Anti-Social Behavior Again: the results of our 2013 email responsiveness research

Hey null!  It’s time for the results of our 2013 annual email responsiveness survey.  You know, where we see if corporations will actually answer one dopey question from one dopey customer.  You know – like thanks for being such a loyal email subscriber.

Perhaps I started this off with an attitude.  All of me cringed when I received the Spirit Airlines email that began with Hey null and went on the thank me for being such a good email customer.  I did, however, laugh out loud.  Most of me understands that this was a data error.  The rest of me is insulted.  Hey, I even get irritated at “please don’t respond to this email”.  Shuts the door in my face.  We want you to know this but we don’t want to hear from you.

Let me back up.  I think that it pays for companies to be nice to customers.  I also believe in the corollary, which is if you are not nice to customers, you probably won’t reach your potential.  This might not be very sophisticated marketing thinking, so I asked a bunch of customers, what do they want, how should companies be nice to them, and one recurring theme was answer my questions, talk to me, be a partner in the conversation.

The conversation may take many forms, including email (which seems relatively easy to manage compared to social).  Every customer sends an email to a company at some point, and if the email contained a question, everyone would really like an answer in 1 or 2 days.  It may look small within the overall fabric of a customer relationship, but each customer is judging how “nice” the company is to them with each and every interaction.

In 2001 I started an annual email responsiveness survey to see if corporations were walking the email talk.  The results continue to amaze me.

Every year we send out an email that asks, what is your corporate policy regarding the turn-around time to answer emails addressed to customer service?  Our list is the Financial Times’ Most Respected Companies, Fortune’s Most Admired Companies and The Reputation Institute’s Most Respected Companies, as well as Business Insider’s Most Hated Companies.  You’ll find companies such as Apple, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and Google, as well as Bank of America, Dish Network, cable companies and utilities.  As we move to the results, please remember that we’re looking for an answer, not just a return message about how an answer is on the way.

The first criteria is – did you answer my question?

In 2002 86% of companies gave us a direct answer to our question (the high-water mark).  In 2010 it was 51%.  Last year it was 28%.  This year shows a rebound to 31% (34% for the “good companies”, 20% for the dark side).  Woo hoo.

I’m not counting responses from J&J, Coca Cola, Bristol-Myers or BMW that said please send more information or Target who asked that we please call for the answer (not an answer).  Instead of an email, HP called me and left a message (no answer).   I did count when Intel that said we can’t tell you because corporate policy is a secret (not the answer we’d like, but an answer still).  Southwest Airlines answered twice, each a different answer (24 hours and 7 – 10 business days) – I only counted the first one.   Toyota replied twice, but both were the same.

When did I receive your answer?

Of the answers, all but three were received within 2 days.  That’s the first time that’s ever happened.  Double woo hoo.

What was your answer?

77% of the answers we received (25% of the universe) stipulated a corporate policy of 24 – 48 hours for responding to emails addressed to customer service.  That’s up from 67% last year.  Which is important, but doesn’t change the fact that if you want to send an email, you’ve got a 1 in 3 chance of receiving an answer in any timeframe.

Some answers (Toyota, Cox) use the term “business hours” and I don’t know what that means.  Is 8 business hours equivalent to one customer day?  Are 48 business hours thus 6 customer days?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Sounds defensive to me.

Quality is a surprising issue, and absolutely inexcusable.  Here’s what I mean.

One email said, “We were happy to receive your email, and will respond as soon as possible”.  No greeting, no salutation, no signature, no logo, no company name.  But if you look at the sender’s email, it is

IBM’s response was, “for further information, please resend your e-mail with additional information such as the product which are mention about”.

No branding, no company name on the answer from The Phoenician.  The person who sent it has the email of, so I figured it out.

Target thanked us for asking the question.  And, “if you have any more question (sic) please call us…”  Not even a stab at an answer.

On the other hand, there’s a core of companies committed to the customer conversation, folks who answer us every year, completely, respectfully, and occasionally with a sense of humor.  American Airlines, AMA, Barnes & Noble, Costco, Red Envelope, 3M, The Home Depot, Starbucks, UPS, Nordstrom, Travelers and, of course, L.L. Bean:

Dear Mr. Hornstein,

We answer all emails, and our goal is an hour or so.  Occasionally there are delays if we are swamped, but our overall average is well below an hour.

Do you have a more specific concern I can help with?

I hope you are enjoying this beautiful autumn afternoon.


L.L.Bean Customer Service

Look, the tide has turned. Management of the customer experience, in all its messy iterations, is a compelling competitive differentiator.  Customers see one company, and if you brush-off or flub the interaction, in the best case they start looking at your competition.  In the worst case they post and tweet, because bad experiences are fun.

While I have wagged my finger at those who choose not to play, this time, let’s look at the opportunity in front of us.  And it’s for all of us.  I defer to my colleague, Shelley Colby, Customer Online Engagement Lead, 3M Global eTransformation,

“At 3M, our customers are our top priority. In fact, it is our job every day to make the experience better for our customers.

We are committed to quick and responsive customer service and work diligently to listen to our customers, create a dialogue with them and address their needs and concerns.

We strive to reply to 95 percent of the inbound customer emails we receive via within 24 hours of receipt. Our strong connection to our customers gives us a true pulse of their needs and helps us respond appropriately to the changing dynamics of the marketplace.”








The Network of Me (and what it can do for you)

Come, take a walk with me and let’s talk about sales.  In fact, I’d like us to put on our prospect hats because the experience is unique.    It’s really important to our discussion.

When I put on my prospect hat, I am immediately hit in the face with tidal wave of information and media – it knocks me over and I drown.  Business, consumer, buy this, read that – it comes at me as a giant wall of water.  So I do what I expect everyone else does, quickly screen things out and build the network of me.  I figure out whom I trust and what information I respect and how I want to receive it. It’s experiential rather than planned, but now I’ve got the websites bookmarked.  I scan my inbox.  Different stuff is on my phone.  And TV is just for movies.    Inside the network of me the noise is down to a dull roar,  I can stick my head up for air.

All sorts of messages crash in and crash out of the network of me, but to stay on the network you’ve got to earn it everyday, better than everyone else.  If you do, you’ve got the inside track on sales. 

The network of me.  It comes up in every research interview I’ve ever conducted.  People parse their trust and respect based on human, individual and business criteria – what information do they need and how do they want it.  Anything else is trash.  The network is how they learn and act. 

 Let me give you an example:

I was interviewing the CIO of a regional bank.  He was explaining his process for staying abreast of changes in technology and how he decides what to purchase.  He recounted the conventions he attends, the regional bank technology association he belongs to and the online and print sources he frequents.  But, if he has a particular problem, he turns to a specific service provider.  This guy took the time to learn the CIO’s needs and the needs of the organization, and satisfy them, to get and stay on the network of me as a trusted and respected technology source.

What does this provider offer?  Certainly his core technology, and:

• The provider has staffed and trained technical personnel to help the bank as needed. 

• Through his network, he will research and problem and present a solution in many other areas of technology

• He has developed reseller relationships with several trusted corporations to bring service and support right to the CIO’s door.

I tip my hat to this guy.

There are three foundational things you need to do to get on the network of me

• The people who work with, recommend and buy your product or service we call prospects, which is somewhat dehumanizing and generic.  We’ve got to understand them as people, as individuals, with both professional and personal needs and preferences. They establish their own criteria for their own networks.  

• Develop a brand that speaks to these people simply and clearly.  Answer the prospect’s three questions:  who are you; why should I care; what’s in it for me?

• Put your arms around each prospect and develop the extensions and value-adds that increase your span of influence and the value you can provide.  Think of it as a brand ecosystem – an extended family that can increase the prospect’s satisfaction and their preference for you.

It is my belief that this is where marketing, and particularly business-to-business marketing is going.  I call it the network of me, others call it opt-in marketing, but one thing remains true – the prospect has put themselves in control. It’s their network, and their hat.