Thursday, September 12, 2013.
The end result is tragic: employees burn out and quit after making themselves available
to their company's customers 24 hours a day while replying to customer emails
within 60 minutes. At some defining moment, they realise they can't do it
anymore and leave.
Where did this kind of stress come from? How did a straightforward
service job turn into a nightmare?
Here's one reason: Companies fail to manage customer interactions via
email. Many firms are pressuring their employees to provide a level of service
via email that they can't deliver.
It began in the late 1990s when customers began to demand email
communication with companies. Some firms refused, deciding to ignore the new
technology altogether. Lots of government agencies still don't deal with
customers via email. Many tried and failed, setting up generic 'email@example.com' addresses that
Others made a good-faith effort, encouraging customers to email anyone
in the company at any time. This may have worked well when the number of email messages was
low - one or two per day. At the time, it met the needs of the occasional
As time passed, however, the use of mobile technology expanded, and the
number of emails sent by customers increased exponentially. But no policies
were changed. Individual employees were still expected to respond to emails
within the hour and customers were conditioned to expect a response to each and
What happened next was unintended but disastrous. Employees became
slaves to email.
Consider the problem this was. An important customer innocently sends
the company a message: "I'm coming by to pick up the (very important)
cheque in 20 minutes' time."
Not wanting to disappoint this customer and others like them, management
tells its entire workforce to 'be responsive', which requires responses within
60 minutes. To meet this objective, employees need to check their email every
45 minutes at least. In a company of 200 people, this translates into 2,400
separate inbox visits per working day. Multiply that by the number of minutes
it takes to scan every inbox message and you arrive at a total amount of email
Most of this time is wasted. Perhaps only one per cent of emails is from
customers, but 100 per cent of messages need to be checked, most of them more
What managers don't know is that 'just checking email' interrupts
According to Mihaly Csikszen-tmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of
Optimal Expe-rience, it takes 25 minutes to get back to your most
productive state once you have been interrupted.
Do the math: that leaves a mere 20 minutes of productive time per hour
before it's time to check email again.
The solution, as IT departments will attest, has been around for a
while. The best IT departments don't let technicians respond to individual
emails in a scattergun fashion. They use help desks as single
points of contact to coordinate their responses.
Follow these steps to apply the same idea to your customer email:
1 Discourage customers from
using email for emergencies:
This principle, which must be implemented companywide, solves two
problems. First, due to technical glitches, email is successfully delivered
only 80 to 85 per cent of the time. Using email — an unreliable medium — for
time-critical communication is crazy.
Instead, a live phone call guarantees that the message is received and
helps the employee understand the urgency of the situation.
Second, training customers to avoid email in emergencies frees employees
from the constant email checking mentioned before.
2 Set up a help desk for
Let customers know that an instant response to their queries is
available at a designated email help desk. Staff it full-time, and programme an
autoresponder that tells the customer what to expect next and how to
immediately escalate an urgent problem.
3 Teach employees how to steer
Employees need to retrain customers to use the appropriate channels
under the right circumstances. They need to understand that individual
responses to customer issues might solve an immediate problem, but they create
a much bigger one for everyone included. They need to be able to explain this
My June 10, 2012 column, 'How executives unwittingly turn employees into
morons', explains why executives also need to be retrained.
The contract between employee and customer must be constantly
re-examined to keep up with the times. When this doesn't happen, everyone
suffers, including employees who can't handle the stress - all because the
problem and its resolution don't fall neatly within a single executive's
Employees bear the brunt of a lack of cooperation between departments,
falling victim to policies that simply weren't meant for the mobile Internet
They struggle hard, but they can never, ever catch up.
Francis Wade is president of Framework Consulting and
author of 'Bill's Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure'. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org