Email optimization for customer service is a myth. It’s a myth that has been propagated by startups (such as Front) and incumbents (looking at you, Zendesk) for years, but the reality is there is no way to make email a sustainable avenue for customer service. The trick to conquering email lies not in finding the right tool, but in rethinking email as a primary channel.
In the early days of email, the channel presented itself as an effective alternative to costly and frustrating call centers. Instead of waiting on hold, customers could go about their days and find an email response waiting for them after a few hours.
Today, though, we have more options than just phone and email — namely, messaging. Consumers have adopted messaging with vigor, as evidenced by the over two billion monthly active users of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Messaging apps have even overtaken social media: as early as 2015, they had 20 percent more monthly active users than social networking apps. Despite this, however, many brands are still prioritizing email-based customer service — even as it becomes increasingly apparent that consumers and agents alike prefer messaging as the primary communication interface.
There are three reasons why email is not the right solution, no matter what optimization tools you throw at it:
Email is far more difficult to scale when compared to messaging because it is less easily automated. With messaging, bots can lead users down various workflows, thereby controlling the environment and limiting variation in requests until the point at which a human agent might need to get involved. With email, auto classification is extremely difficult without human involvement, because there is rarely any context other than the actual content of the email.
For instance, say that a customer is having trouble tracking an international order. In a bot-based messaging interaction, the customer can categorize the ticket issue by choosing a menu option for “Shipment Tracking”. The bot would either give the user an answer (if questions about international shipping are common), or if the issue is ad-hoc, the bot can loop in an agent that handles shipping-related queries.
With email, because customers are not categorizing tickets themselves, there’s a high rate of error in auto-categorization, and many agents find that they have to manually sift through the body of the email in order to properly categorize and assign the ticket, a mundane and time-consuming task.
Because email is less easily automated than messaging, it also costs more. Per contact, email costs between $2.50 and $5, while self-service costs less than a dime, and bot-based messaging costs $1 per contact. It’s an oft-cited myth that messaging costs more than email; in fact, while live chat can indeed be extremely costly, asynchronous messaging is very cost effective.
There are two primary reasons why messaging is so much more cost effective than email. The first is that because messaging is asynchronous (i.e. there’s a time gap between every communication), demand-based staffing is simplified as a “live response” is not expected. Brands don’t need to “overstaff” and can prioritize response times based on the issue and customer when needed. Additionally, since the message is threaded, customers don’t have to start over with new conversations and require extra time and money; agents can close tickets in a single conversation, which maximizes efficiency.
As mentioned earlier, email is also extremely difficult to automate. Agents typically have to read an entire email just to be able to categorize it, while bot-based messaging interactions can be auto-classified either through AI or by having the customer self-categorize the issue. Additionally, bot-based messaging interactions can eliminate the need for an agent altogether, which significantly lowers costs associated with human labor.
3. Customer Satisfaction
Bot-based messaging doesn’t sacrifice customer satisfaction in exchange for automation efficiencies, like it does with voice channels (think: Interactive Voice Response, one of the most frustrating inventions of all time). Indeed, in many cases the immediacy of bot-based messaging actually improves customer satisfaction. When surveyed by Propeller Insights, 37 percent of consumers said they would prefer to interact with a bot than wait just three minutes for a human, and 55 percent of consumers said they would welcome the idea of having chatbots involved in the customer service process.
Email, on the other hand, is a frustrating channel for customers because it means waiting a lot longer than three minutes for a response — in fact, the average response lag for email is 12 hours and 10 minutes. Even worse, 62 percent of companies ignore customer emails altogether — which has eroded customer trust in the channel.
It’s not just consumers who prefer the immediacy and automation of messaging though, agents do too. It’s easier to close tickets, shorten resolution time, and garner customer feedback through messaging. Agents don’t have to wait days and days for follow ups; they can resolve issues with one conversation. This dramatically reduces the complexity of agent queues and dashboards, and also improves the experience for agents on a conversation-by-conversation basis. Remember, agents and customers are all consumers — and we know that consumers have a preference for convenient interactions.
Debunk the myth of good email customer service
The bottom line is that email customer service is not just becoming obsolete, it was always just a stopgap. The channel itself cannot be optimized for consumer preferences. In an increasingly digital world, customers want to communicate in a messaging format that is easily used on mobile and web alike. Brands should stop trying to make email happen for customer service, and focus instead on building out a scalable, cost-effective messaging-based customer service strategy.
Learn more about Helpshift’s AI-powered conversational messaging platform for customer service here.