Enhancing E-mail Customer Service

The advent of e-mail has been a major boon to small and mid-sized businesses, which can now keep in contact with customers in a more personal way and on a more regular basis. E-mail is considered the fastest-growing customer service channel, as a Jupiter Research study forecasts it will jump from 2.9 billion e-mails in 2005 to 7.2 billion by 2010. E-mail can be used by your business to market to customers, alert them to new product offerings, and offer loyalty discounts or promotions. At the same time, e-mail can be used by your customers to troubleshoot any problems they have with your products or services, provide you feedback, and ask you any number of questions. Whether you realize it or not, e-mail has become a valuable tool through which you provide customer service and because of that it's important to know how to use this medium correctly.

If your business has a website, you most likely have listed at least one e-mail address on that website and your customers are going to use it to contact you. This article will outline the right way to electronically correspond with your customers, how to provide good customer service via e-mail, and how to turn your e-mail relationship with your customer into a marketing opportunity.

E-mail Etiquette Rules for Customer Correspondence

E-mail is an essential business tool. The average office worker spends 49 minutes managing e-mail daily, while upper level managers spend up to four hours a day on email, according to Nancy Flynn, director of the ePolicy Institute and author of Writing Effective E-mail and E-mail Rules. E-mail picks up the pace of communications between co-workers and customers: it arrives almost instantly, compared to the slower pace of traditional mail or even special delivery services such as overnight and same-day couriers. Workers tend to spend less time composing e-mail than on formal letters, yet the content of e-mail communication is just as important.

Before encouraging your company's workers to write e-mail, make sure you let them know the company's policies. Seventy-six percent of companies have a written e-mail policy, Flynn says. Even if a company doesn't have an e-mail policy, it most likely has other policies regarding communications -- including sexual harassment and discrimination policies. Make sure employees know the rules and adhere to them. Inappropriate e-mails are common. Half of employees have reported receiving inappropriate e-mail at work, Flynn says. Such e-mail is a liability.

Here are some quick e-mail etiquette rules to emphasize to your employees when they are corresponding with customers:

  • Follow standard rules of grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. Although e-mail appears less formal than a hand-printed letter, e-mail projects an image of you and your business. Misspellings and poor grammar will reflect poorly on the quality of your staff and service.
  • Use a professional, yet conversational tone. Avoid jokes, clichés, and abbreviations. Only use abbreviations if you know your readers will understand them. "Emoticons" -- smiles, winks, or other symbols used to convey tone -- should not be use in business e-mails.
  • Be brief and make your message easy to read. Lead with the most important information, in case the reader doesn't finish the message. And make the subject line compelling.

Using E-mail to Provide Exceptional Customer Service

There are other components to good e-mail customer service in addition to grammar and content. And technology alone will not ensure a satisfied customer. Experts say that you need to follow some standard steps in using e-mail as part of your overall customer service strategy. Here are five top tips:

1. Respond promptly. Nothing more outrages a customer with a complaint, a defective product, or questions than sending an e-mail and waiting and waiting for some type of response from a business. You need to respond immediately to each customer e-mail, even if it's with an automated response that lets them know when they can expect you to respond personally.

2. Solve your customers' problem. Don't just send an e-mail saying that you received a customer's question or complaint. Make sure you find an answer or a solution and get back to them with it ASAP.

3. Send a follow-up e-mail. After you provide information to your customer, send a follow-up note in a few days to make sure your customer was satisfied with your help.

4. Ask them to fill out a survey. If you want feedback about their experience with your business, your product, or your customer service, ask them to fill out a survey.

5. Turn the customer contact into an opportunity. Now that you have started a correspondence with the customers, ask for permission to contact them again or see if they would like to receive promotions or coupons or your e-newsletter.

Time-Saving Shortcuts

Having to respond individually to each and every customer e-mail can be time consuming and labor intensive for employees. There are a few ways you can use the medium to generate more responses without as much labor. Try the following:

  • Create e-mail templates. Some types of e-mail messages are common, and tend to be rewritten and sent frequently. To save time and be more productive, create templates of common e-mail responses that can be personalized. For example, queries about the company's products, coming in from many different potential customers, can be answered quickly by using a pre-written template. Personalize the response with the customer's name and any other unique information as needed.
  • Use auto-responding messages. These are the automatically generated responses you send when you go on vacation, explaining why you won't respond to e-mail immediately. You can use these in business for other purposes as well, such as to confirm that you received a customer e-mail and let the customer know when to expect a reply. This is often a better strategy than letting several days pass without any response.
  • Consider an e-mail response management system. If your business is mid-sized or has the resources, it might be wise to deploy an e-mail response management solution available now from a variety of vendors. These systems allow you to better manage and track customer complaints and service fulfillment, and even allow you to analyze customer interactions for better process management.

Turn E-mail Contact into Marketing Opportunity

One of the best ways to market your goods or services is to get the permission of one of your current customers to send them e-mail marketing material about new products, promotions, or related services. Don't ever assume that just because a customer provided you their e-mail address that it means you are free to send them unsolicited e-mail. That's also known as spam. You want to give your customers the chance to "opt in" to receiving marketing correspondence from you in the future. It might even be worth it to offer a discount in order to convince a customer to sign up for your e-mail alerts.

The following are ways to avoid having your e-mail solicitations seem too much like spam:

  • Deliver material the customer expects. If customers sign up for a free newsletter about pet care, don't mail them mortgage offers.
  • Stick to stated mailing frequencies. If you say you're going to send weekly mailings, don't send out three in one week to make quota.
  • Make unsubscribing as easy as subscribing. If someone chooses to unsubscribe, do it immediately.
  • Check your online reputation. If you get on a spam blacklist, which filters your spam before it reaches an inbox, your customers might not receive your mailings.
  • Avoid spammer language. Pick your words carefully so you don't accidentally include language in email marketing pitches that set off spam filters at ISPs and email service providers.

Freedman, David H., Ask, and You Shall Be Misled, Inc.com, 2007.

Mardesich, Jodi, Effective E-mail: How to Communicate Better, IncTechnology.com, 2006.
Email Marketing without Spamming, IncTechnology.com, 2008.