There’s that famous line in Pulp Fiction where Mia Wallace asks Vincent Vega, “In conversation, do you listen? Or wait to talk?”
If we’re all being brutally honest with ourselves, most of us would answer a lot like Vincent: We wait to talk, but we’re trying harder to listen. And that’s the distinction, isn’t it? The effort it takes to listen. Our inertia is always driving us toward our next sentence. Our next brilliant thought. We have to actively try to listen — to really listen, not just to hear.
The default state for humans is “wait-to-talk.” So it doesn’t surprise me at all that companies do the same thing almost all the time. We have elaborate strategies for when to send email and when to tweet. We have stringent criteria for pushing notifications in-app. We agonize over our messaging and tone and voice. We have full-time communications staff to plan every word we say, every day, every year.
We’re not so much waiting to talk. We’re champing at the bit to talk.
But how much strategy do we put into listening?
This isn’t just abstract philosophizing. HubSpot found that 42% of companies they surveyed don’t collect surveys or feedback of any kind. Gartner data shows a drop-off of 50 percentage points between companies who collect feedback and companies that even alert internal staff members of the results.
Most companies aren’t really listening to customers. But it’s tough to blame them entirely. Just like Vincent Vega — just like all of us — it’s not easy to listen. And it’s even more difficult for companies.
Why listening to customers is hard
Imagine you’re having a conversation face-to-face with a friend. You have each other’s undivided attention. You can hear their words, see their body language, take in their tone of voice. You have the entire context of your relationship history in your memory.
And you still struggle to listen sometimes!
Now take away the non-verbals. Take away the context of a friendship. Replace it with an email from a customer and — oh yeah — multiply that email a thousand times over.
Actual footage of inbound email management.
Inbound email management will always be tough, but the problem of scale is what makes it insurmountable for many companies. If you’re growing, you’ll always be gaining more customers. And along with that inevitably comes more inbound customer emails. You’ll never be able to grow your headcount at the same rate as your customer base. So that leaves you with the dreaded choice: what do I sacrifice to scale?
We see this decision as a triangle with three vertices, each pulling on each other:
The Equilateral Triangle of Inbound Email Management (TM)
Volume: This isn’t total inbound email volume — that’s out of your control and should steadily increase as your user base increases. It’s volume of inbound messages per responding team member. You can balance that volume by adding or reducing responding team members. The fewer team members you have, the more each one has to handle. The higher the volume per person, the more it affects speed and impact (not to mention employee well-being!).
Speed: There are a lot of ways to measure how quickly your team is acting on inbound emails. Response time (how fast you reply to an email) is the most common, but there’s also reaction time (how fast you take action on an email) and resolution time (how fast you resolve the issue at the heart of the email). We’ll break down each later, but the faster you go, the more likely you are to make mistakes, which can lead to even more volume, plus it hurts your impact. Speed can also be costly, and is affected by volume and standards of impact as well.
Impact: This is the end goal. How helpful and accurate are your responses? How positive is the customer’s experience (CX)? Ultimately that’s what you should be optimizing for, as CX has a direct correlation to your company’s revenue. But the better your responses, the slower you go. The more personal attention they take, which means the more people you need to handle the volume. You can go faster, but you might be less helpful, less accurate.
Fortunately, it’s not hopeless! With the right strategy and framework, we can optimize each vertex of the triangle. And as each one improves, it lightens the burden on the other two as an effect.
A three part strategy for inbound email management
So, broadly speaking, we need to do three things at once. The better we do any of the three, the easier it gets to do all of the three. Here we go:
Optimize the amount of emails any given representative has at any given time.
Make it easier to not just respond faster, but take action faster — and ultimately resolve issues faster.
Increase the accuracy and helpfulness of your outbound replies to improve your customer experiences.
Let’s tackle each objective one by one.
1. Optimize inbound email volume per rep
You can’t just hire your way out of this problem, but it’s going to take teamwork. Most companies use aliases for inbound email — like “email@example.com” or “firstname.lastname@example.org.” When people send email, they get copied into the inboxes of everyone on that email list. That leaves everyone still working individually on team problems.
Your first step is to route all inbound emails into a true shared inbox. Everyone on the team can see all the emails as well as what actions have been taken. Team-based email management is an effective force-multiplier. Each person can dip from the “well” as they finish up the last email. They can take vacations or work in shifts without piling extra work onto the rest of the team.
The next step is to intelligently assign inbound emails to the team. Help desk ticketing software works by taking a number and assigning it to a support rep. If you take this concept and apply it to inbound emails, it’s a highly efficient way to manage volume — and it doesn’t involve a single ticket number! Emails are still managed by a team, but an individual is given responsibility for “ownership” over each message.
Lastly, you can use the power of software technology to automatically balance the load of emails on each rep. Using algorithms to route emails to reps based on what percentage of their maximum workload they’re at can make sure each person isn’t over-stressed or under-leveraged.
2. Respond and react to inbound emails faster
How fast are you responding to inbound emails? How long does it take for someone on your team to take any action on the email? And how long does it take for each email to go from receipt to resolution?
The first step is knowing the answers — and you know what that means! Data.
You might be surprised how few companies are measuring analytics around their inbound emails. And if they are, it’s mostly around response time. But that tends to treat all emails alike even though they’re anything but.
For example, an urgent customer service issue from your biggest customer isn’t anywhere near as pressing as a casual question from an interested prospect. You really shouldn’t be responding to them equally quickly. You should respond to urgent emails quicker and save non-urgent ones for later.
To do that, you need to sort them first. Tagging an email as “high priority” marks it for fast response. Tagging it as “low priority” lets you get to it once you’ve finished the more important stuff. Making a tag counts as an action, which lets you improve your reaction time. It also helps you get more granular with your metrics, so you can improve how fast you resolve urgent emails.
And again, with software technology you can even take the tagging step out of the equation by automating it. Simple rules can automatically sort inbound emails into buckets based on priority, geography, whether the sender is a VIP or not… the sky’s the limit.
3. Make more impact with your inbound email replies
Finally, you want to make more of an impact. When you’re moving too fast or trying to handle too much at once, customer experience suffers. By solving the first two problems, you’ve probably already gotten a lot better at this, but there’s more we can do.
Remember, we’re trying to improve how accurate and helpful our messages are, without adding a lot of time or work to our plates.
Thankfully, technology can help us out here as well.
Templates and tokens are simple ways to standardize the information you use a lot so you don’t a.) waste time typing it all up and b.) make mistakes while you’re doing it. You probably find yourself using the same or similar replies a lot in a given work day. Those should be templates you can bring up with just a click or two. (We call them message templates.)
Tokens work the same way, except they can automatically vary based on who’s sending or receiving the message. These are things like “sender name” or “company name.” You can save a lot of time with tokens while not losing the personal nature of your email replies.
And lastly, it really helps to not be switching windows or tabs all the time to find the information you need to respond accurately and helpfully. Let’s say you need to check on the status of an order in your database. You switch windows, pull it up, copy and paste it into the reply. What if that information was easily accessible right next to your reply composer? You wouldn’t risk a mistake, you wouldn’t waste time switching contexts, and you’d probably feel a lot happier.
A final word on inbound email
You’re already relying on technology to manage inbound email, because email is (duh) technology! But it wasn’t built for inbound email management on the scale we’re trying to use it. If you find yourself struggling with the volume, speed, or impact of your inbound emails, you really should take a look at Front. It was built to solve exactly this problem. It helps you really listen, not just wait to speak. But when you do speak, it helps you do that too!
Written by Matthew Klassen
Originally Published: 29 July 2020