E-mail communication is the lifeblood of customer relations. But if you aren't careful, you can end up spending too much money operating it with little to show for the effort.How you use your e-mail system will determine how you measure the cost/benefit ratio of your e-mail response program. For example, some companies use autoresponders, while others employ live personnel to provide real-time assistance; some use a combination.

To examine the effectiveness of your e-mail communication system, you should measure response ratios. Seeking answers to the following questions will give you the information you need to conduct a cost/benefit analysis.

How much e-mail do you receive? That is, what is the average number of customer e-mail messages you receive each day? When are the peak periods of e-mail traffic? Getting a grasp on traffic load and peak times is a first step in identifying how many resources to devote to customer e-mail communication.

Are your responses adequate? What percentage of e-mail messages is handled to customer satisfaction? If the percentage is low, perhaps your staff need training or your product has a problem.How long does it take to address customer inquiries? This is a no-brainer: The faster you respond, the better.

Through how many hands do inquiries pass? Here is an opportunity to uncover inefficiencies. If problems are being shuffled from one person to another, you are keeping customers waiting. And that's not ideal service. Train your employees so that it's unnecessary for them to call a supervisor for routine inquiries or complaints.

Tracking metrics is simple. For those companies using an automated database, an e-mail software management system, or other software management tools, tracking should be part of the software's features. If you are using a third-party server, that vendor will provide a complete set of statistics revealing e-mail patterns on your Web site.Here are three ways to measure your program:

Manual tracking.
If you use live personnel to respond to customer e-mail, track the following: number of e-mail messages received, number of replies sent, number of messages exchanged with one customer, and the number of inquiries that were referred to someone higher in the chain of command.

Autoresponder data.
An autoresponder allows you to automatically keep a record of all incoming e-mail and the outgoing responses. If you work for yourself, consider using this low-cost method. Autoresponders are an inexpensive time saver for the solo entrepreneur.

E-mail management software.
If your budget allows, consider purchasing e-mail management software. These software systems provide a range of tools that approach real-time customer service via e-mail.

Some systems can deliver historical reports and graphs. These reports can monitor the effectiveness of your overall system performance, as well as individual agent productivity. They may record system response times to incoming e-mail and provide statistics on real-time responses, live interaction, and individual agent productivity.

Some systems can export data for processing by external reporting tools such as Microsoft Excel or Seagate Crystal Reports. Other features allow supervisors to monitor the e-mail response system in real time, including viewing the status of e-mail queues, real-time live interaction with agents, and allowing session override.

E-mail is a low-cost customer feedback method that provides real-time analysis of operations. It loses in the cost/benefit ratio when the equipment and labor costs of collecting and responding to complaints exceed the potential savings of the service.

Two key problem areas common to most e-mail service centers are routing and processing.Routing problems affect the distribution of incoming e-mail. You may find problems when an autoresponder uses rules based on keywords in the header and body to route e-mail. For example, if a word appears too often, it might cause messages to be routed to the wrong person, which increases your response time. Another routing problem occurs when different people handle one customer inquiry. This causes conflicts and increases response time.

To identify routing problems, set a threshold level of response time. When the threshold is exceeded, you'll know to investigate for problems.Processing problems reflect the efficiency of responses. Once an e-mail message has been routed to the proper agent or response box, the time it takes to respond is crucial.For the individual managing a Web site in a hands-on fashion, remediation is simple and easy to repeat. Once you hire agents to handle increasing e-mail traffic, you may need to monitor potential problems. Every agent should be properly trained and expected to respond to a certain number of e-mail messages per hour, day, or whatever time period best reflects the dynamics of your business.

To determine the efficiency of e-mail response, monitor the average number of e-mail responses needed to resolve each issue. High counts may be the result of poorly written responses, poor agent interaction, or training or product problems.

Important factors that may cause an increase or decrease in e-mail traffic include sales promotions or site changes. If e-mail traffic increases, make sure the system is prepared to handle the extra flow -- that is, make sure it's scalable. If it decreases, find out why and either reduce the amount of resources devoted to your e-mail system or develop strategies that will increase customer e-mail.

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