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The Smartest Ways to Manage A Customer Service Email Queue

7 min read
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Customer Service
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You likely have a set of customer service goals for your team: faster responses, fewer interactions, high levels of customer satisfaction. Without a clear process to manage customer emails though, your team is left stumbling in the dark, hoping they’ll catch a lucky break. 

A customer service email management system is like a roadmap for your team: it helps them navigate customer requests better and identify bottlenecks in your customer support. 

Once you’ve found an email management system that works for you, you’ll see why it’s a unique advantage. It will scale as your team grows, and eventually become a handbook for guiding new team members. 

In this article, we’ll take a look at the best ways to manage a customer service email queue through smart categorization and prioritization of emails. 

Customer service teams face two major challenges when dealing with customer emails: 

  • How should we assign emails to ensure quick responses? 
  • Which emails should we answer first?  

In this section, we’ll present the best strategies to solve each of these problems head-on. 

WAYS TO ASSIGN CUSTOMER EMAILS

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1. Skill-based assignment

Are all your agents experts on all of your products or services? Highly unlikely. Over a period of time, your agents develop expertise in specific areas of your product or service and are able to answer queries related to those topics in a jiffy. Thus, it makes sense to assign queries to team members based on specific product areas or specific types of products, if you sell more than one. This is especially helpful for large enterprises with a suite of products or multiple tiers of services offered. To better execute this, you can also train agents in specific areas. 

Alternatively, you can also assign queries based on your agents’ expertise with different departments. All queries related to billing might get routed to one agent, while all emails related to bugs might be sent to another. 

A customer service tool such as Hiver can help you automatically assign emails – with subject lines containing “bugs” to engineering – and “billing” to finance. 

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Skill and topic-based email alignment is the best way to deliver top-notch customer support. After all, representatives not knowing how to solve a particular issue is among the most frustrating aspects of poor customer service for customers across various different age groups, countries, and genders, as per one survey

2. Load based assignment

In this system, teams assign a specific quota of emails to each agent, and beyond that threshold, they are not assigned any more incoming emails. This is usually done based on how many agents you have and how long it takes them to solve customer queries. 

Let’s say you’re an ecommerce company with five support agents. You’re likely to receive more support queries regarding shipping and delivery than billing and purchase.

Let’s assume it takes agents two to four hours from first contact to successfully resolving an issue. This means they can realistically solve six to seven emails per day.

To make sure the workload is evenly distributed and no agent is assigned  more emails than they can solve, you set a daily limit to the number of emails assigned. This is especially helpful on days when you anticipate more queries such as a flash sale or after the launch of an app. 

The method does present a drawback for small support teams. It might not be possible for them to limit the number of emails assigned per agent, if they only have a few agents to begin with. 

You’ll find this useful: 18 Key Customer Service Metrics + How to use them

3. Geo-based and language based assignment

For teams with customers all over the globe, it helps to have specific agents manage customer service emails for different locations. Cultural norms and traditions differ across locations, and so do customers’ expectations around communication. 

For instance, customers from Japan might expect structurally-focused emails with appropriate greetings and salutations, while customers from western countries will prefer a more casual tone and allow the lack of a specific structure. 

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Also, while it is impossible to translate every customer service email in a customer’s local language, a simple Namaste, Guten Tag, or Bon jour, at the start of emails goes a long way in showing customers you care. 

Various companies, remote or not, hire support agents in different time zones to make geo-based email assignment possible. If this isn’t an option for you, it helps to at least train employees in basic conversation etiquettes followed in countries where you have a large customer base. 

4. Technicality-level 

More often than not, customer support issues arise due to technical snags in your product or service. To ensure speedy resolutions, you might want to assign emails based on how complicated they are at a technical level. 

To do this, designate two to three tiers of technicality for all emails. Tier 1 might contain basic issues. These can be solved by customer support personnel by referring to internal documentation. For tier 2 queries, you’ll need a junior engineer working with a support member, while progressive tiers can have more experienced engineers working alongside customer support. 

How do you decide which queries belong to which tier? A simple way is to have your customer support tool mark all technical queries as “engineering” and directly assign them to tier 1. Here onward, let them use their best judgement to solve the query or route them to a suitable tier.  

5. Unassigned queues

This approach works best for customer support teams that receive a relatively small number of emails per day. Instead of assigning emails as per query type and so on, agents can simply reply to emails as they come, and then move on to the next one. 

The key to succeed with this kind of approach is to ensure your agents always leave enough context for the next agent who lands on a given ticket. Remember, being passed on from agent to agent is a major customer hassle as it causes them to explain their issue over and over. 

A robust customer service tool that facilitates internal communication is a boon here. 

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Take a look at the screenshot above. Support agents in Hiver can see at a glance all the actions taken on a particular email as well as the customer’s responses. Agents can also leave notes on customer emails. Thus, the next agent picks up where the previous agent left and the customer enjoys a stress-free, uninterrupted experience. 

WAYS TO PRIORITIZE CUSTOMER EMAILS

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So, you’ve assigned emails to your team. But here’s their dilemma: which assigned emails should they answer first? 

Prioritizing customer service emails boils down to two considerations: what’s urgent and what’s important

Often, customer support teams end up prioritizing only urgent issues, while leaving important ones to simmer to a point of urgency. 

Ideally, emails high in both importance and urgency should be answered first. 

Let’s take a look at a few essential ways to prioritize customer emails. 

1. Customer type (free or paid)

Subscription products often have different levels of plans for different types of customers. Depending on your product, you may have a free and paid plan, and even within a paid plan, you may have multiple tiers. If you sell a one-time purchase product, customers can be categorized by the size of their purchases and the frequency with which they shop with you. 

It’s obvious customers that give you the most business should get the best level of support. This includes speedy responses and personalization. 

A few companies such as Mailchimp choose not to provide support to free users and instead, only give them access to a knowledge base. If this approach helps you serve your paying customers more efficiently, you might take this route. 

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Enforcing this type of prioritization is easy with a customer support tool. Simply tag emails coming for paying customers as priority 1, 2, 3, and so on, depending on their plans, or the amount of business they give you. This simplifies the decision-making process for your team. Note that this approach does not take the urgency of matters into consideration, so they’ll still need them to use their best judgment in each case. 

2. Urgency vs importance  

As discussed above, prioritizing emails on the basis of customer type ignores an important facet: urgency. 

Let’s say you get two emails: one is a paid customer enquiring about one of your product offerings, while the other is also a paying user reporting that your website has crashed. Clearly, the latter is more urgent, even though both are important. This gets more complicated if you offer support to free users too.  

It helps to have a set of rules to help agents determine what qualifies as both urgent and important. Let’s say you offer an app for paid online health consultations with some free features such as a nutrition plan.

Here’s what priority levels might look like for your team: 

Low priority: These queries don’t require an immediate response. Think general feedback or PR requests. 

Normal: These are minor quibbles for both free and paid customers. For example, not being able to upload their weight and height, or not being able to download an invoice. They’re definitely important issues, but not urgent, in the sense that they don’t prevent customers from using your product. 

High: These queries truly hinder paid users from getting the most out of your product. Not being able to connect with a health practitioner or a patchy video connection, all qualify as major roadblocks to being resolved ASAP. 

Super-high: These are escalated complaints from your biggest customers. These customers are angry, frustrated, and in need of a resolution STAT. 

With a loose set of guidelines, you can leave your agents to use their best instincts to determine priority levels. Alternatively, you can also tag priority levels in your customer service tool by using a combination of customer type (free and paying) and content of query. To better help your tool understand the content of a query, you can add an additional field to your customer service forms that helps you filter queries by type. 

3. Old vs new emails 

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Incoming emails are important, but customers waiting for a resolution are often more annoyed and in need of your help. So, which one should you get to first? 

There are two common methods to tackle this: FIFO (First In, First Out) and First Come, First Serve. Both have obvious drawbacks. The first tackles oldest emails first, but then you risk dawdling on new customer emails. On the other hand, if you only handle incoming emails, you risk the ire of customers waiting for a resolution. 

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Fortunately, yes. Depending on the size of your team, have two or more agents working on each type of customer email, no matter how you choose to classify them. The more frequent an issue, the more agents you might assign to it. So, issues such invoicing, billing, and product breakdowns may need more agents than general marketing or PR  related queries.  

If you have three agents working only on billing-related emails, one of them can tackle new emails, while the other two solve older issues. 

If you don’t have enough agents to pull this off, have single agents working in shifts on new and old emails. Ultimately, this approach depends heavily on the size of your team and volume of customer requests you receive for specific types of issues. 

4. Difficulty level 

This approach follows a simple rule: solve the easiest customer requests first. 

The idea is to deliver “wow” moments to at least a few customers, while getting to the more difficult emails later. If unchecked though, this approach might encourage your agents to only focus on easy tickets and ignore more complicated requests. 

To make the most of this approach, you might want to have two to three agents in your team working from an unassigned queue. These team members can be responsible for simply getting the fastest replies out the door, while routing more difficult emails to other team members. 

Wrapping up: Measure, Iterate, Improve 

When picking a system for managing your own customer service email queue, remember, there are no right or wrong answers. Often, the answer is, “It depends”. On what? The size of your customer support team, the geographical disparity in your customer base, and the complexity of your product. 

To start with, pick one or two systems to categorize and prioritize emails. Larger organisations will likely need several different permutations and combinations to determine urgency and importance, and will have multiple types of incoming emails too. 

Over time, review what works and what doesn’t. Take a look at key metrics such as resolution times, response times, first contact resolution, and NPS surveys, to point you in the right direction. 

As your customer support team gets more efficient, don’t forget to pass on important insights from your customers to other departments — cracks and fissures in your product, marketing, and design that can easily be fixed. 

 We hope this list sets you up to manage your customer service queue like a ninja!

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Farheen Gani is a content marketer and writer for SaaS companies. She helps businesses grow with customer-focused content. She loves geeking out about content marketing on Twitter (https://twitter.com/FarheenGani) and her blog (https://www.farheenganiwrites.com/blog/).
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