The Antidote to CRM.
By Scott Hornstein
Wednesday, 9th January 2013
The goal of CRM is to create and nurture the customer conversation, which takes place in bite-sized chunks.

A message, an offer, a question, an answer. The arc of the conversation leads to satisfaction and revenue, unless it is derailed. A message, an offer, a question, but no answer.  Not a rude answer or a wrong answer – no answer.  The customer comes knocking, and we're don't come to the door.  Crazy?  Or is it business as usual?

2001 began our annual email responsiveness research, based on 2 assumptions:  1. Every customer sends an email to a company at some time; 2. Every customer feels they deserve an answer, not just a response, and the answer should arrive promptly, within a day or two.  An interactive conversation that has can nurture the relationship, or inflict some degree of harm.  Which is why I think you'll find this years' results absolutely breathtaking.

The research goes like this:  every year we send out an email that asks, "what is your corporate policy regarding the turn-around time to emails addressed to customer service?"  We send this to customer service at the Financial Times' Most Respected Companies, Fortune's Most Admired Companies and The Reputation Institute's Most Respected Companies, as well as Business Insider's Most Hated Companies.  The database has companies such as Apple, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and Google, as well as Bank of America, Dish Network and several cable companies and utilities.  It's reminiscent of our experience as customers, careening from satisfaction to dread.

In 2002 86% of companies gave us a direct answer to our question.  In 2010 it fell to 51%.  Last year it was 34% and 2012 brings us to 28%.  Of the answers we received, 67% reported a corporate policy of 24 – 48 hours (19% of the total).  Thus, the odds are 1 in 5 of you getting an answer to your question within 1 – 2 days. 

Take a deep breath and let's see what else we can learn.   

There is a core of companies committed to the customer conversation, companies who answer us every year, completely, respectfully, and occasionally with a sense of humor.  AMA, Barnes & Noble, Red Envelope, Home Depot, 3M, Starbucks, UPS, Nordstrom, Travelers and: 

Dear Mr. Hornstein,

Our corporate goal is to respond to all of our email requests within 90 minutes of receipt.

On average, we find that our actual response time is within 30 minutes. Please let me know how we did on this specific request.

L.L.Bean Customer Service

Companies who do entertain email communications have overwhelmingly implemented web forms, which enables more efficient management. Some companies no longer offer an email option, only inbound and sometimes chat. I think this is driven by the stark realization that inbound email can be a beast – and that we at least know how to successfully manage a call center. But, there are customers who prefer email, and those times when email is preferred. They get stiff-armed.

Quality is down.  Some examples, and I assure you each example came from a different response:

  • No personalization: The email is addressed to "Dear Valued Customer", or, there is no return contact information (no name, no contact information, no company)
  • Spelling and grammatical errors.  I can't find any statistics that correlate spelling and grammar to sales, but I can look you in the eye and tell you that these errors don't make you look smart.
  • Respect:  Did I give you permission to use my first name?  Have please and thank you gone out of style?
  • Rudeness:  "Why is it you would like to know?" This was unaccompanied by an answer to my question, but was followed by the boilerplate "We hope you find this information helpful".
  • Ridiculousness:  "Further elaboration of our practices would infringe upon our proprietary policies." Please.  And, "we respond in 48 business hours".   How many business hours are in a customer day?  8?  10?  Does 48 business hours mean 5 or 6 customer days? 
This research has implications beyond email responsiveness. It's a magnifier, a case in point.  This is a litmus test for CRM. Are you walking the talk?  Are you committed to CRM, but only for customers with a fistful of dollars and sweat on their brow?  You can hyperventilate, but 1 in 5 odds of getting an answer to your question is not a passing grade.  It is an abject failure.

Let me ask you a question - how responsive is your organization to customers' questions?  How do you know?  My answer is to share some words of wisdom on what you can expect from a commitment to the customer conversation.  The words are the tag line from LL Bean's email:  100 years of satisfied customers. Shipped for free.  Guaranteed to last.

Scott Hornstein is an author, lecturer and consultant, with over 30 years experience in all phases of marketing, research and implementation. He is president of the consultancy Hornstein Associates. His latest book, Opt-In Marketing:  Increase Sales Exponentially with Consensual Marketing, was just published by McGraw-Hill.  Scott can be reached at scott@hornsteinassociates.com or 203.938.8715.

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