Dropping The Ball: Email Response Times And Lost Sales

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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?

Working man overwhelmed by emails

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

A man busy brainstorming some ideas for emails

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.

Further Reading


Good Customer Service Isn’t Good Enough

Would you pay $100 for some publicity that’ll get you noticed around the world? Of course you would. And it’s far easier than you think. Just be awesome at your job.

Last August, consultant Peter Shankman was about to board a plane after a business trip. Jokingly, he tweeted this to his favorite steakhouse:

Peter Shankman Tweet to Morton's Hackensack

To his utter astonishment, when he landed in New Jersey two hours later, he was met at the airport by a tuxedo-ed employee of Morton’s Hackensack, who handed him a bag containing a 24 oz. Porterhouse steak, an order of Colossal Shrimp, side, and silverware.  Shankman blogged and tweeted about the experience, and within hours, hundreds of thousands of people had read the story. And all it cost Morton’s was for a sharp-eyed manager to donate a $60 steak dinner and pay someone to deliver it 23 miles away.

That’s the power of customer service.

As the old adage says, customers will remember the service far longer than they remember the price.

A happy couple paying their account with a credit card

70% of consumers will go to a supplier who offers better service even if this involves spending more. On the other hand, 91% of customers will never (willingly) do business with you again after a single instance of bad service. 66% of customers won’t do business with you after a friend has had a single instance of bad service.

These days, social media can turn every minor service incident into a public crucifixion. Any problem is likely to be tweeted or Facebooked, and within a matter of hours, this can generate a whirlwind of negative publicity as more people join in with their own stories. According to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, Americans are nearly three times as likely to post about bad customer experiences as about good ones.

But the flip side of this is that good stories are so rare that they have a huge effect. Your existing customers won’t just like you, they’ll love you, and new customers will be willing to try you based on your reputation.

It’s often hard to compete on price and features. The place where you can make a real difference is service.

What Is Superior Service?

An unhappy client screaming over the phone

“Well, of course,” you’re probably thinking. “We already offer superior customer service.”

Really? Are you sure?

In a recent survey, 80% of businesses said that they provided “superior service”. Customers only agreed with 8% of them.  Customers have much higher expectations than you think, and the bar for customer service is getting higher and higher.

Same-day dispatch? Normal.

Free shipping? Expected.

24/7 phone support? Standard.

No-hassle returns? Duh.

And the list goes on. Five years ago, those might have been considered the hallmark of great service. Now everyone’s doing it, and those are just standard. That may be good service, but it’s not great. Nobody’s going to be impressed.

To offer superior service, you’ve got to go one step beyond what anyone expects. You have to really wow the customer, and do something that none of your competitors would do.

Zappo’s, for example, are legendary for their service. They have a habit of giving random customers free or expedited shipping, or giving them unexpected discounts – or even free stuff. Marketing Manager Michelle Thomas says, “Our biggest efforts revolve around building likeability around our brand so that consumers turn to a brand that they trust, find reliable, and have an emotional connection with.”

Zappo’s, like many others, realize the important of having real people at the end of your customer service lines. Not automated systems. Not outsourced call center staff reading from scripts. You need dedicated staff who are committed to your customers and empowered to solve their problems. Often it’s the little things that matter most. Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, emphasizes, ” If anybody ever called our number, it would be picked up in less than 2 rings. We treated our customers like our best friends. You don’t route your best friend’s call to an automated system!”

Customer Service Is An Attitude, Not A Department

Jim Bush, Executive VP at American Express, points out that customer service isn’t a cost, it’s a sales opportunity. “There are many who subscribe to the convention that service is a business cost, but our data demonstrates that superior service is an investment that can help drive business growth.  Getting service right is more than just a nice to do; it’s a must do.”

When you show customers how much you care about them, they won’t just buy from you, they’ll become an advocate for you. Media consultant Gary Voynerchuk notes: “There is proven ROI in doing whatever you can to turn your customers into advocates for your brand or business. The way to create advocates is to offer superior customer service.”

And that works for any level of business. Last summer, I was looking for someone to repair our air conditioning late one night after a huge storm. I mentioned this online, and a friend immediately recommended Electricool, a small, local outfit. I called them, and the guy came out right away, and fixed the problem temporarily using spare parts he had in his truck within an hour so we could all get to sleep. He came back the next day to check it in daylight and make sure it was all working, and called us each day to make sure it was still holding up. He did the proper repair a few days later once the parts arrived. Best of all, he didn’t charge me for the hours spent on the temporary repair or the check-up visit.  Since then, every time a friend has said they’re looking for someone to do AC work, I recommend that tiny company. They’re taking business from under the noses of much bigger companies by being awesome.

Great PR doesn’t have to cost money. It just takes the right attitude and the willingness to do more than anyone would expect.

Let’s close with the words of Peter Shankman. “Customer service is no longer about telling people how great you are. It’s about producing amazing moments in time, and letting those moments become the focal point of how amazing you are, told not by you, but by the customer who you thrilled. They tell their friends, and the trust level goes up at a factor of a thousand. Think about it: Who do you trust more? An advertisement, or a friend telling you how awesome something is?”

Further Reading


New Roles for Marketers

Marketing lady with too much work to do

Every aspect of modern business is changing, and the role of marketing is changing rapidly too. Marketing is no longer what it was, and modern marketers are being expected to take on more and more roles. Are we asking too much of them?

A generation ago, marketing consisted of doing some surveys and polls to find out what customers thought of the product, coming up with zany ad campaigns for magazines and newspapers, and boozy lunches with journalists to seed good PR stories. Marketing in the 1980s wasn’t that different to the 1960s world of Mad Men. But the Internet changed all that. The Web, email, and social media added new ways to reach customers, new technologies for getting direct feedback, and new forms of interactive or passive media to showcase the products.

But the most profound change wasn’t the technology itself. It was the fact that the technology was so simple that anyone could do it. More and more skills were brought in-house. Graphic artists, copywriters, Web designers, even animators and filmmakers were part of the team. Senior marketers had to be familiar with all these technologies, even sometimes having to gain hands-on experience. For the first time, customers weren’t something that happened at a distance, who only the sales team had to deal with. Customers could now interact directly with a company, and that meant that marketing had to learn to engage directly with customers.

Expanding Expectations

The modern marketer needs to be familiar with a dizzying array of tools: Web sites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email, surveys, YouTube ads, banner ads, rich media, podcasts, vodcasts, webinars, mobile marketing, digital coupons, SEO, SEM, PPC, MMS, CRM, ROI and a host of other incomprehensible acronyms.

And that’s just the digital side – they still need to know their way round traditional advertising and marketing techniques too: focus groups, print ads, radio and TV ads, in-store and point of sale advertising, direct mail… the list goes on and on.

No longer are they just the PR, advertising and research team. They’re in potentially the most powerful position of all – they control the direct communication with past, present and future customers, worldwide. They control the public perception of the company, and they often control product development. When it comes to investment, VCs are often far more interested in how a product will be marketed than in the product itself. In short, marketing can make or break a company.

This expansion of the marketing role has led to a more important position within the business. 87% of marketers say that their input is sought “much more” by other teams or departments, and 78% say they now have a major influence on corporate strategy.

Are We Expecting Too Much?

Marketing lady with a couple of extra helping hands

A recent study by Forrester Research and the Business Marketing Association shows that these new roles are proving harder and harder to fill. 70% of businesses say that they’re concerned that they’re not performing well in social media and how their brand is perceived online. 60% say that they don’t think their experienced executives understand the latest technology. Most importantly, 47% say they can’t find people with the right skill sets, and 28% believe it’s actually impossible.

It would take a truly extraordinary individual to be familiar with all these technologies, know what they can each do, keep up with the rapid changes, and understand how to use them to maximum effect. Not only do they need incredible technical skill, but they need to have a great understanding of your products, your market, and standard marketing psychology. Such people do exist, but they’re very few and far between. They can command high salaries, often putting them outside the price range for small and medium size companies.

Katherine Button, incoming BMA chairman, observed, “We’re truly living and working in beta, and our roles are constantly being redefined.” That raises another thorny problem for recruiters – even if you have the right person today, that’s no guarantee that they’ll have the right skill set for whatever’s coming along in six months or a year.

Many companies are turning to younger marketers, relying on their familiarity with the technology. Unlike older executives, they’re completely at ease with social media and online interaction. However, familiarity and comfort is no guarantee of business expertise. Without the experience of dealing with customers, successful social media presence can quickly turn to social media disaster. An ill-considered quip or poorly thought out response can provoke a furious backlash. Pranksters can derail promotions calling for customer input.

McDonalds and Durex are just two of the many brands who have found social media campaigns backfiring on them. Durex asked Facebook fans to nominate a city to receive free condoms. The winner was Batman – which is actually a city in Turkey, where condom use is actively discouraged. McDonalds asked people to tell their #McDStories: they ended the promotion after just two hours when they got replies such as this gem:

“My memories of walking into a McDonald’s: The sensory experience of inhaling deeply from a freshly-opened can of dog food.”

Ben Foster, VP of digital media at Ketchum PR, points squarely at one important aspect of the problem. “Don’t just look for the youngest person in the room to run it,” he says. “Put an expert in charge.”

And therein lies the dilemma – from a technical standpoint, the youngest person probably is the expert. From a PR standpoint, they’re not.

Does Teamwork Work?

The solution seems obvious. Divide the job among a team, each bringing their special skills. The tech-savvy people can operate the technology, and older, wiser heads can oversee the whole process.

However, it’s never that simple. A decade ago, the head of marketing could personally check every single thing produced by their department. But social media marketing and blogging often requires high-speed input. When your team is putting out several posts a day on Facebook, several tweets a day, writing daily blog posts, creating videos and ad graphics, running webinars, and engaging directly with customers, there simply isn’t time for senior people to look over every single thing.

Inevitably, you end up having to trust your juniors to do the right thing. Effectively, you’re putting your brand in the hands of people without sufficient marketing experience. And the more you ask them to be “edgy” or take risks to get noticed, the more likely it is that someone will cross the line into dangerous territory.

Three lessons that many companies have learned to their cost is that when something does go wrong, it’s inevitably something minor that blows up into a major fracas, it’ll almost certainly happen when nobody’s at work, and it will happen way, way faster than you can believe. Overnight success may be a myth, but overnight disaster certainly isn’t.

Training And Retraining

Presenter writing all about marketing on a white board

Clearly, you need people with both technical and business experience, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to find people with exactly the right skill set.

The answer is training. You can train someone who knows the technology to understand marketing, or you can train someone who knows marketing to understand the technology. Either can work. It can be a costly endeavor, but it’s a worthwhile investment.

However, the important thing is that you need people who are adaptable, who enjoy developing new skills, and who are aware that their roles will constantly change. That, perhaps most of all, will be the most valuable marketing skill.

The Economy – Up Or Down?

A pile of money

With conflicting reports in the media about the economy, we have to ask ourselves – are things improving or not? And what does this mean for business?

Let’s start with some facts, so we can all agree what we’re talking about. I took a quick look at a few recent headline figures from around the world of business, and here’s a few key numbers.

First, the good news:

  • GDP grew by 2.4% (annualized) in Q1 2013, the strongest growth since 2011, easily beating the 0.4% of Q1 2012.
  • GDP grew by 0.6% (actual) in Q1 2013, compared to a contraction of 0.2% in Europe.
  • US retail sales beat forecasts in May, increasing by 0.6% over April. Economists had forecast just 0.4%.
  • Car sales rose by 1.8% on May, the biggest gain since November 2012.
  • Sales at hardware stores rose by 0.9% in May.
  • House prices are recovering, showing a rise of 10.9% in March, the biggest rise in 7 years.
  • The US economy added 175,000 jobs in May. On average, 200,000 jobs a month have been added since November.
  • Consumer confidence rose to 76.2 in May from 69 in April, its highest level since early 2008.

And now, the other side of the story:

  • GDP growth in Q1 2013 was lower than the 2.5% forecast by analysts.
  • Experts predict a slowing in growth over the next three months.
  • The OECD downgraded its global growth forecast to just 3.1% from 4%.
  • The Institute of Supply Management’s manufacturing activity index fell in May to its lowest since June 2009, indicating a contraction in that sector.
  • Sales at furniture stores fell by 0.8% in May.
  • Sales of electronic goods and appliances fell by 0.4% in May.

It doesn’t take an expert to figure out that all this data tells us just one thing: some things are getting better, and some aren’t. There’s no real clear trend emerging yet. Although there are good signs of a recovery, and the long-terms prospects are good, the economy is still struggling.

The Real Impact On Business

Obviously, there are still tough times ahead for many of us. Government spending cutbacks due to the sequester are beginning to bite, and their full effects are only just beginning to show up. First, they scale back their purchasing, which affects their suppliers. Then, as sales drop, the suppliers cut back on their orders, which affects their suppliers, and so on. It will take months for the effects to fully propagate.

Clearly, it all depends what business you’re in. May was great news for anyone selling hardware, cars or houses. It wasn’t so good for anyone selling furniture or electronics. But next month, it could all be different. We’re dealing with fractions of a percentage point in the ups and downs, and it doesn’t take much to turn those tiny losses into tiny gains, or vice versa. While it’s tempting to seize on every gain or loss as an important change, in reality, it doesn’t add up to as much as you might think when you get down to it.

Think of it like this. If you were selling a thousand laptops a month, and you saw your sales drop down to 996 sales, how worried would you be? That’s what 0.4% actually translates to – four in every thousand. Obviously nobody likes to lose sales, but how much difference does that make to your business overall? Isn’t that just something you can write off to everyday variation?

Or look at the other side of it – unless you’re Amazon or Wal-Mart, doing millions of dollars a day in sales, a rise of 0.6% doesn’t mean much. If your company is turning over a million bucks a year, you’re doing about $83,000 a month. An extra 0.6% adds up to less than $500. That’s nice, but it’s not going to turn your business around. If you’re in high price item sales, you probably see over ten times that variation between months anyway, depending on when you actually close each deal.

What Does This Mean For Sellers?

The business is out there. It may be a little tougher or a little easier in your market this month, but it could be the opposite next month. But you need to ignore the tiny ups and downs, and assume that your market is flat.

This means competition will be tight, and it will be harsh. There’s not much new business out there, so you’re all competing for existing customers.

Be defensive

Your first priority is to keep the customers you’ve got by paying them extra attention. Make sure they aren’t being tempted away by sweet deals from competitors. Talk to them regularly, keep them happy, and don’t assume that your business with them is secure. Offer them incentives, better terms, or special services. When it comes to building sales, work on maximizing revenue from your current customer base first.

Remember that most customers prefer to stay with existing suppliers, so you’ve got a great advantage over everyone else. Don’t lose it by failing to pay attention – once you lose a client, it’s very difficult to get them back.

Be aggressive

Once you’re sure your existing customer assets are protected, you can go looking for new business. You probably won’t be selling to new businesses: you’ll be aiming to take business that your competitors already have. This means that being good isn’t enough. Being better than the other guy isn’t enough. You have to be so much better than them that it’s worth the pain for the customer to switch suppliers. If it’s not a slam-dunk, you’re not going to win that business. You may have to be able to compete on quality, price, features, and customer service – being better in just one area won’t cut it.

Be realistic

Finally, set yourself realistic sales targets. Remember, if you’re building your sales by just 1% per month, you’re doing better than the average.