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Elevating Customer Service E-Mail From Adequate To Excellent

by Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O'Flahavan

Excellent customer service e-mail does more than answer the customer's question; it solves the customer's problem, and makes the customer feel valued.

What differentiates "adequate" customer service e-mail from "excellent" customer service e-mail?

We've analyzed hundreds of customer service e-mails and we've found that many companies do an adequate job of responding promptly, within 24–48 hours. And some companies do a good job of answering the customer's question.

So, what more could customers want?

Customers want, and deserve, excellent e-mail responses. And excellent customer service e-mail exhibits 2 qualities that sets it above adequate: (1) it doesn't merely answer the customer's question—it solves the customer's problem, and (2) it makes the customer feel valued.

The companies that provide these excellent responses recognize that customer service e-mail should be used for more than answering customer questions. Customer service e-mail is a powerful marketing tool, an effective form of permission-based marketing.

1. Excellent customer service e-mail solves the customer's problem

To illustrate the difference between answering the customer's question and solving the problem, we'll use an example: A customer e-mailed a catalog store about whether she could exchange the size 8 pants she'd bought for a size 6.

The customer wrote,"I purchased a pair of pants, size 8, at your outlet store in Leesburg, Virginia. I'd like to exchange them for a smaller size. I've been told that no size 6 pants are available. I'm wondering whether the pants come in petite sizes, and if so, whether a size 6 petite is available. The item number is: 031020581. Thanks!"

A merely adequate response would have been something like this: "Thanks for your e-mail. Unfortunately we are sold out of size 6 in the pants you inquired about. If you have any further questions, please call or e-mail us again."

Excellent e-mail anticipates what else the customer needs to know

The adequate response, above, certainly answered the customer's question. But it didn't solve the problem of how to get the pants in a size that fit.

Of course, solving a customer's problem in a phone call can be easier than in e-mail. In a phone conversation the customer asks follow-up and "what if" questions to elicit additional information that will solve the problem.

But in answering an e-mail query, the customer service representative (CSR) has to anticipate the follow-up questions that the customer would ask and supply the responses to those questions.

Excellence means solving the problem

Here's how the customer service representative solved the customer's problem with the pants and elevated the response from adequate to excellent. The customer service representative (CSR) anticipated and answered the customer's follow-up questions.

The CSR wrote that the pants weren't available in size 6. He went on to include this information: "However, there are a couple of size 4 pants available. The waist is 25 inches and the low hip is 39 inches." The CSR gave the customer the information she needed to make a decision about the size 4 pants.

And if the customer wanted to try the size 4 pants, the CSR anticipated her next question as well: "How do I exchange the size 8 pants for the size 4?" The e-mail explained exactly how to do this: "Be sure to include a note in the package with your name, address and, in large red letters, write that you would like to exchange the pants for a size 4. If you decide to do this, please do this right away, as we only have a few left in size 4."

Close the communication loop

This excellent e-mail served the customer by offering a solution to the problem. The e-mail also served the company by selling something in return for the pants that didn't fit.

And it served both the customer and the company by closing the communications loop. The customer didn't have to spend any more time calling or e-mailing again with these follow-up questions. And the customer service department is not burdened by a second inquiry.

2. Excellent customer service e-mail makes the customer feel valued

Every customer service e-mail is an opportunity to build a relationship with a customer, to acknowledge loyalty, and to make the customer feel valued. Too many companies miss this opportunity. Many customer service e-mails convey the impression that answering the customer's inquiry is a chore, not a chance to serve and impress the customer.

So, how should e-mail from a CSR make a customer feel valued?

Personalize the response but respect the customer's privacy

A customer who has taken the time and trouble to write an e-mail deserves to be treated as a person—not a tracking number. Excellent customer service e-mail begins with a personal greeting: "Dear Jane" or "Hi John", not "Dear Valued Customer".

Personalizing the response suggests that someone took the time to read the customer's e-mail and respond personally. Customers like e-mail responses that refer to their question or problem: "Thank you for your inquiry about whether we still sell the Balsam Tabletop Tree" is much better than "Thank you for your e-mail."

Customers appreciate a personal response that acknowledges their relationship with the company: "We are glad to hear that you will be visiting Luray Ranch again this summer."

However, customers find it creepy and Big Brother-ish when it seems that the company knows too much about them. Most customers are aware that companies collect considerable data on their purchases as well as personal information. But they don't want to be reminded of this each time they hear from the customer service department.

Personalize, but don't pry! Excellent customer service e-mail includes personal information only when it is relevant to the question the customer asked.

Make a gesture of goodwill

Making customers feel valued means not just solving their problems, but providing satisfaction.

When we e-mailed our printing company to complain that our company name was misspelled on our business cards, we didn't just want to hear that the company corrected the problem. We wanted an apology at the very least. And we appreciated the company's consideration for our pain and suffering: "We apologize for our error on your business cards. We've sent the new cards by overnight mail, and we will refund your payment."

Customers also want an e-mail response to give consideration for being a good customer. For example, a customer e-mailed an online retailer asking if he could return a video he'd opened, played, and didn't like. He was unhappy with the response he received which simply reiterated the company's return policy (No!).

While the customer can't expect the CSR to overturn a policy, he wanted the company's policy to provide some latitude for valued customers. He expected the CSR to consult the customer database, see that he'd spent hundreds of dollars on books and videos over several years, and do something to acknowledge his relationship with the company.

An excellent response would have said: "We can't accept a return of the opened videotape. But because you are a valued customer, we are sending you a coupon for a 10% discount on your next purchase."

It's not too much to expect that every customer service e-mail deliver excellence: solve the customer's problem and make the customer feel valued. If you weigh the costs of acquiring customers against the effort of satisfying existing customers, then excellent customer service e-mail is a bargain.

Katherine Barchetti, Pittsburgh-area clothing retailer, said it succinctly: "Make a customer, not a sale." Excellent customer service e-mail can make a customer yours for life.

© E-WRITE, 2006

Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O'Flahavan are partners in E-WRITE , a training and consulting company in the Washington, D.C. area that specializes in online writing. Rudick and O'Flahavan are authors of Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents. Learn how to write great web content and e-mail by subscribing to their free newsletter, E-Writing Bulletin. The site also features other valuable resources to help improve your writing skills.


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