Tip 3: The Backlog

The Backlog

Here is the problem; you are responsible for a very busy customer e-Mail inbox.  Customers e-Mail you at all times of the day and night.

Better still, somebody has instigated a “customer service charter” not only do you have to answer all of the e-Mails, you have to do it whilst meeting a “customer promise” of forty eight hours.

And the best bit, half of your staff are sick, demotivated and disengaged.

So you have a back log that looks like the London orbital motorway on Monday morning at 8 o-clock.

What do you do?

There are two schools of thought:

Conventional Wisdom

Maximise economies of scale:

  • Put a sort or filter in place and have somebody move each e-Mail to the right queue.
  • Focus your staff on a particular type of queue so that they can do that task as quickly as possible.
  • Target your employees on e-Mails worked.

There are a handful of problems with conventional wisdom

  • You lose staff time sorting e-Mails up front (the time your staff spend sorting).
  • You lose elapsed time sorting e-Mails up front (the time the e-Mails sit in queues waiting to be sorted).
  • Your staff only do certain tasks, so if they can’t do what the customer wants they will pass the e-Mail back, jeopardising your service level agreement.
  • If you incentivise your staff on number of e-Mails worked, they will cherry pick, pass work back at every opportunity and generally do anything that will make their numbers look good.

Conventional wisdom isn’t necessarily all that wise.

The not so Conventional Approach

1.  Make somebody accountable

Be clear whose problem it is and what you expect from them.  Do you expect them to call in other staff?  Chase subject matter experts for responses?  Ensure replies are sent?  What exactly are you asking them to do?

2.  Understand the demand

Read the e-Mails you are receiving and work out if they are value or failure demand.  Are they e-Mails the customer wanted to write, or ones they felt compelled to write because something went wrong?

3.  Mitigate the demand

Design the failure demand out, understand the root causes and stop them from happening.  If it is incorrect addresses use a post code checker, if it is because you sent out the wrong warranty simplify your warranties, if it is because you were late responding to a previous query streamline your query response process.

This isn’t a short term fix, but in the long run is the best (and only) way to solve the problem.

4.  Create customisable standard letters

Now you understand the demands that your customers are placing on you think about how you can automate what they are asking for.  By creating some standard templates your staff can respond much more quickly.

The templates should be customisable.  Different customers will, and do, want different things.  Sending out a standard e-Mail to customers that doesn’t answer their issue is a sure fire way to get them to write in again

5.  Staff to the demand

It is simple maths.  If you know how many e-Mails you are getting and how long they take to respond to, then you can work out how many people you need.

If you don’t have enough people your back log will grow and worse still you will get into a horrible spiral of customers chase e-Mailing, one e-Mail becomes two e-Mails, or worse still three or four as customers become impatient for an answer.  Under staffing is a false economy.

6.  Make your results obvious

Use a visible mechanism to make performance really really clear.  Wall boards are hard to beat.

Use unambiguous simple KPI’s that everybody will understand, (the number of outstanding e-Mails is a nice place to start) and update the information regularly.  If you have a 48 hour target then updating the data weekly isn’t too helpful.

7.  Make it important

If you always prioritise phone or other front office activity over the e-Mail queue the e-Mail queue will continue to grow.

8.  Manage the mailbox first in first out

Resist the urge to create specialist queues as much as possible.  The fewer queues you have the less likely it is that your staff will pass items backwards and forward between them, creating eddies in the current of e-Mail flow.

This makes it easier to answer the e-Mails in date order, helping with your service level agreement.

9.  Find a suitable tool

Finally if all of the above doesn’t solve the problems that you have, then invest in a robust e-Mail handling solution that enables you to track what went where and when.  Microsoft Outlook isn’t designed for people who have to handle 1,000’s of e-Mails every day.

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Post Script

Did you get here from a link from a friend, Facebook, or Twitter? This lesson is part of a 12-part free e-mail course on the essential pillars of service improvement. Learn more about it and sign up here.