We have the discussion at least once a week. It starts like this:
My husband (grumpy): “You’ve been in there over an hour. Come out and spend time with us!”
Me: “I will. As soon as I finish my email.”
Him (angry now): “You spend too much time on things that aren’t important. You should just concentrate on the stuff that will bring in more money.”
At this point (depending upon how urgent the messages are), I will either sigh and return to it later… or get fired up and tell my beloved spouse — once again — how important it is to answer my email promptly. I tell him how poor customer service hurt Internet businesses last year to the tune of $6.1 billion in lost sales… and that experts predict this figure will soon explode to losses of $173 billion.
The problem is huge.
I remember a study conducted years ago by WizardMail that 75% of online businesses they studied *never returned their email.* The companies the study ranged from members of the Fortune 1000 right down to home businesses. They were contacted up to four times with business-specific requests (i.e., “We are interested in purchasing 5,000 custom business cards” to a printing firm). Out of the first 1,000 emails sent, 752 were *ignored.* This pattern continued throughout the study.
SOHO’s and home businesses fared somewhat better than the “Big Guys” with a failure rate of only 69%. However, some took as long as three weeks to reply. The spelling and grammar was the poorest of all groups studied and they are also the least responsive when asked a direct question.
Experts agree: If you don’t offer your customers better service, you are driving your sales away to someone who will.
The E-Commerce Times reports that better customer service would do much to improve the bottom line of most online businesses.
“The average company could have improved its online sales figures by almost 35 percent last year if it had provided better online customer service for potential customers,” said consultant Steve Morrell as reported by the E-Commerce Times.
If large online businesses are finding it hard to invest the necessary dollars into more trained personnel and better automated systems, what’s a poor home-based businessperson to do? I have been a vocal advocate of the “24-hour rule” for responding to email, and as my business has grown, from time to time I’ve found myself in sheepish violation of that guideline — especially last month, when continual system crashes ate up my time as well as the messages in my In box. Vacations, holidays, sick children and angry spouses can also cause delays in your email response times – delays that can translate into lost sales.
One step is to let your customers know ahead of time when they may expect delays.
- Post “office hours” on your website and ezine clearly showing the days when your responses may be slow in coming. Plan for slowdowns like holidays and vacations and announce your revised schedule for those times, too.
- Make heavy use of filters to sort your incoming messages into folders and autoresponders for acknowledgements. These can be edited to reflect unexpected situations that may cause a delay.
- Always respond to your email courteously and keep your replies polite and businesslike. Answer questions directly, and for heaven’s sake, use your spell checker!
- If you’re a bit fuzzy on the rules of grammar, invest in a style manual like Strunk and White’s
There’s a business adage that says it’s far less expensive to keep an existing customer than to cultivate a new one. By following these tips, you’ll do a lot toward retaining your customer base and saving time — so you’ll have more of it to spend with your family!
Yvonne Buchanan is a 20-year veteran of public relations, marketing and advertising. She teaches public relations courses online for career changers, freelancers and students through The PR Academy www.learnpr.com and is co-founder of Real-World PR www.realworldpr.com , a public relations information provider for small businesses. Real-World PR offers public relations toolkits (manual/CD combinations) that allow small business owners to create and maintain their own public relations programs.