Customer Service by Email

See also: Customer Service Telephone Skills

Despite the increased use of social media, email is still an important customer service channel in many sectors and businesses, and certainly for many customers! Like the telephone, many people see it as immediate—which is why you need to reply quickly to emails—but it has the advantage that the answer can be kept and referred to again.

For businesses, email as a customer service channel has many advantages. You have a bit more breathing space to find a suitable answer than you do with instant messaging or telephones. Email also has the advantage that your messages are private—at least until your customer chooses to share them more widely.

This page discusses how you can use email effectively to provide good customer service. You may also find it useful to read our pages on how to write effective emails, and email etiquette, as these contain more general information about how to write good emails.

Delivering Customer Service by Email

There are a number of situations when you might want to deliver customer service via email. These include:

  • When your customer has emailed you, it would certainly make sense to reply by email. However, if the issue raised is complicated, it may be helpful to include a phone number on which they can call you back, and also explain how they can speak directly to you (by giving your name and extension number, for example).

  • When the issue that your customer has raised is complicated, and you need to provide clear written instructions or an attachment. Even if the customer has phoned you, or used social media or messaging, it may sometimes be most appropriate to reply by email. Use the customer’s choice of contact method to explain why you need to move to email, and ask for their email address.

It is worth remembering that email may not always be your customers’ preferred method of communicating, even if that is what they have used. They may have been unable to telephone because of the time, or could not find you on social media. They may therefore prefer a reply by another means, so try to ‘read between the lines’ to check this.

Providing Good Customer Service by Email

Customer service by email is the same as by any other means: the key is to focus on what the customer wants and needs from you.

It therefore follows that the usual customer service skills and tips apply: for example, the importance of listening (or reading their email carefully) and communicating clearly, and apologising if someone has a bad experience with your company.

There are, however, some important rules that are specific to dealing with customers by email.

1. Reply promptly

It is easy to forget that many people treat email as ‘immediate’, the equivalent of a telephone. They always have their mobile in hand, and always reply to emails immediately, so they expect the same from anyone else.

Always reply immediately (say, within an hour) to an email from a customer.

One way to do this effectively is to have an automated messaging service that acknowledges receipt of the email and explains how long the customer can expect to wait for a reply (usually no more than 24 hours, unless it is a weekend, in which case, until the next business day). It follows that you must then respond within that period with a substantive answer.

2. Keep it short and sweet

Email is generally considered to be a fairly brief form of communication. Nobody wants to plough through the equivalent of War and Peace to find the answer to their question.

Try to keep your email to no more than three paragraphs, and use short sentences (no more than one line on screen) since many people use mobile for email.

However, be careful not to be too brief. You want to come across as efficient, not rude.

3. Use a formula to reply, such as ‘Acknowledge, Agree, Assure’

It is useful to have a broad formula for all customer service emails. ‘Acknowledge, Agree, Assure’ requires you to:

  • Acknowledge the customer’s issue. Reflect back to them what they have said in a way that shows that you have heard their complaint or question. Apologise if necessary and thank them for sending the email and raising the issue.

    Why thank someone for a complaint?

    Research shows that for every customer who complains, there are around 25 more who don’t complain, but just leave.

    A complaining customer gives you the opportunity to fix something that might stop 25 other people leaving. That makes it well worth thanking them.

  • Agree that this is an issue and show that you have understood it. Some people use ‘Align’ here, to indicate that this is about creating some common ground.

  • Assure them that you are doing something to solve the problem. This might be a matter of providing a refund, or passing the message on to someone else. If you are passing it on to someone else, explain what will happen next.

Template vs. Personal Style

Some companies provide their employees with an email template to address various types of customer service issue. Others allow their employees free rein to develop their own personal style. Many more are somewhere in the middle: they might provide ‘standard paragraphs’ for particular issues, or style guides.

The key seems to be finding a balance between a formula that will ensure that all your customers get a similar level of service and that their experience is consistent with your brand, and flexibility to ensure that your employees come across as human.

4. Make your email personal

One of the most important elements of customer service is the human touch. This is one of the reasons why people telephone companies when they have an issue to resolve. It is also why completely standard email templates do not work very well.

It is therefore important to make your email as personal as possible.

Always greet your customer by name, using the details on their original email. Equally, always sign off with your name, and a brief signature that explains who you are and your position in the company. This means that if the customer wishes to pursue the conversation with you, they can do so.

5. Follow it up later

It has become recognised good practice to follow up customer service emails a few days later with a quick survey question along the lines of ‘Did we solve your problem?’, with a yes/no button for the customer to respond. This has two functions:

  • It allows you to sign off the issue as complete, or
  • You can follow up if the customer is not satisfied, but hadn’t bothered to get back in touch.

It follows that you should always respond to an unsatisfied customer, asking what else you can do to help.

A final thought

Emails are a good channel for customer service: they are for the addressee only, with no limits on the amount of text you can include, and you can provide links and attachments to explain anything more complicated.

There are, however, some drawbacks: they may not be as immediate as your customers would like, and you get no help from body language or tone of voice. It is therefore worth spending time training employees about how to respond effectively to customers by email, because it could save a lot of trouble.