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Net Gains: Declining E-mail Responsiveness Creates Enormous Opportunity

1 Jul, 2009 By: Scott Hornstein Response

I have this simple notion that customer care is one of the most powerful competitive differentiators in this flat world. If we create happier customers, they will stay longer and buy more. These patterns of preferential repurchase — and referral — increase the profitability and longevity of our businesses. One might call this a customer relationship, and it is not what I generally experience as a customer of many companies.

 Scott Hornstein
Scott Hornstein

This longer-term relationship is the rubric of customer relationship management (CRM), but when we put it through the meat grinder of short-term mandates, we create turnstile relationships. Our investment is in the immediate sale. Our attention to the individual customer is the blink of an eye, and then, whoops, the doors spin faster and here's the next.

The longer-term revolves out of sight.

For example, every year, my organization conducts an E-mail responsiveness survey, based on the observation that every one of us sends an E-mail to a corporation with a customer service question — and every one of us would like an answer, preferably within 24 hours..

The survey is simple: an E-mail is sent, using my name and E-mail address, to a list of the Financial Times' Most Respected Companies and Fortune's Most Admired Companies. The list includes Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway, Nordstrom and Google. This year, we added The Reputation Institute's Most Respected Companies list, which includes BMW, Cisco, General Mills, Walt Disney and Xerox. The subject line reads "Customer Service," and the body copy reads: "What is your corporate policy regarding the turnaround time for E-mails addressed to customer service?"

The criterion is, simply, an answer to the question. That's the only thing that counts. Non-answers, such as Travelers Insurance's request that I send in my resume, or Xerox's request for the serial number of our machine, do not. Here are the results:

In 2002 (the high-water mark), 86 percent of companies answered our question regardless of time frame. In 2008, this number was 51 percent. In 2009, it fell to 45 percent.

Interestingly, four companies sent an immediate auto-response that said my inquiry was important and would be routed to the appropriate person. I never received their final answers. Intel sent an auto response that had a box entitled "Related Resources" positioned over the body copy, so I have no idea what they said.

In 2002, 63 percent answered our question within 24 hours. In 2008, that number was down to 31 percent. By our 2009 survey, it was 29 percent.

Fourteen percent of companies stated a policy that targets a 24-hour response. Standouts are RedEnvelope, which got back to us within nine minutes and whose policy is ASAP. LL Bean responded within 16 minutes, with a policy of 20 minutes. Costco's policy is an 8-12 hour response. And 3M got back to us in 81 minutes with a policy of 24 hours.

Other companies offered more interesting answers:

  • 1.

To send an E-mail to P&G or Coke, you must use their Web forms; a required field is "age"

  • 2.
    US Airways' required field is "travel date"
  • 3.
    The AMA responded within nine minutes to tell us that its policy is 24-78 business hours
  • 4. The IRS' response (23 hours, 57 minutes): "After clicking on this link, please scroll down to the bottom of the page. The answer to your question is in the sixth paragraph from the bottom." Wouldn't it have been easier to just say 48 hours?
  • 5.
    Home Depot can't tell us because the information is proprietary
  • 6.
    Target invited me to call in to discuss my question
  • Is all this intentional? Absolutely not. These are sins of omission. There's no one saying Scott is not important. Similarly, there's no one saying an investment in the differentiating care of our customers is a strategic product, and success is measured by the interaction. Within a short-term focus, customer service is a cost, and costs should be controlled and minimized. Our friends in the financial community have shown us all what a short-term focus can wreak over the long-term.

    Stated differently, you may be innovative and have great quality, but if you view customers as commodities, they will return the favor.

    Scott Hornstein is principal at Hornstein Associates, a direct marketing consultancy in Redding, Conn., and can be reached at (203) 938-8715 or via E-mail at

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