Customer Interface: Minding the Mail

Is customer service overwhelmed by incoming e-mail? Manage the deluge with a combination of tools and techniques.

Those tenacious researchers at New York City’s Cyber Dialogue/findsvp ( say e-mail use is skyrocketing. Their December 1997 “American Internet User Survey” indicated that almost 66 percent of 30-plus million Internet users send or receive e-mail daily, up from 47 percent in 1995. And it seems most of the time a large proportion of those users are in the habit of sending e-mail to your customer service department.

For many companies with Web sites, e-mail communication is an important component of customer service. Not answering your e-mail is the same as not answering your telephone: It’s a fine strategy if you don’t need new customers and don’t want to keep the ones you have. (For a discussion of how outgoing e-mail can attract and retain Web site visitors, see “A Clear Message”)

The prospect of being overwhelmed by e-mail may bring to mind memories of America Online Inc. Remember when irate customers flooded the online service provider with calls to complain about their service and were met with nothing but busy signals? Yet, even with AOL’s problems, it’s better to be seen as a company drowning in success than one ignoring its constituents.

The roads to overcoming e-mail stage fright are fairly straightforward: filter, rank, capture, answer and, if you can, keep the human touch. One of the first steps to handling incoming messages is to ensure that you don’t let all those great questions and answers go to waste. The occurrence of frequently asked questions (FAQs) is a statistical certainty. Turn them to your advantage to help slow the flow of incoming questions. Answer them online once and for all.

One tool that can help is Right Now Web, a server side tool from Right Web Technologies ( that captures question-answer pairs, stores them in a database and automatically structures a keyword-searchable knowledgebase.

Too many messages for the webmaster to handle? Get your customers to help you filter those messages into the right funnels. They know whom they want to talk to, so let them choose. Take a lesson from Pick Systems ( Their “Contacting Us” page has a list of departmental contact options including and

But what happens when the number of messages grows? A solution from Mustang Software ( called the Internet Message Center (IMC) may be able to help track volume.

The IMC works much the same way that an automated call distribution system processes and routes inbound phone calls. Each time a customer e-mail message comes in, IMC assigns it a number, sorts it into the proper pool, prioritizes it by date and lets the sender know the message reached the proper department. All the people charged with responding to e-mail messages have access to the proper pool. On the receiving end, IMC tallies the number of messages, notes the time of day they came in and the average time customer service representatives took to respond.

Need some more fancy filtering? Try Webleader E-Mailroom, an e-mail routing application from Ergo Tech ( Yes, it sorts by recipient name. Yes, it sends an autoresponse. But it also lets you create some response and sorting rules, depending on what’s inside the incoming message.

If the message includes words like “package,” “box” or “tracking,” Webleader routes it to the people in shipping. If it includes descriptions like “broken” or “wrong product,” Webleader sends it to customer service. If it has words like “malfunction,” “crash,” or “general protection fault,” then you might want it to go to technical support.

Get HAL to Answer Your Mail

With all the computing muscle available on the desktop, surely there’s enough processing power to read your e-mail for you. Software smart enough to answer your e-mail by itself is almost here.

SelectResponse from Aptex Software Inc.( “is intelligent server software that automatically reads, routes, responds to and reports on high-volume customer e-mail streams,” according to the company. Using neural networking techniques, SelectResponse reads and understands the content of customer e-mail messages and responds to them based on company-determined policies for routing and replies. SelectResponse doesn’t just look for key words; it analyzes context. If a message comes in that SelectResponse can’t categorize, it asks a human-and then incorporates what it “learns” for answering subsequent messages. But is it trustworthy?

The people at Aptex say their software can accurately recognize and properly respond to approximately 80 percent of incoming messages. Half of them are no-brainer FAQ type stuff, such as, “Where should I mail in a defective part for a full refund?” But the rest call for some real cognitive skills. You want a human to answer a question like “Isn’t your company being sued for selling this product?” These words and similar phrases raise the hackles on the back of my neck. What about the 20 percent who get the wrong response? And what about those on the fringes of accurate who get almost the right response? That’s not good enough for my customers.

John Gaffney, general manager for SelectResponse at Aptex, says that the secret is to limit the automation well before the first sign of diminishing returns. If the software can accurately respond to something like 80 percent of incoming messages, then let it answer only half of them. Or less. If you’re on the receiving end of 10,000 e-mail messages a day like Charles Schwab & Co., and you could buy a piece of software that would cut the number of people you need to answer the mail by 30 percent, wouldn’t you do it?

So let’s say you’ve automated the filtering and response functions for all incoming messages, and there are enough people in-house to handle the load. How do you help employees provide the proper level of response? The solution is determined by policy and procedure.

Any approach to e-mail oversight depends on the resources that can be devoted to the process. But when serious problems occur, a policy must exist and must spell out who will be involved to resolve them.

When something well beyond the norm looms over the horizon, it should set off mild alarms because it may require attention from someone higher up in the organization. So-called “red alerts” are reserved for the most serious problems or those that could lead to imminent catastrophe. Such problems are usually cross-functional and require a meeting or two to resolve. Protocol may even require that the most serious messages be electronically forwarded to all involved.

If you spend planning time in any area, spend it on procedures for red alerts-the most serious customer service scenarios that are the least likely to occur. But when they do occur, you want a clear set of instructions at the ready like hospital emergency room protocols to avoid any confusion in the face of disaster.

Don’t Lose the Human Touch

With all the automation available, it’s important to remember people are on the other end, and they may need more than just raw information. Sometimes they need a relationship and a human connection.

One of my client companies fired up a Web site and started getting more mail than it could handle. The webmaster hired her younger sister, who was on summer vacation from college. A college kid may know all about e-mail, but she may not know much about the company, the company’s products or the company’s formal communication style.

Whenever this unconventional e-mail maven got questions, she would always give a heartfelt response. She couldn’t always provide an immediate answer, but she’d do everything in her power to find somebody who could. And she followed up. Instead of signing her messages from the customer service department, she simply signed them “Suzy.”

When Suzy went back to school, three people were ready to take up the laboring oar. They did an admirable job. But they all got the same question from their customers: “What happened to Suzy?” Suzy was their personal connection. Whether or not she knew the products, customers knew she would take care of them.

So use the automation that’s available to you. But don’t forget the personal touch.