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E-mail: still the one

This article appears in the issue April 2011 [Volume 20, Issue 4]
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People complain about it, they feel overwhelmed by it, but still they click “Send” and another e-mail is on its way. The application we love to hate, e-mail is pervasive and tenacious. Estimates of the number sent each year vary wildly, up to 90 trillion a year, or 9 trillion once the spam and virus messages are removed. Estimates for the number of messages received by workers in a typical day hover around 150. Efforts have been made to mitigate e-mail volume by using collaborative workspaces, and some personal e-mail has been replaced by text messages or social networking sites. However, for the most part, the momentum continues and the e-mails keep accumulating.

Customer contact at Amtrak

“E-mail is thriving in all kinds of business communication, and has taken the place of paper correspondence in all but a few cases,” says Sara Radicati, president of the Radicati Group. “Other technologies have grown up around it, but e-mail remains central.” Some trends are even producing an increase in e-mail; for example, the growing number of virtualorganizations and teleworkers means that e-mail is replacing conversations that once took place in offices or corridors of office buildings.

For certain business functions, including customer relationship management (CRM), technical support and project collaboration, e-mail is a critical component. For example, customer service departments frequently use e-mail as one channel for customer contact. Amtrak, the provider of inter-city rail service in 46 states, answers numerous inquiries from customers regarding routes, fares, schedules and other topics. Like many companies have, Amtrak added a self-service option to its website to provide customers with greater flexibility. Customers who prefer not to use self-service have the option of calling or using e-mail when they have questions about rail service.

Using e-mail allows customers to contact Amtrak at their convenience and to have a written record of the information. However, the e-mail response software that Amtrak had in place was not meeting target performance levels, so the company solicited bids through an RFP process, and selected the eGain product suite through a competitive process. The system has been in place for several years and has decreased response time and improved the quality and consistency of answers provided via e-mail.

When customers send an e-mail inquiry, they choose from a set of eight general topic areas, and the message is routed to a customer service representative. eGain sends an automated reply acknowledging the inquiry and provides an estimate of the time that will be required for a response.

“eGain allows us to get information out to customers very quickly,” says Clyde Coatney, program director for contact center technology at Amtrak. “All the e-mails are seen by an agent. The agent selects the appropriate response based on the knowledgebase in eGain. Depending on the situation, the agent may also add to or customize the response.”

Fostering loyalty

As new questions come in that do not have a standard response, supervisors can develop answers and add them to the information base. “We like the knowledgebase feature,” says Coatney, “and the agents find eGain very intuitive to use.” Tracking and metrics functions allow the company to monitor what inquiries occur most frequently, as well as other factors such as time for response.

Amtrak has now expanded the use of eGain into its customer loyalty program. “eGain receives e-mail messages from our loyalty site as well,” explains Coatney, “and routes them to the appropriate agent.” A set of categories and responses is now in place to respond to questions from the loyalty site. E-mails are also occasionally routed to specialty desks that are outside eGain. “We may move those into the system,” Coatney adds, “so that we can benefit from the tracking and reporting metrics in eGain.”

eGain was originally established to provide a solution for what founder and CEO Ashutosh Roy calls “the e-mail challenge.” The software now provides a hub for customer interaction, with a common interface for managing and responding to inquiries across all channels, from phone to social media.

“Aha” moment

“In some cases, organizations are exploring the social space but they have a separate group of people responding to Facebook, for example,” says Roy, “and that information may become another silo. It’s very important to integrate all the channels eventually, although that phase may have to occur over time.”

While call centers still field the largest portion of customer inquiries overall, other channels are growing, including chat. E-mail is increasingly being used as an escalation from self-service. “Often businesses will come to us with a particular pain point, such as getting buried in e-mail,” Roy says, “but after we evaluate their situation from a best-practices perspective, they realize that what they need is a consistent response to customers. It’s something of an ‘aha’ moment for many organizations.”

Although it may be tempting to automate their e-mail responses as much as possible, companies are better off having some degree of human intervention for the majority of responses. “Even if the false response rate is only 5 percent, customer reaction becomes very negative,” Roy says. “Auto responses should be made only in very high-confidence situations.” Having a web form in front of the e-mail inquiry increases the e-mail response accuracy by categorizing the user’s inquiry better, but response quality increases significantly with a human review in the loop for more complex questions.

A mainstay for collaboration

Despite its drawbacks, e-mail continues to be the primary mode of collaboration for work teams. Although collaboration platform use is growing, it has not become pervasive. The dominant platform is Microsoft’s SharePoint, with slightly more than half of large companies expected to be using it as of March 2011, according to Osterman Research. Many of those are using it primarily for storing content, though, not for collaboration. Lack of trained IT staff for managing SharePoint technology was cited by a significant number of respondents in the survey as an inhibitor to more productive use of SharePoint.

Meanwhile, a number of software products have sprung up that provide collaborative e-mail capability within document management applications. While not as ambitious as a full collaboration platform, such products integrate e-mail and documents, and provide an efficient way of sharing information. They do not require applications development and, in the case of software as a service (SaaS) offerings, can be up and running in short order.

The Darrow Company, a comprehensive wealth management company, uses NetDocuments, a SaaS product for document management. NetDocuments also offers an e-mail management service (EMS) that is integrated with Outlook.

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