Steps to Improve Customer Service by Answering Your Email

In a previous post, Why Your Business Should Always Answer Email, I went through several reasons why you should answer your email. Now, as a follow up, I am now going to go through some simple steps that will show you how to effectively answered your customer emails, and in the process, improve your customer service. It may not be physically possible to answer every single email you receive from your customers (although in my mind it should be), but using some of the methods below might help to improve the quality of customer service your business provides.

It may also improve your ASP (average sales price) on eBay, improve your sales revenue on your eCommerce store store, and also might change the way customers view your business, so crank up that inbox and hit the reply button and remove one of the easier ways to keep your customers happy.  Returning email is a simple thing and probably one of the easiest ways to please, or irritate a customer, depending on if you actually answer that email or not.

Reduce the Number of Emails You Receive

Yes, that is the first way to effectively handle a higher volume of email. Lower the volume. There are so many ways to reduce the actual number of emails you receive (other than just deleting them) that this one step may bring your email volume down to a manageable level.

Check for emails that repeat the same question. If you are getting the same question over and over it might be that you haven't addressed that properly on your website or storefront. An easy solution to this problem is to just create an FAQ page and post it in a high visibility spot. A good rule of thumb might be if you receive the same question more than three times you should probably add it to your FAQ page.

Do Not Post Your Email Address on Multiple Pages

Don't post your email address everywhere. You do want your customers to be able to get a hold of you, but you don't want it to be so easy that they will just shot off an email without doing any reading whatsoever. Most people don't really do this anymore anyway, but look at your store and see how many places you might have your email address listed.

If you have to post your email address, only do it on your contact page, and if you can, use a contact form instead of an email address. Posting an email address on your web page is also an invitation for spammers to send you even more email, so if you do post it, do not use a mailto link and type it out in full form like chipseo [at] gmail dot com if you need to post your address online.

Use an Email Client with Mobile Access

This doesn't necessarily mean check your email on your mobile phone (which is nice if you can), but rather try to use an email client that can be checked easily while you are traveling or out of the normal office environment. Preferably you want to be able to check your email regardless of what computer you are currently using.

Gmail IMAP SupportEmail clients have come a long way. You can use your corporate accounts on the road with your Blackberry, you can access gmail and yahoo mail on any computer and still make use of a company domain email address. I have an email address that uses my company domain name, but I use gmail because I can access it from anywhere. I can setup a pop account, forward my "company name" email to gmail and I have mobile access anywhere I go.

Gmail now even has IMAP support. Just a quick blog search for IMAP will tell you how excited everyone is about this new feature. Yahoo mail and Gmail both have great mobile phone interfaces as well for access on your web enabled phone. Some companies do not like to use free email accounts because they think it looks cheap and unprofessional, so if you don't want to use a free email client, use your own and just setup the account in a way you can access it while you are not in your office.

This is important for you as it is anything else. If you can keep up with your email, even on a limited basis, when you get back to the office you will not have page after page of unread emails to go through. Even if you don't respond to them while you are out of the office you can at least read them and save a little time when you get back.

When Possible, Use a Canned Response in Reply to Email

Canned Email ResponsesThis doesn't have to be a cold, dry, response, and I would say sometimes, any response is better than nothing. Find out what your most common questions are that can't really be addressed on your FAQ page and make a text document that has the question and canned response. You can make these more personal than you might think. Just write out a thoughtful response to each question as if you were emailing your customer.

Create this document slowly as the questions arrive. After about 6 months of doing this I created a 5-7 page document of reasonable responses, and it would take than the one minute to respond to each email in a thoughtful manner that the customer would appreciate.  Don't know what questions to put down on a canned response, just make the list as the questions come in.  I usually put down a response or answer to a question once I got that question more than one time.  So on the second email I send out, I just past the response into my canned email file for later use.  It really doesn't matter if you don't use it ever again.

Cutting and pasting a response already typed out doesn't take but a minute to do, and if it ever comes up again you have the answer.  I might add, it isn't the amount of time that it takes to write the answer, it is the amount of time it takes to think of a thoughful answer to write that takes the most amount of time.  Reduce that by not having to thinkg about the answer again.

Use Filters, Folders, and Labels for Automatic Notices

Google Gmail FiltersIf you have a high volume of automatic notice emails, be sure you have these going into their own folder, filter, or label. Most of the time you want to receive these emails so you have a record of the transaction, but you don't need to read them.

Many shopping channel storefronts will email a receipt of each order, a confirmation of each listing, shipping notifications, or any number of other types of emails that are automatically sent.

These emails can be very time consuming to move, delete, or mark as read. Setup a filter to move them automatically and have them marked as read. Don't waste your time with automatic notifications. You will probably want to setup filters for non-automated emails as well. Filters will save time having to hunt around and will further categorize your responses.  Almost all email programs now have the ability to automatically move messages into specific folders.  Microsoft Outlook has done this for years and even though I don't use the program any more, it was one of the first things I would setup in Outlook.  You can even have these automatic notices marked as read once they hit the specific folder.

Of course you might ask why receive the email in the first place if you are just going to mark it as read and move it to another file folder, but there are many reasons to do this, much like keeping a receipt from an office supply store for your taxes, you want a record of the transaction you can access at a later time, so automatic filters work great for that purpose.

Use an Auto Responder For Specific Email Addresses

If the questions might be different but the answer is going to be the same, setup an auto responder to answer the email for you. You can setup an alias email address for just about anything, even using Google's Gmail or Yahoo mail. Most of the time you can use an auto responder for when you go on vacation or will be out of town for more than a few days.

You can also use an auto responder just to say, "thanks, I received your email and I will be sure to read it". That is responding to your email too. Sometimes that is all it takes to make a customer happy. Just knowing that you received the email and are going to read it, and they know this because they received a response from your company.

Sometimes, time will answer an email. So, use a detailed auto responder to answer a question and by the time you can get to the specifics, an additional response might not be needed. One a recent post titled, How Not to Reply to an Email, Adam talked about an email he received from a fellow blog after leaving a comment. It was most likely an auto responder for a first time commenter, but laked some good detail or links that could have been useful in bringing the visitor back to the site.

When using an auto responder, you don't have to assume it will never be read, make it good, you only have to type the email once.

Prioritize By Importance and Time to Respond

Realistically, we probably can not respond to every single message we receive. If not, prioritize the emails by importance and time it takes to answer. The second one is very important. You might have an email that is more important, but another you might readily know the answer without any research and it will only take a few seconds to respond. Do those first and get them out of the way.

After you respond to all "quick" emails, then tackle the ones that will take a little time to write or look up. Once you take out those two categories there might be very little email left to answer.

Don't Spend a Lot of Time Answering a Single Email

I am the worst at this. I will spend an enormous amount of time writing out a response, re-writing, editing, modifying, changing, until it is just perfect, only to never receive a response or it be something they didn't want to hear in the first place. Be brief and to the point and include enough detail for the customer not to have to email you back again to ask another question.

Being wordy can also have the opposite effect, and can be the same as opening your mouth when silence is a better option. The more you write, the more the customer has to argue or quip with. Most of the time a customer can not argue with something you didn't say, so keep it as brief as you can without insulting the other person.

Concluding Thoughts

Even though the norm may not be to answer those pesky emails, I think if you do answer the majority of them, your company's image will improve and your sales revenue may benefit. It may not be possible all the time, but if no one else is, and you do, it will make your company stand out among the large crowd of online sellers and your customers will appreciate your service.

If you think it doesn't matter to your customers, just think about that the next time you email a company to ask a question (one you really want an answer to) and never hear back from anyone. Does it give you a positive or negative view of that company, or do you just assume they must be a company doing great things and making a lot of money, they certainly don't need to bother with my email?

What other ways do you have to keep up with your email? Does the issue of answering email matter to your company at all or do you just have better things to do?

Update: I just read a great article title, 10 Reasons I Delete Your Email, by shoemoney, and of course I didn't really take into account that some people have no email etiquette either. When you come across these situations, a little tact and patience will probably go a long way with your customers.