Effective Response Time to Customers

“How you think about your customers influences how you respond to them.” – Marilyn Suttle

One of the top reasons for customers staying or leaving a company is response time. Effective response time to customers is essential to keep them happy and ensure that they come back with more business. Customers do not like to be waiting – as a business owner and a customer, you would know that. A response time, put simply, is the time a company takes to respond to a customer query or to revert on the initial contact made by a prospective customer. The truth about response time is that there is a gap between what a company believes a swift response is, and the view a customer has on what an effective response should be. Ultimately, it is the customer’s view that will win – they would judge a company based on what they expect as an effective response time.

The biggest challenge for companies now with regard to response time to customers is the number of channels now available, and the expectation of customers via each of them. While some customers may be willing to wait for 24-48 hours via email, their expectation of a response over social media would range from a few minutes or hours. Whichever company seems to have a better response time, customers tend to prefer it to others. The challenge lies in understanding these expectations of a large number of customers, and managing the perception of each set, such that no customer forms a perception of receiving shoddy service.

Given the importance placed on response time to customers, it obviously becomes a major part of great customer service, but is by no means easy since it is a highly subjective topic given the varying expectations – there are a large number of statistics to prove this. For example – while some customers may be willing to wait up to 13 minutes when they call a contact centre, others would give up if their call were not answered in under a minute. Some customers (about 58%) have reported that despite ‘liking’ a company on a social media site, they never heard back from the company, which was contrary to their expectations. These few examples are enough evidence to prove that response time to customers is effective or ineffective depending on their perceptions, and a company cannot make the rules on this aspect.

In order to get closest to the expected response time, a company would need to continually check back with customers and then keep pace with any changes in their expectations. This means that a company should have invested in an up to date CRM system that allows a company to understand each customer individually based on the data available. Access to such data would enable a company to customize the kind of messages and the response time, ensuring that every customer feels important and valued – reason enough for them to stay and provide repeat business. While a company could try its best to individualize the response time to customers, broadly it would need to have some sort of standardization in its response process. Catering to every individual preference is neither possible nor feasible for any company.

The best source of gathering information on what customers expect would be the teams that directly interface with customers on a daily basis. Customers would be providing feedback on what they expect and what they believe they should be receiving. It would then be appropriate for a senior person to speak directly with the seemingly more vocal customers to understand whether the company meets their expectations and what it can do to get better. Sending out feedback survey forms, or emails with requests to comment on service, or arranging face to face interactions are great ways to understand the customer’s expectations on response time, service, and other business related parameters. The feedback received via these methods will enable a company to understand the customer’s expectations and weigh it against its capabilities to decide the most effective and reasonable response time to customers. While this response time must be aligned to the company’s commitment and level of customer service it promises, it must also be financially beneficial to the company.

While it is important to calculate the most effective response time to customers, doing so for the larger part of the customer base is certainly not easy. While we know that effectiveness of response time is subjective, the fact is that no company can afford to ignore or delay responses beyond a point. Customers will assume that delay in responses means that a company is either avoiding them or purposefully trying to mislead them – such seeds of doubt usually end with customers leaving. The thumb rule with regard to response time to customers is that there must be an immediate ‘holding’ response – “we have received your query. Please allow us X number of hours to send you a detailed response”. Receiving a customized response like this would instantly put the customers at ease, and they would be more likely to stay open-minded on the solutions provided later by the company. The absence of a holding response creates annoyance and distrust in the mind of the customers – leading them to believe that the company is ignoring them and is uninterested in helping them.

To ensure regular and effective response time to customers, each department within a company must work together as a seamless unit. As we have discussed before, the speed of responses to customers is not dependent only on the customer service team. They would need information from various departments – for example, if a customer would like information on the time of delivery of a shipment, the customer service team would need this information from the logistics team in order to provide it to the customer. If the logistics team were slow in providing the details, the service team in turn would appear inefficient and sluggish, messing up the overall image of a company. Smooth workflow and coordination between departments then, is essential for a company to maintain an effective and speedy response time to customers.

Post responding to customers and letting them know that the company is working on the problem / query, the other part of effective responses is to ensure a quick and workable resolution. Dawdling on the resolution would invite the ire of the customer, which could quickly become known to others via negative comments posted by the customer over social media. The visibility and instant reach of social media can easily turn ugly, damaging the reputation of the company. The sooner a company can take charge and resolve the issue, the easier would damage control become. The harsh reality however, of customer comments is that some could be unreasonably negative, even bordering on impolite. However, a company cannot afford to respond to such comments in the same manner, especially via a highly visible platform. Responding rudely or matching the tone of the customer comment would invite negativity and would most definitely cause a huge dent to the reputation of the company, both online and offline.

Whatever methods a company resorts to, the end result should be effective response time to customers, consistently. There is no data to show customer acceptability of slow responses. Irrespective of the company, or the time of day the query is sent, or the department to which it is addressed, customers expect that they would receive a response. Failure to comply would certainly lead to a plethora of problems for a company – including, but not limited to customer churn, lowered earnings, and a damaged reputation. Do not let your company fall prey.

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