E-mail has become a popular communication tool for people and businesses. With e-mail so widely available, why pick up the telephone and start a conversation when you can type a message or quick reply?
Many customers of public power utilities have the same attitude. They want the ability to communicate with their power company via e-mail. It’s quick, convenient and cheap. Utilities have responded by investing in e-mail technology to provide customer support.
But this presents an inherent challenge for the utility industry: if e-mail is the only form of contact with some customers, how do you retain the personal touch and, as a result, communicate to those customers how much they are valued?
To the greatest degree possible, e-mails should communicate the right message not only in word choice, content and appearance, but in the tone of the e-mail. Utilities’ customer service representatives need e-mail training in addition to telephone training. Consider these tips as you strive to keep the human touch in e-mail communication with your customers.
Respond promptly. Establish a standard that all e-mails from customers will be answered immediately upon arrival. This standard must make it clear that the e-mails should be treated as if the customer had called in. Customers view e-mail as a quick and easy way to get a response to their needs. If they have to wait four to six hours to get a reply, they may think that your utility places a higher priority on telephone inquiries and that is not an impression you want to convey. In our fast-paced world, an immediate reply to a customer inquiry will set you above most of the other companies they communicate with via e-mail. Many companies often make their customers wait up to 24 hours to get a response.
Leave a lasting impression. Create a friendly and professional greeting in your reply to their inquiry. Use the customer’s name and personalize your response by repeating details from the customer’s inquiry in the opening paragraph of your reply.
Use a helpful subject line. The subject line helps the customer know the message is a response to his or her inquiry. Subject lines such as “Reference # 0236862” tell your customer nothing and, with increasing virus issues, could be mistaken for spam and deleted. Keep it brief. Some e-mail programs only allow a small number of characters in the subject line.
Write like you talk. What you say in your response is critical. Obviously, customers need to understand it. They also tend to interpret as they read. So write like you talk. Keep the language simple; eliminate big words and industry terms or jargon. Use words that are upbeat and positive. Customers can read a lot into what they think the company response was to their request. Re-read the message to confirm that your thoughts are clear and to the point.
Confirm you answered all the questions. When a customer asks three specific questions and gets an answer only to one, the perception is that the company isn’t listening to them. Separate each reply to make it easy for the customer to see that you have responded to all their inquiries. If you can’t answer a question at that moment, let the customer know and tell them when they can expect an answer and from whom.
Explain what needs to be done. If your customer can or should do something after reading your response, the body of your e-mail should include the information they need to take action. Conversely, if the utility needs to take action, the customer should get the impression this will happen. Copy the other departments involved when replying to the customer. This will tell the customer everyone is aware of their need and that the appropriate departments know what will be done and when it will be done. When utilities use e-mail to provide customer service, one of the biggest challenges they face is making sure that the actions taken to satisfy a customer’s needs are completed in a timely manner.
Avoid Web site referrals. A common reply to customer e-mail inquiries is to refer them to the company Web site. How many customers are willing to spend time searching through a utility Web site, hoping the answer to their problem is there and that they will find it? I don’t think it would be many. As a customer, they want a human being to provide a solution to their need, even if the communication is electronic.
Proofread for mechanical errors. Spell check and grammar check don’t always catch all the errors and incomplete or fragmented thoughts. Double-check spelling, grammar and clarity of the response you are sending to the customer. Errors give the impression that the company is careless and does not care about the customer.
Let customers know you value them.. Customer appreciation is an important part of every customer interaction. Have the CSR add their name, individual e-mail address and telephone number at the bottom of their response. This tells the customer there is an individual at the company who is ready to provide a solution to their need. Also provide a switchboard number, fax number and Web site address as an alternate way of contacting you.
Measure e-mail customer service. Send a quick survey after a customer contacts your utility via e-mail. Ask them to rate your company’s response time, friendliness and ability to complete their request.
Provide training. Using e-mail to communicate effectively with customers is a learned skill. Provide training on e-mail technique to everyone in the company who interacts with your customers.
Every day, customers choose to use technology to communicate with their utility. E-mail is now a critical element of customer service. But the human touch – another important component of customer service – can be maintained by establishing standards that ensure a pleasant experience for company and customer alike.
David Saxby is president of Measure-X, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based measurement, training and recognition company that specializes in customer service and sales skills training for utilities.