At Your Service

Aug 01, 2001 9:30 PM  By

Organize your menus and prompts to be mutually exclusive

Recently, I’ve been asked a half dozen or so questions repeatedly in seminars, phone calls, and e-mails. They fall into two categories: questions about procedures for e-mail and automated voice response, and questions about managing relationships with customers and employees. This column addresses the four hottest procedural questions.

How can we get customers to give us their e-mail addresses when they call to order? What we’re doing now doesn’t seem to be working.

It’s hard to get e-mail addresses when reps aren’t enthusiastic about asking for them and don’t give customers enough reasons to give out their information. “May I have your e-mail address?” or “Would you like to give us your e-mail address?” are typical requests, and there’s nothing compelling about either one.

As most reps see it, capturing e-mail addresses is like asking for source or key codes. They don’t understand the value of the information, so it’s just one more annoying thing to interrogate the customer about. This is especially true for reps who aren’t online or don’t use e-mail themselves.

When the rep understands that there is a benefit to the customer, he’s more likely to make the request sound appealing. For example, “Would you like to give me your e-mail address so we can let you know when we have a special offer?” provides both information and motivation to the customer.

If you think that your target population doesn’t have its own computers, try asking, “Is there an e-mail address you’d like to give us so we can tell you about special offers?” Customers may then give you a spouse’s address or the one they use at work. Also, privacy continues to be a concern, so instruct all reps to explain, “We’ll only use it to tell you about special offers. We won’t share it with anyone else.”

How long can we take to answer customer e-mail?

How long do you wait before you check for a response to an e-mail you’ve sent about something important? If you’re like most people, you check every time you get back to your desk. Customer expectations regarding e-mail response time are very high, and industry performance is typically low, at least according to a mid-May report from Jupiter Media Metrix.

Jupiter found that over 50% of customers expect that service problems communicated by e-mail will be resolved within six hours, but fewer than 40% of businesses are meeting that measure. In the survey, one out of four e-mailed inquiries received no answer at all, and it took up to three days for the rest to be answered. What an expectations gap! The irony of such shortfalls is that as soon as customers feel they’ve waited too long, they’ll make a second attempt either by e-mail or phone (a more costly contact for the company as well as the customer).

So it makes sense to answer customer e-mail as quickly as possible. If your e-mail system includes an automated response application, at least let customers know you’ve received their inquiry and state the time frame within which you answer most inquiries. If you categorize e-mails as they’re received, you can give a more realistic estimate based on the actual workflow. Later, if you find that you can’t answer on time because your volume is greater than anticipated or a particular problem requires more research, send a brief and exceedingly courteous message explaining the delay.

What’s the best way to measure the performance of my e-mail reps?

It’s much easier to assess output if an employee handles only one type of inquiry rather than the full range of e-mail you receive. If you aren’t set up to sort and categorize e-mail messages or there isn’t enough volume in any given category to make exclusive assignments, there’s no simple way to set performance measures.

A good place to begin is to study the output of your fastest rep and scale it back for normal people. Or you can start with a middle-of-the-road performer. Either way, you’ll need to factor in a typical amount of research time. Writing time is another consideration and will vary depending on whether the reps have to write their answers from scratch, can refer to a library of text paragraphs, or use standing fill-in letters.

Just as for service phone calls, quality measures for e-mail (and all correspondence) should include (1) how well an employee comprehends why the customer initiated the contact, and (2) subsequent accuracy in applying the correct policy guideline. Written tone and language should comply with the standards you’ve established and trained reps to follow, which may include mirroring the tone and language choices of the customer’s communication.

After years of publishing a single phone number for orders and service, we want to switch to an automated response system that prompts the caller to choose the right queue. What can we do to make the transition as smooth as possible for our customers?

Customers tend to resent “self-service” mode unless they experience direct personal benefit from increased speed of access or noticeably better information. Nonetheless, there may be good reasons to make the switch to an automated response system; you save rep time and labor expense if customers can direct themselves to the right work group. Not to mention that the voice response unit doesn’t have moods or colds or need an extra cigarette break the way humans occasionally do.

Effective self-direction to the right agent is predicated on the customer’s ability to listen to the prompts, understand them, and choose correctly, which can be a dicey proposition. Here are some tips to follow when setting up your system:

  • Be sure the customer never has to listen to more than three choices at a time or go through more than two menus to get to the right place.
  • Organize your menus and prompts so they are mutually exclusive. For example, separate pre-sale calls from post-sale calls.
  • Provide the option to press “zero” for a rep at every point of choice.
  • Do whatever you can to ensure that the recording is pleasant and clear and sounds like an intelligent human being — perhaps just the way some of your best reps sound.

Liz Kislik, president of Liz Kislik Associates LLC, works with organizations of all sizes and segments to enhance customer satisfaction, employee success, and business stability. You can reach Liz at 99 West Hawthorne Ave., Suite 200, Valley Stream, NY 11580, call her at (516) 568-2932, or e-mail her at