How long does it take you to respond to emails? Same day? Next day? When it’s convenient? Consumer surveys show that the speed of your email response is a critical factor in consumers’ purchasing decisions and in their perception of your brand and your company.
Email is both a blessing and a curse for modern business. Near-instant communication means that you can do business faster, without waiting for a letter to arrive, or without having to get to wherever your fax machine is located. And these days, you don’t even have to be at your computer – you can get your emails on your phone, no matter where you are, what you’re doing or what time it is. The down side is that when someone sends you a message, they know you’ve probably got it within a few minutes, and they expect you to respond right away – no matter where you are, what you’re doing or what time it is!
As our inboxes fill up, we turn to strategies to manage our email better. Some people recommend answering your email at the start of each day, then ignoring it until the next day. Others suggest disabling incoming email notifications, so you can check it when it’s convenient for you instead of being constantly interrupted. That’s great for your personal productivity, but is it good business?
According to the data, probably not.
How Fast Is Fast Enough?
A survey by Forrester Research shows that 95% of customers expect a reply to an email within no more than six hours. 50% of customers expect a reply within four hours. If you leave them waiting until the next day, you’ve already disappointed them, and you’re now going to have to work harder to make a sale. It’s quite likely they’ve already gone to someone else.
Clearly, expectations vary depending on what business you’re in. If you’re in a highly competitive, impulse-driven market, you need to respond much faster, as your customers have more alternatives. On the other hand, if you’re in a high-value market, you may be under less competitive pressure, but your customers expect excellent service. Prompt responses are an essential part of your professional image. Consultant Hillel Porath observes, “you can get an indication about a person based on this issue of responding to emails. If it takes someone a long time to respond and it happens over and over again – then you know that this person simply doesn’t care about your email. Stay away from them and focus on building your business with serious people.” Judith at Business Email Etiquette adds, “how long you take to respond will be correlated into how important they are to you.”
If you really want to impress a customer, respond within an hour.
What About Out Of Hours?
That’s tough enough within a busy working day, but what about the customer who emails you at 5pm on Friday? The one who mails you at 2am? The one who mails you just after you set off for your dream trip trekking across the Himalayas for a month?
If you’re a small business, customers will probably cut you some slack. If you’re a large business, they often expect 24/7 support. And, perhaps toughest of all, if you’re a sole consultant, they expect you to be there, ready and waiting to respond any time they want to get hold of you.
Great out of hours response can often be a very positive sales tool. I was working late one night, trying to find a contractor for a job, and I sent out a bunch of emails at around midnight. To my surprise, I got one reply within just a few minutes. Guess who got the work? In less than an hour, we’d arranged everything for the next day – before any of the others had even replied!
The Need For Thoughtful Replies
The need to respond fast is obviously critical, but that doesn’t mean you can cut corners when it comes to the quality of your emails. According to a Benchmark Portal survey, 83% of responses to customer enquiries are either incomplete or inaccurate.
If you don’t have time to reply in detail right away, it’s okay to stall them. But don’t just give thnem some stock answer. Spend a couple of minutes writing an individual reply that shows you’ve actually read their email, and telling the customer what you’re doing.
Which would you rather receive?
I’ll get back to you on this ASAP.
Good question, John. I don’t have the tensile strength figures immediately available, but I’ve asked Mary in Quality Control to dig them out for me. It’s likely to be tomorrow before I have the information and get a chance to look through the data properly. Call me & let me know if that’s not soon enough.
It only takes a minute to write that second email, but your customer is reassured that you understand what they’re asking for, you’re addressing the issue, and you’re being thorough. Most importantly, they aren’t expecting a response until tomorrow, so they won’t be disappointed if they don’t hear from you again today. In fact, if you do respond today, they’ll be impressed that you did better than they expected. You’ve also given them an opportunity to raise the priority if it’s important to them, which reinforces that you’re conscious of their needs, not just your schedule.
Now, even though you’re not answering their question, they like the way you’re treating them.
Leave It To The Software
That’s all very well, but what if you’re overwhelmed and don’t even have time to send an acknowledgment? What do you do when you’re out of the office?
Auto-responders can work well. However, they frequently irritate customers. It’s like phoning the office expecting to speak to someone, and getting put through to their voicemail. You need to set these up carefully. They matter more than you might think. Rah Gardiner of Smarter Admins, comments, ” I read other people’s out of office messages to get ideas on what I do or don’t like about them.”
Lifehacker lists the top four phrases to avoid in your responses:
- I have received your email - of course you have!
- I will read your email as soon as possible – of course you have!
- Thank you for your message – of course!
- Please expect a response within 24-48 hours – if you can’t guarantee it, don’t say it!
Cornelia Luethi, who specializes in writing copy for automated emails, has some useful advice. ” An effective response varies depending on the size of business. For a solopreneur, it would be acceptable to state when customer can expect a reply. If you’re working, but not in the office, then it’s a good idea to include a phone number for urgent enquiries. For a larger corporation, it’s likely that a customer can have urgent, pressing needs – so providing some alternative method of communication is important.”
Whatever you do, don’t use unmanned no-reply addresses. Even if you state clearly that emails to this address will not be answered, customers will send emails to that address and will get frustrated when they don’t get a reply.
Nearly as bad are emails that direct you to a Web site to make a reply. Cornelia Luethi sums up the frustration many customers feel with this. “It’s often an enquiry form with impossible CAPTCHA code! Large corporations are the guiltiest here – and these are the types of companies that should have the resources to monitor a customer services email account. Encountering this gets me gnashing my teeth every time!”
People Are Best
The best solution is for emails to be answered by real human beings. If you can afford it, have 24/7 customer service coverage who can answer at any time of day or night. They will often be able to deal with the most common questions immediately, and for the rest, a prompt personal response saying that it’ll be handled on the next business day will impress the customer.
If you’re away, consider having your email diverted to a co-worker. Again, even if they can’t make a full response, a personal reply will always be appreciated more than an auto-response. It also means that on your return, your co-worker can brief you on what needs your immediate attention instead of you having to go through your accumulated messages.
Just remember that the longer an email goes unanswered, no matter what the reason, the more likely it is that the customer will go elsewhere. Don’t drop the ball.
- How Fast Do You Respond To Emails?
- How Fast Should You Respond to Business E-mails?
- 75 Customer Service Facts, Quotes & Statistics
- How to write an effective out of office message
- How to Effectively Use Email Auto-Responders Without Being Annoying
- Introducing email autoresponders…