April 22, 2021

Tips for Building a Bullet Proof Customer Service Process in Email

If you aren’t paying constant attention to your customer service and managing it carefully you will lose customers to your competition. Use your email to improve customer service practices to gain an edge.

One of the things that we often hear from Sortd users is that customer inquiries and orders slip through the cracks way more often than they should.

As business owner or team leader you know this already but we all sometimes forget it - so here's a reminder...

When you let customers down, you lose them to the competition.

If you aren’t paying constant attention to your customer service and managing it carefully you can easily become desensitized to customer expectations. Day to day business gets in the way, but we often under estimate the importance of of giving our customers a great experience from start to finish. If you are less than thrilled with your customer service the good news is that it's an easy thing to fix.

Customer service declines when you grow

There’s a lot that’s out of your control in business. Customer service is not one of those things. You can do a good job of that in any business and it’s really the easiest way to get a leg up on the competition.

The small stuff matters to customers.  Simple things like responding to them quickly, and keeping them informed when your supplier is delayed with an order for stock.

Side note: Studies have shown that up to 78% of customers buy from the first responder. It's pretty clear that if you want happy customers, start by pick up the pace.

When your business is still small this usually isn't a problem - until you start growing - and then frequent and reliable communication with customers is one of the first things to go, simply because you get busy with other stuff.

Email - a blessing and a curse

Using email for things like customer service and customer support (in fact any company contact email address - orders@, finance@, purchasing@ etc) is super convenient.  And while ticketing systems like Zendesk and Freshdesk are designed for this, they come with a major downside - you have yet another app to use.  If you already use email, it’s just much easier to manage customer inquiries and support from your Inbox.

What you need is a way to be confident that every customer inquiry is accounted for and to see exactly what's going on when you want to. With accountability, visibility and transparency - when balls drop, you can catch them before they hit the ground.

Many businesses just use email for managing customer service because at first glance it really shouldn't be complicated.  I can’t speak for Outlook but if you use Google Workspace, however, Gmail is simply lacking the functionality to make accountability and visibility easy.  Fwd, CC, and Reply-all are the devil.  It’s just a complete mess, period.

So here are a some tips on how you build a customer service process in email...

1. Don’t use folders (a.k.a. labels) for work in progress

Gmail’s labels, which also double up as folders (if you don’t know the difference you might want to read this) are not great for managing a process.

If you share login details to an email account with your team you might have tried using labels as a way to keep track of customer emails.  The main problem with this - for most people email is synonymous with Inbox, so if you have currently active emails conversations filed away - out of sight, out of mind .  And now your people are forgetting to respond to customers.

The other way I’ve seen this done is with every email remaining in the Inbox, diligently labeled.  This gets messy pretty quickly with older emails sinking to the bottom of the Inbox.  And the more incoming emails you need to process the faster they sink.

2. Account for every email and know who’s taking it on

The primary function of ticketing systems like Zendesk is to make everyone on the team accountable for customer service inquiries and requests - the rest is bells and whistles.  They have their place, mainly in large organizations, but most businesses don’t need a sledgehammer, or the burden of carrying its weight.

If you want to start managing customer service the way you know you should, at the very least you need two things -

  1. A way to assign emails to team members.
  2. The ability to see what everyone in the team is working on.

Doing just these two things can change your customers’ service experience with your business completely.  When you start to exceed your customers’ expectations you really stand out from the crowd.  If you have a dire customer service situation, I would recommend focusing on nothing other than this point.  Once you can trust that someone is on top of every email and you can see where things are at, you can consider the many other process optimization opportunities.

Side note: How visibility and accountability work in Sortd

Gmail doesn’t have a way to share or assign emails, so we have made both of these things available and easy to use in Sortd.  So here’s how you would actually do this.

The Sortd workspace -

Sortd adds a flexible Kanban-like workspace to your Gmail - it’s a space for managing work alongside your Inbox.  In your Sortd workspace you have sets of side by side lists in a column layout (we call each set of lists a board).  You can set your boards up however you like but we recommend a process oriented approach so you can move through your process from the first list on the left to the last one on the right (Eg. New // First response // Resolution // Follow up // Resolved).  Doing it this way makes it easy to see what the status of outstanding work is at a glance.

How sharing email works in Sortd -

When an email from any Inbox on the team is added to the board (whether manually or via an automation), it is shared with whoever you have added to that board.  From that point onwards it starts to feel like magic - regardless of which mailbox you are logged into, whether you are copied on an email or not, that conversation is in your Gmail like any other email conversation. Note that an email is shared only if it’s added to the board.  Any team member can drag an email from their Inbox to the board, but if it stays in your Inbox it remains private

You can think of email sharing in Sortd as a silent CC - it doesn’t clutter anyone’s Inbox but you can rely on every email being there, available to everyone.  Even if your customer sends a reply to just one person, it’s all there - no missing messages and no duplication.

It’s hard to describe how this changes things without going into immense detail here, but when you experience this for yourself you’ll know what I mean.

Back to email accountability...

What you want to be doing is ensuring that every email that comes in from a customer is added to your team board, and that it’s assigned to someone on the team.  If you have a company email address like contact@xyz.com this is easy to do - you would set up an automation to add all emails that arrive in the Inbox to a list on the board like ‘Unassigned’ or ‘New’.

If your customers communicate directly with an Account Exec, you could have an automation running on your AE’s mailbox that will move any email from “@specific-customer-domain.com” to a list on the board.  You would also automatically assign those emails to your AE.

But all things said and done you want every customer email on that board, and every one must be assigned to a team member.

3. Have a simple way to view all customer correspondence in your team

Some managers are more hands on than others.  The hands on type generally want to know what’s going on, in as much detail as possible.  If you are one of those you need no convincing here.  If you are the hands off type, you trust your people, and that’s great.  Knowing exactly what’s happening on the ground doesn’t make you a micro-manager, but it can make you a better manager.

We all know that time is the most valuable resource we have.  Time together is even more valuable.  Face time is scarce these days, so why spend that time getting up to speed in ‘status’ meetings?  If you already know what’s happening when you walk into the meeting, then the time you spend with your team can be both productive and energizing.  No one enjoy rehashing what they already know.  Rather use that time to solve problems for your customers, or talk about how to improve your process.  You can even just shoot the breeze and strengthen your bond as a team.  Just don’t waste that time getting up to speed on things you should already know.

Besides, the best kind of leader leads from the front.  Even if you provide nothing more than moral support, at least be in there in the trenches with your team.

It’s very simple to stay in the know in Sortd.  Your customer emails are all on the board.  If you keep an eye on the board - even check in once a day, you can get a very good sense of how fast things are moving and what’s getting stuck.  When you need to know more you can open up the correspondence (right from your own email) and read it for yourself.  There is often nuance that’s lost in translation when you get information second hand.  Doing things this way much better equips you to lead from the front line.

4. Keep a note of next steps and use reminders to follow up

If you want to be on top of things, the simple follow up reminder is what you need.  Gmail has a Snooze function, you might be thinking.  It’s a procrastination tool.  A reminder to follow up after you’ve done what you need to do is the polar opposite.

The trick is to make it a habit so that you can be consistent.  With Sortd every time you send an email you can set a reminder to follow up with a note of what your next step is.  We’ve made it super convenient to do that - all you need to do is pick a date in the popup immediately after sending a message and type a quick note for yourself.

It’s a utility that helps everyone on the team keep track of their own work, but it also doubles up as a very simple status report.  Whenever you take a look at the board you’ll see the next step on every item, and the date it’s planned for.  This is a great way to get an idea of what’s going on at a glance.

5. Turn your customer communication into a visually organized process

Visual is how our brain works, so not much to say here, other than the fact that if you opt for a visual, Kanban workflow - you will be more intuitively aware of what’s going on.

6. Collaborate with your team around customer issues more, but keep the internal chatter away from the client.

Ever had this situation?

Customer to you: “Hey, does your product do blah di blah di blah?”
You to team mate: “I see stupid people”
Team mate to customer: “Hi customer, blah di blah back”
- including your very important and constructive comment about said customer.

I’m sure you would never say anything you wouldn’t want a customer to hear.  On the record, this has never happened to me.  Off the record, I could share some fun stories with you over a beer ;-)

More realistically, it goes something like this…

Customer to sales guy: “Hey, does your product do blah di blah di blah?”
Sales guy to you: “Um… I know I should know this, but does our product do blah di blah?”
You to sales guy: “How could you not know that? Of course it does. Idiot.” (said in jest of course)
Sales guy to customer: “Yes, it does.”
- including the very professional conversation between you and sales guy.

The point is - the fear of say something the customer shouldn’t see hinders free flowing communication in your team.  The solution to this problem - keep the internal conversation out of the flow of communication with your customer.

In Sortd, every email conversation has a contextual internal chat alongside it on the right.  You can use it to speak freely with your team to solve customer problems or get the information you need to respond quickly and efficiently. Your customer will have no idea what’s gone on behind closed doors.  From their point of view they sent a mail and quickly got an answer to their question.

That's all for now, I hope that you learned something. And if you didn't, then I hope it served as a good reminder to take a second look at your customer service and find ways to improve it.

In summary

  • Email is a convenient tool for keeping track of customer service without a complicated system, if you use it right.
  • Don’t use folders for work in progress.
  • Account for every customer email and know who’s on it.
  • Unlock customer correspondence from private mailboxes and open it up to your team.
  • Keep a note of next steps and use reminders to follow up.
  • Turn your customer communication into a visual process.
  • Collaborate with your team freely, but keep it out of the flow of communication with the customer.

Written by
Wayne Silbermann