Your customers hate your group email box (and you should too)

I’m currently dealing with two group email box issues. In one instance, I’m a frustrated customer, irritated beyond belief by the lack of response to my repeated email service requests. In the other instance, I’m the party ultimately responsible for a group email box, and I’m getting an earful from a frustrated customer. The overlay of these two, unrelated incidents is perfect: Some sort of cosmic justice is clearly being served.

Stages of Group Email Box Grief

You might be familiar with the Kübler-Ross model, which shows how grieving people progress through Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. I think something similar happens when any of us try to use a poorly managed group email box. It goes something like this:

  • Hope. After the initial disappointment of not finding a human being with whom we can interact directly, we console ourselves that, at least, our problem has been recognized by our service provider. By creating a named email box, the service provider is clearly implying that help is a click or two away. Got a generic question about your health plan coverage? Email Need help from someone in Finance to get an expense check cut? Why, sounds like a productive place to turn. But the relief at finding such elegant, targeted service solutions is often short-lived.

  • Perplexity. After a day or so of non-response, we wonder. Did I really send an email to that email box? Did it get through? If it got through, did anyone read it? This stage is characterized by self-doubt and forensic examination. We check and recheck our Inbox, Spam Folder, and Sent Mail under the (reasonable, by the way) assumption that if the tool was working, someone would have responded by now.

  • Dismay. A week has passed. On the realization that no process could possibly take this long, Dismay sets in. In this stage, we ratchet up the pressure, typically by resending our original note with a snarky addition, like, “I really would like to hear from someone on this! Please?”

  • Anger & Activation. At this stage, we realize that help is not forthcoming. For most of us, this happens between Day 7 and Day 8. (Though my experience with them suggests that Millenials make the entire progression from Hope to Anger & Activation in as little as an hour.) We start looking for alternatives, as confidence in the system plummets. In the extreme, we try to get face to face with someone who can solve our problem (“I’m going to drive in to the cell phone store and make them solve this billing issue!”). But alternatives include calling switchboards and asking for the CEO, starting a Twitter rant, or activating a defection to other providers. None of these reactions enhance a customer relationship.

The Service Provider’s Response

As a service provider myself, I’m embarrassed to admit that emails to don’t always get perfect, productive responses. Of course we have a process in place that routes inbound queries to more than one person, to make sure we don’t run into out of office issues. But things occasionally fall through the cracks, due to technical reasons (e.g., aggressive, evolving spam filters), scheduling quirks (e.g., all Celent staff are in the same meeting), or simply due to human nature.

The latter category is particularly vexing. When several people are responsible for something, the real-world effect is that no one feels responsible. I’m convinced that using an info@ email box inevitably lessens the sense of accountability and responsibility that drives all effective service teams. Add in the dynamic of impersonal, electronic communicationswhich by its nature generates less empathy than a simple conversation between two human beings and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

In this annoying age of one-to-many communication (says the blogger, ignoring the irony), there’s a strong case to be made for enabling more direct, personal connections. Many companies will resist this old-fashioned, and by some measures, expensive, view. They will go down the path blazed by online retailers, and try in vain to provide acceptable service levels via FAQ and info@ email boxes. But the price they will pay is customers who frequently progress to Anger & Activation, and then walk away grumbling.

A smarter play is for firms to foster real relationships with their customers. For me, that means going old school. Making it easier for customers to navigate to a real person who is ready to listen and willing to solve problems. I’ve told my team to plaster their direct contact info on every report, presentation, and marketing piece. I’ll keep the address open as a benign trap for spammers. But the rest of you are encouraged to email me directly at

Striking data point from Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2015 report

I spoke this morning with an operations executive at a large insurer which distributes personal lines products through independent agents. He said that they are working feverously to deliver digital service tools to the customer service representatives (CSRs) at agents because they know that the average CSR is now 19 to 26 years old. This insurer is transitioning from a telephony-centered approach to one which includes chat, secure messaging, and intelligent avatars in order to meet CSRs’ expectations about how service should be done. As any insurer distributing through the independent channel knows, the company that keeps the CSRs happy wins! In our innovation research, we repeatedly see the influence of Millennials’ expectations around the consumer experience, but a data point from Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2015 report identifies an equal, if not higher, motivator for change from workers. Millennials now represent the largest percentage of the U.S. workforce. Take a close look at Slide 109. It shows that in 2015, for the first time, Millennials make up 35% of U.S. workers. Gen X and Boomers represent 31% each. The data signals a tipping point and it is pretty clear which way this trend is going to continue. Watch as the buzzword “Worker Experience” is added to the already well-worn “Consumer Experience.” For insurers that want to gain an advantage with their own workers, and with their distributors’ CSRs, the field is wide-open. All they need to do is innovate, experiment, put some funds at risk, and transition to digital working. KPCB

It’s The Little Things

I bought my wife some flowers recently, and was shocked to discover that the florist—as of this minute, my ex-florist—no longer gives out those little cards you tuck in the arrangement. The person behind the counter said, “We have these new ones from Hallmark, for only 99 cents…” Huh? I’m spending $20 on cut flowers that cost you only $5, and you think it’s smart to eliminate the cards that cost you two cents each? That’s nonsense. The real story here is that service experiences cannot be disaggregated. As a customer, I don’t view the Buy Wife Flowers Exercise as 10 separate steps, each with its own decision tree and cost benefit. I want it all, end to end, seamlessly. A good selection of fresh flowers, nice vases, honest and helpful service, a fast checkout process, maybe some ribbon, and those little cards that make sure I get full credit for my thoughtfulness. For that, I’m willing to pay $20. Start messing with the formula, I assure you I will look elsewhere. It’s the same with all of my financial institutions. The basic product features and price are important. So, too, are how they sell to me, how they communicate routinely with me, what happens when things go wrong. And if I’m sitting across the desk from someone, how they treat my five-year-old when he interrupts a financial transaction with an explanation of his favorite Lego. It all matters. The institutions I am loyal to are the ones that understand this. For example, I got an honest-to-goodness email from someone in a local bank branch when she noticed something unusual about my account that was, in fact, my mistake. “It didn’t look right, so I thought I’d ask,” she said. Problem solved, customer won over. In the case of the Lego interruption (a different bank), the rep couldn’t have been more patient, which taught my son an important lesson about polite listening. The next time the bank calls me to offer a new service, I’ll return the favor. I’m still waiting for one of my insurers or my broker to do something small but meaningful to convince me that I’m something other than a random, periodic check for them. They’ve got the big pieces in place, which is why I have relationships with them. But until I experience the extra touches and perhaps an occasional nice surprise, I’ll keep my eyes open for other providers.

New Year, New Tools to Service Insurance Customers

For those interested in how new data techniques and availability are changing business models, I can recommend the article Smarter Information, Smarter Consumers in the latest edition of Harvard Business Review. The central premise is that legislation in the U.S. and U.K. now requires government agencies to make public data available and consumable in electronic form. This enables new techniques that leverage this information and provides increased value by making the purchasing process more intelligent. The authors offer their concept of “Choice Engines” – on line tools that guide consumers to make better purchasing decisions more efficiently using public information. At some point in the future, they also predict that private data will be added to the mix and allow the engines to work at a personal, individual level. Most of the use cases are consumer product-oriented, but as this blog has described previously, customer service expectations in other industries will influence insurance purchasing. The person who benefits because their cell phone company suggests ways to lower her bill (the authors’ example) will also want the same service from her insurance agent/company. Consumers and businesses will expect to be contacted by their agent/insurer when their risk profile changes. For example, if an addition is added to a house, insureds will expect that their insurance will be monitoring building permits and will want to be contacted proactively so their insurance can be adjusted appropriately. Two questions specifically related to insurance deal with timing and distribution models. Which insurance company will be the first to employ a choice engine for its insureds and prospects? Can an insurer with a mediocre data infrastructure and skill base compete with those which invest early and heavily in data techniques? Will independent agents embrace choice engines as an enabler, or reject them as a threat to their value proposition? Would an insurer be willing to offer such a tool to a distribution force that they don’t control? There is no question that managing risk will move from a point-in-time (usually renewal) event to a more continuous process. What is to be seen is which company changes the insurance purchasing model and transforms the buying process by using a tool like a choice engine.