The Email Response: Make It Personal

In my research, I have found that consumers appreciate personalized communication. They want a human connection. If there is an issue to be resolved or an answer that can't be found on the Internet, they want to interact with company associates who are respectful and responsive and who value their business.

Email communication has been mainstream for a number of years. When it first became an alternate channel to telephone inquiries, some futurists claimed that the telephone would disappear at the contact center; in other words, customers would not bother to call to ask questions or have problems resolved.

Obviously, that never happened. Consumers still take the time to call if they think they will get a faster or more comprehensive response on the phone than through other channels.

However, email is becoming a preferred method of communication. Initially, executives expressed concerns that email could not and would not be as warm and personal as the telephone interaction. Theywere worried that customer satisfaction for email transactions could never be as high as those for telephone. They did not believe email could convey information while still containing a personal touch.

Go back in time before the invention of the telephone. People communicated passion, love, and interest through the written word. So the question is: how do contact centers answer questions or solve problems through email while maintaining a human connection?

Some consultants maintain that consumers want to read email and instantly find responses to their questions. They suggest making it short and concise, getting right to the point, and keeping it anonymous; no need for anything personal. Customers get frustrated easily and don't require any niceties.

I disagree. While email responses should not be long-winded or robotically scripted, companies must understand that every customer is a person first and will appreciate courtesy, whether on the phone or through email. It is possible that an individual will only write to a company once, and it is vital to make that important connection to establish a bond.

To personalize electronic communications, it is helpful to segment any email into three components: the greet, the assist, and the leave-behind. Each section has a distinct purpose and demonstrates to customers that they are unique and that their business is valued. If you are concerned that the answer might not be readily viewed in a longer email, bolding the specific response as part of the script is a good compromise.

The greet: The purpose of the greet is to build a human connection before responding to customer questions or addressing their concerns. Here are some suggestions:

  • Always use the customer's name. Never say, Dear Valued Customer. I prefer using the customer's first name if they provide it. Of course, if the email is signed Mary Smith it might be safer to use, Ms. Smith.
  • Mention something in the first paragraph that's not directly related to the issue, such as, "I hope you had a good weekend," or "I hope your week is going well."
  • No matter what the issue is, write, "I can help you with that." It could involve referring them to another department or even another company, but customers like when associates take responsibility.
  • Acknowledge the customers' loyalty. If the customer says, "I have been purchasing your brand my entire life," say, "We appreciate your past loyalty."
  • Actively listen for underlying emotions. Sometimes the emotion is obvious from the text, sometimes it's not. But if the customer writes that he is frustrated, then it is appropriate to respond, "I understand you are frustrated, but I can help you with that."
  • Read the email for information not directly related to the issue. If the customer says, "I just had a baby and I have a question about your baby wipes," first congratulate the customer on the birth of the child. You will make an instant friend.

The assist: The purpose of the assist is to answer questions and provide additional resources or alternative channels for the customer to obtain supplemental insights. Here are some recommendations:

  • Provide as much information as possible when responding to questions. If Web sites contain valuable added information, recommend them.
  • Convey to customers that if answers are not exactly what they were hoping or looking for, they can call the department where they might be able to have more in-depth conversations.
  • Give consumers the telephone numbers of your department and the hours so when they read the email, they know the best time to reach your company that's convenient for them, too.

The leave-behind: The purpose of the leave-behind is to leave customers with the feeling that their issues were not a problem and that you want them to contact you again for any concerns or questions. Here are some examples:

  • Communicate to customers that it was pleasure to help them and never say, "No problem."
  • Tell them that you hope you resolved their issues or answered their questions and to please contact you again anytime. That's what your department is there for.
  • End with, "Have a wonderful week, weekend, or day."
  • Always close with an individual representative';s name and contact information; never close with ABC Customer Service.

I also can't stress enough just how critical it is to ensure a timely response. Email should be answered within four hours during the business day and by the next morning if after hours. Best-in-class companies have 24/7 employees who always respond quickly. Taking long to answer email relays the message that the customer is not very important to your business.

If you walked into a store and no one said hello or asked if you needed help for 20 minutes you would feel disrespected. It's the same for email response time.

Personalized email responses are opportunities for any company or organization to make human connections and create relationships. Without the relationship component, the interaction is just a transaction Creating a bond between a company, its representative, and the customer becomes part of a journey that should never end. Email responses are an important step in that process.

Richard Shapiro is president and founder of The Center for Client Retention.