Using Email for Customer Service – Channel Breakdown Part 2

Email saw the light of day in 1971 , but only really started to take off as a channel for customer service when it achieved wide adoption during the 1990s.

image of the first car design

Just like the first car designs looked like a mechanical incarnation of the horse and carriage, the email is a digital incarnation of the paper letter.

Since the 90s, many other ways of online communication have been developed. But for better or worse, these new technologies ​​haven’t caught up yet with email-based customer service.

In this article, we’ll look at the strengths and weaknesses of email so that you can decide whether it has a place in your customer communication strategy.

  1. Email strengths
  2. Email weaknesses
  3. Email best practices
  4. Messaging as an alternative

Email strengths

Wide reach. Email is universal in reach, with over 306 billion emails sent and received every day and 3.8 billion email accounts worldwide .

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Instant documentation. As a written channel, email creates a paper trail for both customers and companies, allowing them to track issues with ticket numbers or sender IDs. And because it’s text-based, it’s easy to search and read through conversations.

Multimedia. Large files and essential documents can be attached to supplement the information provided, without needing to switch platforms.

Efficiency. Before email, most customer service would happen by phone. With phone service , interactions happen in real-time, which means that one agent can help one customer at a time.

This poses a challenge for dealing with service variability. At 11 a.m. for example, you could have 10 calls, and at 1 p.m. you could have 5. This means you will either need to hire as many agents to cover full capacity, or you put customers in a queue. Because email conversations don’t take place in real time, service peaks can be spread out.

Email weaknesses

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Wait times. These tend to vary and most companies aren’t able to provide a fast email response . And even if you do manage to reply very fast with email, your customers don’t know that beforehand. The uncertainty of email waiting time can pose a roadblock for customers getting in touch at all.

Especially in today's age of instant gratification , a slow communication channel can pose a serious risk towards making a sale.

Email ping-pong. To fully understand a customer's issue and provide an adequate answer, one often needs to ask clarifying questions. In email, this tends to result in a game of email ping-pong. Multiplied by the response times of both the agent and the customer, this game grows resolution times exponentially.

Inaccessibility. It might be difficult for customers to find the right email address, which can add to the wait time and contribute to frustration.

Impersonal. Email is on the impersonal side, especially when companies address customers by ticket numbers .

Email customer service best practices

Summarize the main point in one line

Email threads can quickly stray off topic.

In her bestseller “Everybody Writes,” Ann Handley shares the following tip for writing blog posts: start with one sentence at the top of the page that summarizes the main point you want to make.

This tip also works for writing emails. By distilling your message down to one sentence, you crystallize your thoughts and ensure that you don’t waffle.

One topic per email

In the same vein, we suggest keeping to one topic per email as it increases the odds of getting your message across.

With each extra point you throw in, you run the risk of confusing your customer.

If you need to include multiple points, it’s a good idea to number them so that your customer doesn’t overlook anything, when a response is required.

Write with clarity and structure

This tip applies to all written communication, but holds especially true for emails since most people’s inboxes are cluttered.

Here are some points to consider when composing emails:

Avoid jargon. The use of jargon can lead to misunderstandings and make the other side feel dumb. There’s practically always a simpler way to phrase your message.

Leave no room for misinterpretation. Ambiguous messages or jokes may work fine with your colleagues but have no place in customer emails.

No caps lock, colors or excessive exclamation marks. All of these are hardly ever necessary. An occasional exclamation mark per email is OK, but, most of the time, you’ll find there’s a better way to get your message across.

Keep emails short

We all want faster responses to our emails, but don’t always set ourselves with emails resembling novellas.

If you want to ensure that your emails are actually read, keep your emails, to the point, and digestible.

Guy Kawasaki offers a handy framework to achieve this: the 5-sentence email :

  • Greeting (2 words)
  • Introduction (0.5 / 1 sentence)
  • Compliment or pleasantry (1 sentence)
  • Reason for your email (1 - 2 sentences)
  • Closing message (1 sentence)
  • Sign off (2 words)

Add a relevant subject line

People are overwhelmed by emails and scan their inboxes for the most interesting ones. Adding a relevant title ensures that your customer will open your email.

Much like blog titles, an attention-grabbing title convinces your audience to continue reading.

Messaging as an alternative to email

Due to its slowness, perceived or real, email is not an effective channel for today's fast-paced, mobile-digital age.

The one channel that did develop for this time is mobile messaging, through apps like WhatsApp and Messenger.

cartoon of gauntlet

Messaging offers the convenience of email and more. Because of its asynchronous — synchronous nature, it promises faster issue resolution while both sides go about their day.

The only issue for businesses to adopt messaging as a customer channel is that it's not a universal channel. Customers are divided among the different messaging apps out there, and these apps don't talk to each other like the different email clients do.

Because of this, we've developed our customer messaging solution Userlike to unify the most important messaging channels. From the Message Center, you can message with customers on your website, WhatsApp, Messenger, Threema, SMS and Telegram.

If you're curious about exploring the power of messaging for your customer relationships, just sign up for a free trial here.