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At 0-10 employees, most startups are either directly supporting their customers through email and phone, or using a shared email inbox with a support@company.com address. For very small startups, the CEO may be running the inbox, and then gradually sharing it as more and more team members come on. This system usually works out just fine, until you hit what in chemistry is called a saturation point.

This is the point at which no more of a substance can be absorbed. Think of a sponge: the saturation point is when it has absorbed all of the water it can hold. For email, that point hits at about 20 customers and 5 employees sharing the email inbox. Once the inbox can no longer absorb the help requests its getting, the requests start to bleed out: into Twitter, into personal phone calls (bet you regret giving that customer your cell phone number now), and into bad app store ratings.

In chemistry, it looks like this:

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In business it looks like this:

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Here are the tell-tale signs that your shared email inbox is reaching its saturation point:

  1. Multiple people in your company respond to one customer inquiry
  2. A customer doesn’t get a response in a timely manner because there’s no way to tell who has already responded
  3. Customers are leaving bad app ratings
  4. Customers are asking for help on Twitter or other channels
  5. Customers are all asking the same questions about bugs etc.
  6. You want customer feedback but have no standardized way to get it
  7. Customers are not self educating or self-serving
  8. Customers’ problems are being lost in multiple threads
  9. Your team wants data on customer support
  10. Customers are churning after sending in support tickets

Any combination of these should indicate to you that it is time to move on. Email was created for 1:1 communication, not for many to one communication. When you have numerous agents on the same inbox, customers end up with confusing, disorganized responses, and agents are left without data on what they’re doing.

The Solution Options

The cup runneth over. When you’ve reached this point, there are several solutions you can employ. Uber went the way of in-app FAQ’s and chat- this solution is great for app-based products. You get custom device data to more easily assist your customers, can easily track support tickets, and encourage users to stay inside of your app.

For web-based companies, you can use desktop chat, or you can actually stay with email but use a collaborative inbox system for managing and assigning email support requests. These systems can work for a time, but are basically just putting a bandaid on a festering wound. Email is a broken system, but fixing it doesn’t address the underlying issue: that users prefer to self serve or to chat. If customers are bouncing off of the page in the middle of a chat conversation (I’ve certainly been known to do that with Comcast), then you can utilize email backend organization to interact with customers, but it will result in longer resolution times.

At the end of the day, email was created for person-to-person conversations, and is inadequate for support. On top of that, younger generations are using email less and less, and it will eventually become largely obsolete- with businesses using systems like Slack and HipChat for internal communication, and chat for external communication. Don’t wait until it has become obsolete to switch to other support channels.

Published August 17, 2016
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