Email Management Systems that work

E-commerce sites have been so successful that the infrastructure supporting them has not kept pace with the growing demand

E-commerce sites have been so successful that the infrastructure supporting them has not kept pace with the growing demand

The arrival of electronic commerce

In the last five years there has been phenomenal growth in the number of people that use the World Wide Web. These users spend many hours each day browsing the Web. They converse with one another via chat applications and email, browse the Web for work and play, and increasingly, they purchase goods and services over the Web. By some estimates, one in every four web users shops online and market research firm @plan says that over two million users have purchased books online. Companies have hastened to put up electronic "storefronts" to attract these web users and turn them into customers. Many companies have, at least, some presence on the Web and some are doing a significant amount of their total business through these storefronts. Indeed, a small, but rapidly increasing, number of companies conduct business exclusively over the Web. International Data Corporation estimates that total purchases over the Web amounted to $10bn in 1997, but will explode to over $220bn in the year 2001. E-commerce is here!

The nature of the Web is such that more and more consumers have direct access to the company because of the company's web presence. Every contact a customer has with a company influences the customer's perception of that company and so presents the company with an opportunity to create and nurture a relationship with that customer. After all, many companies in all areas of commerce have realised that the key to a successful and profitable business is having satisfied and loyal customers. This is especially important in the e-commerce arena where competitors lurk only a click away. For this reason, leading companies realise that they must treat their customers as the source of current and future profits and not just as a series of individual transactions. They must develop and nurture relationships with their customers. It is imperative therefore to manage all the communications a company has with its customers.

Electronic communications

A significant portion of non-electronic commerce in the US today is conducted over the telephone. Prospects and customers are routed to call centres where banks of customer service representatives (agents) handle customer transactions. Using the telephone for commerce and associated customer service functions is widely accepted by the public. E-commerce today is conducted in essentially one of two ways:

A customer can get information on products and services over the Web, but must use a telephone to call a customer service representative in a call centre to complete a transaction

A customer transaction is handled entirely through the commerce website

Customer service is an essential ingredient of commerce transactions. Customers may want to place an order, get more information, resolve billing issues, track down shipments or ask installation and product support questions. Many commerce websites give the reader information on how to contact the company by telephone and usually by email or some kind of web form as well. As users get more sophisticated, and as wait times at call centres go up, users are becoming more inclined to send electronic messages to companies. After all, who wants to wait on hold to get some information or place an order when you can just fill out a form or send an email and read the reply at leisure?

These email communications form an increasing amount of the customer service work done by companies. Forrester Research estimates that about one or two per cent of consumer communication with US businesses today is via email, but predicts this will grow to about five per cent by the end of the decade. That may not sound like much in percentage terms, but in terms of sheer volume, that is a very large number, and by some estimates in the region of 50 million messages a day. Some e-commerce companies that are entirely web-based report they are currently receiving email in the order of 500 or even 5,000 messages a day.

The problem is that e-commerce sites have been so successful that the infrastructure supporting the site has not kept pace with the growing demand. Emails are flooding websites beyond their capability to handle all the messages. Computerworld conducted an unscientific study of the responsiveness of companies to messages sent to them from their websites and found that only five out of 23 companies contacted responded within the same business day. In fact, three did not respond at all.

The consequence of this inattention to customer-generated messages is evident. Instead of spending minutes or hours on hold waiting for a call centre agent, customers are now waiting for days or weeks to get a simple query answered. This kind of poor customer service leads to a loss of customers, a loss of revenue and a lost opportunity to increase market share. Should people who communicate with a company via electronic means be treated worse than those that use telephones? Remember, these are self-selected individuals that have made the effort to contact you. Furthermore, demographic studies indicate that people who browse the Web are usually more affluent than the general public and are generally inclined to try new things. These are the very customers a company wants to attract and keep. What's more, servicing customers online can prove to be a very cost-effective solution.

Email Management Systems

The way to handle large volumes of email is to give them the same importance as telephone communications and to put in place infrastructure and processes to provide the same quality of service to all customer interactions no matter where and how they originate. Experience with telephonic communications has led to Call Management techniques. What we need now are Email Management Systems (EMS) with processes, methodologies and an infrastructure for handling online customer service issues in a manner comparable to, and as good or better than, what is available through call centres.

The value of a good EMS can be significant, for both customers and the e-commerce company. Clearly, one of the benefits of having an online presence is that customers can often conduct their own research on products and services, at their own pace. A well-designed commerce site makes it easy for customers to find what they want and helps them get the answers to most of the questions they may have. Motivated customers will navigate their way through the website and often be able to make a purchase decision or resolve a service issue on their own. This kind of self-service system offers tremendous leverage to the commerce company because it reduces the need for agents.

However, such self-service has its limits. No matter how well designed the website, not all customers may be able to navigate their way to the correct information. Other customers may not have the time or inclination to sit through an extended browsing session. What these customers would like to do is to contact the company and get answers. One way is obviously to pick up the telephone and call a customer service representative in a call centre. This kind of immediate service model can be extremely valuable to a commerce company, because a customer or a prospect on the telephone may represent a revenue opportunity. To work effectively, however, immediate service models require a high degree of responsiveness that can be achieved only by a high level of staffing. That can be very expensive, especially if many of the calls are about routine issues that do not take very long to resolve and require minimal interaction between the caller and the customer service representative. For example, fielding a query from a customer inquiring about a product feature can be done via email for much less cost using automation and email than a live operator. Software Support Professionals Association reports that call centre service requests average $53 per call while email support averages $3 per message.

Many customers do not want to take the time to call a company, either because they are in no hurry to get the answers they want or because they do not want to spend the time on the telephone. They want to contact the company electronically and get the answers they want. To do this, a customer may fill out a form on the website or send an email to one of the addresses listed on the website. The advantage of communicating electronically is that the transaction can be conducted in an asynchronous manner. Unlike a telephone call, the parties involved in the transaction do not have to be in the transaction at the same time. This is especially valuable to both parties when the interaction needed is minimal and the need to complete the transaction is not immediate. For example, a customer may want to get the tracking number of an order so that she can check the status at a later time. This desire by customers to communicate electronically represents a great opportunity for those companies that offer high quality EMSs.

Requirements for a high-performing EMS

The goal of all email management systems is to provide customers with the right answers, using the right type and the right amount of resources to do that. This means that the EMS should be able to recognise the kind of transaction initiated by the customer, determine what kind of resource it will take to process that transaction and then apply the right amount of that resource to get the answer to the customer. Let us examine each of these requirements in turn.

An incoming message must first be recognised by the EMS for what it is. The system must determine if it falls into a predetermined category of communications, such as a product question, an information request, a billing query, a complaint or a follow-up to an earlier communication. With call management systems this is often accomplished by having the customer select one of a number of options presented by an automated attendant: "Press 1 for product questions, 2 for information" and so on. Email tends to be free form in nature, so the EMS must have the ability to parse the communication and determine the category from the message itself. This would be the function provided by a call dispatcher who handles calls from customers that select the "press 0 to speak to an agent" option.

Having parsed the customer's message, the EMS must determine if it can be handled in an automated manner. As a practical matter, a large majority of customer contacts tend to fall into a few categories and many of these contacts tend to be about the same kinds of things. For example, a company that sells printers may receive a large number of installation questions, but the questions themselves may fall into a few categories (e.g. voltage settings, cabling requirements and operating system compatibility) and the answers to most questions are already known to the company. Companies often develop Knowledge Bases of answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) and the customer service representative usually matches a customer's request to the appropriate answer in the Knowledge Base. Some call management systems provide an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) capability that guides callers to answers by selecting from a succession of menus; the selections available in each menu are determined by the customer's previous selections. A good EMS should be able to deliver the same functionality, but without requiring a series of customer inputs. In other words, a good system will utilise an Automated Response Manager which takes the information available in the customer's communication and matches the customer's request with a known answer, to the extent one exists.

Not all customer messages can be processed automatically. Some messages may require customisation and personalisation of answers selected from the Knowledge Base. For example, some preferred customers may warrant special personal attention from an agent. In call centres, this class of customer often receives a different telephone number to call or they are given a special code that always connects them to a live agent when they call, rather than guiding them to a series of IVR menus. In a similar manner, a good EMS will recognise these special customers and offer customer service representatives the opportunity to customise and personalise a response to that customer.

Other customer messages may not fit into a known category. These messages need to be identified and presented to an online customer service representative for processing. In a call centre, customers that select the "press 0 for an operator" option or run through the gauntlet of IVR menus are placed in a telephone queue where they are put on hold until the next available agent picks up the call. An EMS must provide the capability to identify these kinds of messages and route them into an appropriate queue of similar messages. Large call centres often use their Automatic Call Distributor to place calls into queues and then assign calls from the queues to agents that become available. In a similar manner, an EMS should allow users to employ any one of a number of routing strategies. For example, online customer service representatives should be able to view these queues and pick off the next message for processing. But if management so decides, the EMS should also support other distribution strategies such as round-robin, first available agent, load-based, skills-based, manual, or combinations of the above strategies.

An agent may be able to process a message or may need additional help from another agent or a supervisor. To process a message and give the customer an appropriate answer, the agent must first "own" the message while it is being processed, so that another agent does not also reply to the message. The agent can then craft a response by making use of the Knowledge Base, one or more phrase banks that contain standard language that reflects the company's style and personal knowledge and experience. The EMS should therefore provide for message ownership, the ability for the agent to use corporate or personal phrase banks and a spell check function to enhance quality. If the response is sufficient, it can be sent back to the customer and the EMS should give the opportunity to the agent to annotate notes to either the customer's message or to the customer's profile. Other agents can then use these notes to ensure superior customer service. For example, an agent may use the annotation capability to record why the customer was sent a replacement part at no charge if the company policy is to charge a handling fee.

An agent may not be able to completely handle all customer communications presented. For example, the agent may be able to prepare a response but want to escalate or forward it to a co-worker or supervisor for review before sending it. Another customer message may require a response from someone with more functional knowledge. To facilitate this, the EMS must provide a workflow capability that allows an agent to hand off a message to another agent, message queue or a supervisor. This is similar to what may happen in a call centre today, but the advantages the EMS has over telephone interactions are that complete context is maintained and a transaction log of transfers can be kept to ensure communications are always acted upon and never lost.

A supervisor must be able to monitor, in real time, the state of all messages currently open. Just as a call centre manager can look at the state of all telephone calls being handled by the call management system. This allows supervisors to manage workloads, personnel and training needs. Supervisors can also use this information to quickly identify any potential problem areas and prepare the centre to handle those areas. For example, a favourable product review in a webzine may, at first, cause a trickle then a torrent of information requests. Just like in a call centre, an alert supervisor can observe the initial change in the incoming workload and make adjustments to assure the best quality service.

The EMS should also provide a reporting capability that helps supervisors measure and manage the performance of their agents. Supervisors should be able to compare throughputs by agent, assess time to handle all types of customer communications, sample agent responses and identify areas that need to be improved. A good EMS will further provide the capability to survey customers on the quality of service received and manage the results of the survey. The database used by the EMS should be easily accessible so that custom reports can be developed as necessary.

One of the biggest benefits of electronic communications are that they are, by definition, recorded on a form of media and therefore all the details of every customer interaction are available for use in the future. This is often not true of telephone calls. This means that email received from customers that have interacted with the company in the past can be presented to the agent every time a new message arrives from those customers. This provides a complete context for the agent, unlike in a telephone system where the agent, at best, has access to the notes taken by agents that handled the previous interactions. A good EMS should provide not only the ability to preserve and present context but also it should give the company a valuable database of interactions that can be mined for marketing purposes in the future. For example, the database of all customer interactions may reveal that customers that ask questions about one product often start to ask about particular product features. This may indicate a need to change the product in some way or it may even present a revenue opportunity for a complementary product.

Will Garside

(c) eGain Communications Corp 1998

This was last published in August 1999

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