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How Pilot handled a 45% increase in customer messages during COVID-19

When COVID-19 struck, nearly every business was faced with financial questions they’ve never had to consider before.

How can we continue to pay employees? Are we eligible for a government loan? Can we take advantage of tax extensions?

For Pilot.com, a financial services company that advises high-growth startups, COVID-19 and its economic effects meant they were faced with a steep 45% increase in customer messages — juggling 47,000 messages a month. But on top of that, they also saw a unique opportunity to help customers: by sharing critical knowledge to navigate the unprecedented time.

Pilot uses Front as their customer communication platform, so we sat down with Head of Account Support Jules Funderburk to learn how they’ve balanced the increase in activity while giving timely information to customers when they need it most.

High-quality service through subject matter experts

Pilot specializes in bookkeeping, tax prep, and CFO services. When you work with Pilot, you’re paired with a dedicated finance expert who takes the work off your plate. Their customers ask all sorts of questions related to their service and not — like “how can I find documents in my payroll system?” or “Any recommendations for a business credit card?” or our favorite, “How can I refer a friend to Pilot?”

The Account Support team consists of subject matter experts in researching and finding finance answers, and they help when the Account Management team needs to ensure they can focus on delivering quality books.

Delivering key information during COVID-19

In early March, Pilot understood their customers’ need for information. They quickly mobilized to educate customers about their options during the pandemic, particularly when it came to stimulus packages like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

As a financial services company we found ourselves in a unique position to assist our customers and other small businesses.

First they wrote a blog with all the details of the stimulus package. Then they held a webinar sharing key information and worked to ensure customers had everything they needed to apply. They were quickly flooded with emails thanking them for information, asking more questions, and looking for advice.

Managing an increase in emails due to COVID-19

“Our Front Analytics recorded a 45% spike in emails during March and April; to be totally transparent here, a 45% increase raised our email volume from 33,000 conversations a month to almost 47,000 conversations. It was a significant amount of communication,” Jules reported.

They had 3 goals around dealing with this email volume:

  1. Respond to emails within 24 hours. “We wanted to be empathetic to our customers. We fully understood the need to have PPP related emails prioritized, and we wanted to ensure we were replying to all emails as quickly as possible and within our 24-hour SLA at the very latest.”

  2. Keep usual high-quality services uninterrupted. “We needed the Account Managers to continue focusing on delivering quality bookkeeping, tax, and CFO services on time and didn’t want that work to be disrupted.”

  3. Get customers information when they need it. “It was important to make sure the right information got to the customers and they were put in contact with the right person as soon as possible.”

Front helped them meet these goals through detailed analytics on our messaging, automation for quick responses, and routing that got messages to the right human to respond.

1. Respond to every email in 24 hours or less

The Pilot team used tags and rules in Front to label and categorize every message related to COVID-19. “Very early on we created two tags and a set of rules in Front. The first tag was COVID-19 and the second PPP/CARES.” These were both associated with keyword rules in Front which automatically added these tags to any email that mentioned COVID, Coronavirus, Crisis, PPP, Paycheck Protection Program, Stimulus, CARES, etc.

They monitored these tags very closely. “Our CTO was online monitoring the tags over the first couple of weekends. We wanted to make sure the emails were responded to as quickly as we possibly could,” Jules said.

Through their existing SLA rules in Front, they could monitor messages that needed an urgent reply and prioritize messages that were close to breaching.

They monitor two sets of SLA metrics:

  1. A business hour SLA to get a warning when 4 business hours have passed and then once 8 business hours have passed

  2. Two weekday clock-hour SLA rules; one that goes off at 22 hours as a warning and one at 24 hours that indicates an SLA breach

“Thanks for rules and tags in Front, we’ve seen an 75% reduction in SLA breaches in the first two quarters of 2020 over this time last year overall,” Jules said.

In all seriousness, I love the Front Analytics feature. It tells us we saw a 75% reduction of SLA breaches in the first two quarters of 2020.

Front Analytics also gave the Pilot team insight into email trends. Jules explained, “For example our busiest email time is between 1pm and 4pm and our busiest email day is Friday. Knowing these trends, the Account Support strategy was to knock out administrative work in the morning so we could focus on watching tags in the afternoon.”

2. Prioritize high-quality services

The Pilot team relied on Front’s message templates feature to give thorough replies to customers in a timely manner. There were a handful of questions that were repeatedly asked about PPP:

  • Can you help me located this information I need to file my loan application?

  • Do you know what I will need to do to have my loan forgiven?

  • Can we take advantage of the tax extensions? / I understand there is a tax extension, but can we please still file our taxes by April 15?

  • Can you recommend a bank that is accepting PPP applications?

  • What do I do if I’ve applied and haven’t heard back from our lender yet?

  • and many more.

“I happen to be a huge fan of Front’s message templates feature so whenever possible I started creating message templates for the most frequent questions we were seeing. Things like: ‘I’m happy to help here, you’ll find the 940 and 941 reports pulled from Gusto attached’, or information regarding the pros and cons of having multiple loan applications, etc.”

Message templates really helped us provide solid customer care without disrupting our services by ensuring the right answers were being provided, ensuring consistent information was given to each customer, and helping the team find the answers quickly.

In some cases they use message templates that need to be personalized or filled out before being sent. “For example, I mentioned one of the common questions was asking for payroll information,” Jules noted.

“The message templates we have built sometimes have text that are a different font color, we also sometimes use a bracketing system [AM] to indicate that is instruction to the Account Manager. We are able to include instructions on how to find information to complete the email directly in the message template.” This reduces time spent in replying because the instruction needed to research is available directly in the response.

3. Routing emails to the correct person

Since Pilot customers get dedicated financial experts from the Pilot team, they needed a way to get questions to the teammate with the right expertise. “The expertise needed to file taxes is a different set of skills than the expertise needed for bookkeeping services, and even a different set of experiences are needed for CFO services, so customers may have multiple Pilot financial experts they work with.”

Advising on PPP/Cares issues was new territory, so they had no clear processes around who should handle them. They also have a generic Pilot email address, which was receiving a higher volume of emails as well. Front allowed them to collaborate on these new types of issues to quickly resolve them.

“Front helps us route emails to the correct contact quickly,” Jules noted. “We can @mention the correct contact in comments without having to forward the email. So if I see that both a Tax and Bookkeeping contact are copied on an email, I could draft the response and then @mention the bookkeeper and say, ‘Could you please review this response and send?’ Draft sharing and comments allow us to take some work off of our Financial Experts plates while still ensuring they were in the loop and responsible for executing all communication.”

The shared inboxes feature of Front also helped the Pilot team pick up emails for teammates on PTO, extended leave, or who had left the company. Shared inboxes in Front enabled them to have access to customer emails sent to those people during their leave, so they can easily re-assign emails to the next person and make sure everyone got a reply.

Serving customers when they need it most

Pilot found themselves in a very unique position when COVID-19 hit, and even through the time of crisis, they were able to help customers get information and apply for stimulus loans. “Even though we had an increase of 14,000 emails per month, Front helped us manage these and help customers through the difficult and uncertain time,” Jules said.

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