suggestions on what information to provide (mostly very basic).

    The second factor was that we did not have e-mail only support contracts and it was up to the technicians discretion what channel to choose when responding to the customer. If they felt that they needed to call the customer to clarify a point or reassure them they were free to do so, and obviously the customers were free to do the same. It was not uncommon to see a case alternate between phone, e-mail and web according to whatever was the appropriate way for that specific interaction. Cases were always counted based on the channel they were open through.

  6. Kate Leggett Says:

    John- I would probably not put the demise of email in such black and white terms. Email can be a good way to support your customers, and we have a large number of customers that effectively process millions of emails a month. The challenge is to know how and when to offer email to make this channel work for you – from a cost perspective to the business and from a satisfaction/loyalty builder tool for the customer.

    As you say, email is not effective for complex interactions that involve a lot of back and forth between customers and agents. Email is also not a cost effective channel for straightforward, informational-only responses that are better suited for web self service posts. And email is definitely not the choice for time-sensitive requests like making changes to an imminent flight departure.

    Email however, does work well for issues of medium complexity that are coupled with a transactional request, especially, as Esteban says, if comprehensive webforms are used. In these cases, you need to pay close attention to the email experience for your customer to ensure that they learn to trust this channel. You need to set their expectations up-front as to when they will receive an answer. You need to use a classification engine or rules to ensure that emails are routed to the right agents for resolution. You need to hook up back end systems to your ERMS so that agents have all the information they need to quickly address an issue, and you need to closely monitor your SLA’s.

    Email also works well in “agile channeling.” You may not always want to start an issue resolution via email, but email can be a very cost effective and efficient leg in the entire process.

    Net, net, email works if you identify what issues can be handled effectively by email, where you can use it in an issue resolution process and if you communicate and adhere to your SLAs.

  7. jragsdale Says:

    Haim, I wonder if we need to do training classes for customers on how to submit better emails! You certainly were lucky to have such technically savvy customers, though I know that is not unheard of with enterprise support.

    Kate, if I don’t make dramatic statements like “death of” something, I don’t get thoughtful comments like yours! You know us analysts, always going for the headline.😉 Thanks for adding your thoughts.

  8. Haim Toeg Says:

    John,

    One thing we did used to do, not consistently, was to bring one of the support technicians into the closing session of a technical training course and let them have a guided discussion session with the students. They mostly discussed the basics, like how to contact, what information to provide, how to perform basic problem determination and using the knowledge base and other web facilities we had. Customers usually reacted very well to this session, especially as it was delivered by one of the technicians.

    Back in the 80’s, while with IBM, I used to deliver five day training courses on problem determination for both IMS and DB2, but I doubt any customer would be willing to let their staff go for 5 days to learn how to diagnose problems – “Isn’t that YOUR job?”

  9. Kate Leggett Says:

    John, thanks for your comment. The reason that I am so adamant about the email channel is that at KANA we have seen email solutions implemented the wrong way and the right way. I truly believe that email has real value for both the company and the customer as it is thoughtfully implemented and maintained. Too often an ERMS gets little care and feeding after rollout – and in these cases, it is bound to fail.


  10. […] the other end of the spectrum, my good friend John Ragsdale over at SSPA wrote an entry about the death of support email. Well written article, and he does make some valid points. I […]

  11. phanatic74 Says:

    I support the Phillies if that helps? Go Phightins !!

  12. Mike Says:

    I prefer online chat with tech support. Do you know how well that type of support fares with customers? I think email may be a means for initial contact, but customer service should then follow up with a chat request or perhaps a phone call.

  13. Haim Toeg Says:

    Mike,

    Can you elaborate on your preference for chat? In my opinion it combines the weaknesses of both phone and e-mail and the strengths of none.

  14. Beverley Joyce Says:

    I totally agree that it is in implementation that the problem with email support occurs. Recently I contacted the Techsmith company, folks that make Snag-It via email for a support issue and i received the usual automated reply that someone would deal with my problem etc. etc. To my surprise someone did indeed email me right back to try and assist and after a couple of emails back and forth they resolved my issue, they even checked back with after a couple of days to make sure all was still okay. The experience was a lot better than going thru a voice prompt system.

    We utilize it here at Xerox as well and it works well for peak times when folks do not want to hold or after normal hours. The trick is to get to the email quickly and at the very least open up a case so the customer knows we are dealing with it. Once you let the email box fill up you are in big trouble.

  15. Laurie Banks Says:

    Very interesting post and I have to agree with you that e-mail is becoming a dying assisted support channel. Our clients have been pushing users to the chat channel. Most implemented a chat solution early last year. As a result e-mail volumes for most have decreased dramatically.

    I don’t know that chat is a cheaper solution, but our stats have shown a pretty high first time resolution, near instant response time, and much shorter handle times.

    The younger generations prefer chat and text so for some companies replacing e-mail with chat would not only increase customer satisfaction but improve operations as well depending on their target customers.

    It would be interesting to see some studies done on chat within the call centers. I know most young people can carry on several chats at one time pretty efficiently. One major challenge for our larger clients is the volume of chat. When they are unable to handle the volume they throttle it down by removing the option to chat from certain pages or shutting it off all together.

    One study I did showed that throttling chat down to nearly 70% of the normal volume had no impact on e-mail volume; e-mail volume actually continues to decrease as more users are adopting the chat option. And it appears when the chat option is not there they try back later or self-service themselves.

  16. jragsdale Says:

    Thanks for all the great posts. I even had a baseball fan chime in. (I can never keep them straight–is that the sport with the little white ball with stitching, the brown egg shaped ball, or the big orange ball that looks like a pumpkin? It’s all noise to me.)

    Chat is a different animal. Where I see chat working well is as a transition from unassisted to assisted support, having a chat option for customers frustrated when they can’t find something in the knowledgebase. We’ve seen some great success stories for chat–like Symantec, whose web chat has higher sat rates than phone calls. And, phone is handled onshore, chat is offsore. That’s one way to remove ‘accent neurtralization’ from the equation.

    I have a lot of opinions on chat, but I’ll save that for another post.😉

  17. Haim Toeg Says:

    Chat is a worthwhile discussion topic.

  18. Laurie Banks Says:

    I agree Haim. Although it is a seperate discussion I do believe chat is partly responsible for displacing the email channel for a lot of companies.

  19. Nikhil Govindaraj Says:

    Email support is dead! Long live email support!

    Some get it right, some get it wrong…and the bottom line, I truly believe, is that there are circumstances where email should be provided as a channel of choice and then there are others, where it really doesnt make sense.

    One thing that is very clear is that the day of the 12 hour, 24 hour and sometimes ludicrous 48 hour SLA is dead. We have a partner up in Vancouver, BC, who has an SLA of 3.5 min! Granted they are in the gaming industry, but it shows you can get it right when you have to.

    But who says you have to have a 5 min SLA? Why dont you try asking your customers when they want a response? (Mark, yes, the credit is all yours for that one).

    Technology definitely plays a role here. You need the application with atleast a two 9 uptime, right?🙂


  20. On the contrary, out company finds the email channel alive and thriving!

    Just last month, we saw over 20% of our overall contact volume come through the email channel (phone was 60%, live chat just under 20%). Our turnaround time averages under 90 minutes and we resolve well over 90% within 24 hours!

    Most importantly, our customer satisfaction scores from the email channel rival, if not sometimes exceed what we post for the other channels with 85% of respondants rating our service as “meets or exceeds” expectations!

    Our service caters to the small business owners who often times needs to interact with us in a variety of ways. Many find email to be the preferred support channel and we continue to invest in training and technology to accomodate this growing segment of our customer base!

  21. jragsdale Says:

    Email will also have a place in high volume contact centers, especially in travel, communications and FS where a lot of emails can be successfully handled via auto-response and auto-suggest. Nikhil said it best, “there are circumstances where email should be provided as a channel of choice and then there are others, where it really doesnt make sense.”

  22. Mike Says:

    Hi Haim,

    For me, online chat is a quicker way to get my questions answered. It isn’t perfect, of course, but I find it preferable to waiting for an email reply or waiting on hold. In some cases, the service rep can send me a link to the info I need. Granted, I suppose it depends on your reason for seeking help in the first place and what type of product or service it is.

  23. Tom Duly Says:

    Gentlemen,

    I read this with interest, as I would have agreed wholeheartedly with your conclusion two years ago, but do not now. Let me explain. While I believe this is still largely true in the United States and most Western Cultures, taking responsibility for our company support in Asia Pacific paints quite a different picture. There are some Asian cultures who vastly prefer communicating by email vs. direct phone or WEB. In my experience, this is variable by country / culture, but very prevalent in Japan in particular.

    My conclusion is that your article is accurate in Western cultures, it does not translate directly into many Asian ones – who may in fact vastly prefer email support to other methodologies.

    Regards,
    Tom Duly

  24. Susan V. Says:

    It is extremely difficult to provide good email support, and to do so cost-effectively. However, because something is challenging doesn’t mean that companies can do away with it.

    Telephone is still the most widely method of communication but, believe it or not, email use is rapidly growing amongst consumers worldwide. I agree with the above comment about the importance of email in countries other than the U.S. According to this study (http://www.aspectindex.com/index_europe/), approximately one third of European consumers now use email as their primary means of contact with a company.

    Companies can tackle the email support problem by hiring agents with specialized skill sets geared toward online/written communications, and additionally training them to efficiently and effectively manage the email process. This can be taken one step further with unified communications, which gives email agents instant access to knowledge workers who can quickly respond to or help resolve specialized inquiries. Also, by using a solution that offers a blended approach, email can be incorporated as part of the overall contact routing process to ensure that emails are being handled in the same timely fashion as phone or chat interactions.

    Email is important to consumers – it’s time for companies to embrace it, rather than ignore it.


  25. […] chat finds growing adoption for tech support In a previous post on the appropriateness of email for tech support, several folks added comments suggesting a post on Web chat, so here it is!  I think Web chat is […]

  26. ispinsider Says:

    Joe,

    Honestly, all forms of support have short comings. Phone support can often take to long, has too many automated prompts with repeatative questions, disconnects, transfers, one can spend 15 minutes pressing buttons before they can actually talk to a person and then hopefully that person speaks english and understand you.

    Email support (and chat support can both work). As mentioned in a previous post, Its all about implementation and understanding the technology.

    One interesting correlation I found in your analysis is that the older customers tend to pick up the phone versus the xgen,ygen, silentgen who prefer to help themselves or use chat or email. The decision makers that often prevent new technology from proper implementation tend to be from the group that prefers th use the phone themselves.

  27. Mukund Joshi Says:

    John

    Sorry, if I have joined in late…but I have an interesting story to tell about email support. It might not come as a surprise to you all but worth looking at this as well.

    I manage a large email technical support helpdesk for an Internet Security solutions provider and our volumes have just been overwhelming to point that we receive ~ 110k contacts a month till recently. We manage to service our customers between 10-15 hours and have also managed to achieve a CSAT score of 80% consitently. We have managed to achieve a first time resolution of 75% adding to the success story of email support. Our client company also considers email channel as a “not so viable” channel and they also offer phone and chat services in addition to email. I must say that they are reaping benefits of the results🙂

    As rightly mentioned by Nikhil, email support should be kept open for customers as a “choice” who still prefer this mode of support because of the benefits it offers.

  28. jragsdale Says:

    Hi Mukund;
    Thanks for chiming in. I’m familiar with the company you are supporting and I agree their results have been amazing, for both email and chat. You guys are doing a great job for them and I have recommended your firm to other members as a result.

    –J

  29. Mukund Joshi Says:

    Thanks John🙂


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