UK firms falling short with customer service emails

Added: Mar 20, 2008

Websites that are unable to answer basic customer service questions and companies that take more than 100 hours to reply to email are forcing UK consumers to pick up the phone if they want fast customer service.

These are the findings of the latest annual multi-channel customer service analysis of 100 leading websites by eService provider Transversal (

Transversal’s third annual research survey aimed to measure customer service by searching for answers to common, sector specific questions across multiple channels.

It asked ten questions on each organisation’s website, as well as sent an email and phoned the contact centre of 100 major UK companies in the banking, telecoms, insurance, travel, consumer electronics, grocery retail, fashion retail, CD/DVD retail, consumer electronics retail and utilities sectors.

The 2007 results showed patchy improvements on the web from 2005 and 2006. However websites could only provide answers for 50 per cent of questions asked online, while it took an average of 46 hours to respond to email (up from 33 hours in 2006), forcing consumers to use other communication channels.

In contrast the survey found that 42 per cent of calls to contact centres were answered within a minute with 67 per cent answered within 3 minutes, providing faster answers to increasingly impatient consumers.

Telecoms, insurance, travel, consumer electronics, grocers and utilities were rated the worst for answering online queries, all unable to answer 60 per cent of online consumer queries. 70 per cent of companies answered four or less of ten straightforward, commonly-asked questions.

Even the fashion sector, which came top failed to answer 30 per cent of questions asked via the web, and scored worst for email response, taking 116 hours to answer on average. Ironically, given the fast pace of this sector, this is probably sufficient time to design, manufacture and ship new clothes to a High Street shop.

Organisations have invested heavily in the web channel over the past five years, but Transversal’s research found that this has not kept pace with growing user numbers and desire for fast answers.

Complex and confusing websites with poor or non-existent search facilities are leading to customers having to call or email contact centres for information.

This poor online and email customer service combined with the improvements in the telephone channel mean that for those wanting answers quickly the phone is the fastest route, despite the web supposing to instantly gratify our need for information, 24 x 7. Organisations could be forced to grow their contact centres exponentially unless web self-service systems are introduced to provide better information and soak up routine calls and emails.

“Despite the enormous growth in the online channel, across all sectors, our research shows that consumers are still suffering from substandard online service”, said Davin Yap, CEO, Transversal. “While we’ve seen marginal improvements over the three years that we have carried out this analysis a lack of a cohesive multi-channel strategy means in the majority of cases it is quicker to call than visit a company’s website. With the massive investment made in the online channel and its ability to offer unparalleled tailoring and personalisation UK organisations need to start giving the answers online.”

As part of the research Transversal analysed if organisations used customer questions to provide tailored, additional information promoting related products or special offers. Only 41 out of 1,000 web interactions (4.1 per cent) were able to supply this information, cutting off a valuable channel for increasing sales and customer satisfaction.

As part of the research Transversal carried out an exhaustive sector analysis, as detailed below.

Retail (Fashion, Grocery, Electronics, CD/Book)

Ecommerce is central to the success or failure of retailers in 2007, yet electronics retailers could only answer an average of five out of ten questions online, while fashion companies – the best performing in the retail sector – could only answer seven. Retailers have also proved to be painfully slow at responding to customer email enquiries, with fashion companies taking an average of almost five days to respond to questions.

With the exception of grocery companies, retail firms have were able to answer more questions online in 2007 compared with 2006. However, both grocery and electronic retailers are far less likely to respond to email enquires correctly now than in 2006, with average correct responses dropping from 80 per cent to 55 per cent, and 90 per cent to 55 per cent respectively.


As UK consumers have become more web savvy, customers are increasingly looking to manage their utility bills online. However, the research shows that utility companies have not improved the help and customer service content of their websites from 2006 and are still only able to answer four out of the ten questions online.

Although utility companies have managed to cut the average response time to an email from 102 hours to 53 hours in the last year, only 25 per cent of companies responded to the enquiry with the correct information. This will not inspire confidence in potential customers looking to switch suppliers.


British banks’ online customer service is in decline. Although the banks have marginally improved their ability to answer basic enquires online, on average, the sector could still only provide responses for a woeful 50 per cent of the questions asked via their websites. This improvement has been undermined by an annual decline in the banks’ ability to provide the correct information to customer enquiries and by the steadily increasing time it is taking banks to respond to customers’ emails.

In 2005, 60 per cent of companies were able to respond to email enquiries with the correct information, in 2006 that figure had dropped to 40 per cent, and in 2007 it has been reduced further to 30 per cent – exactly half the number of three years ago. The average response times has increased from 17 hours in 2005 to 30 hours in 2007.


Transversal’s annual research found that the insurance industry is one of the most dependent upon online customer service, as its call centres were closed to customers in the evenings. However, the companies’ websites could only provide the answers to 40 per cent of the basic questions asked. Even more alarming was the fact that only 30 per cent of the companies were able to respond to email enquiries with the correct information.

The average response time to customer emails was 13 hours, and although this is one hour longer than the 2006 response time, it was the second quickest of all the sectors surveyed. Yet, if insurance companies are to continue driving customers to their websites, they must improve their online customer service particularly when there is no other contact channel available in the evenings for information.


Telecoms companies’ reputation for bad customer service looks set to continue. The sector had the lowest number of companies responding to email enquiries with the correct information – a shocking 25 per cent. The amount of firms responding with the correct information to email enquiries has dropped over three years from 70 per cent in 2005.

Although the average number of basic questions that can be answered via the companies’ websites has increased to 40 per cent, overall, telecoms providers have demonstrated a complete lack of innovation and desire to improve service for their customers.

Consumer Electronics

With the web central to research and purchase of consumer electronics, availability of information and strong customer service is of paramount importance. However frustration looks set to continue for the customers of consumer electronics companies, as they are let down by inadequate information and poor customer service online. The research found that nearly two thirds of routine customer service and product questions are not being answered by the industry’s leading websites.

Customers that email consumer electronics companies for information risk waiting an average of 36 hours for a response, and with an all time low of only 50 per cent of companies able to respond with the correct information, consumer electronics businesses are severely jeopardising repeat custom with poor online customer service.


Travel websites have provided the worst online customer service for the past two years. 2007 has seen significant improvement in travel websites’ ability to respond to holidaymakers’ basic questions, but the majority – 60 per cent – still remain unanswered.

For customers with no other option but to send an email for information, it took an average of 58 hours to get a response and only 40 per cent of companies were able to respond with the correct information. Travel companies wanting to promote last minute deals look set to be held back by the lack of basic information on their websites and by poor response times to customer enquiries.


UK sees ‘massive rise in phishing attacks’

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Added: Mar 20, 2008

Banking customers are being exposed to increasing levels of online fraud as widespread phishing attacks are rising dramatically in early 2008, according to new data.

During February 2008 alone, there were over 60,000 phishing emails sent to customers of financial services organisations, according to the Quarterly Fraud Report from online brand monitoring specialist, NetNames.

The research, carried out through NetNames’ sister company Envisional revealed that there has been a 70 per cent rise in phishing attacks between December 2007 and February 2008.

This news comes as a blow to the online security of consumers as the latter half of 2007 saw a dramatic dip in phishing emails after the highs of early 2007, and consumers may have been under the impression that the threat had gone away.

This however, is not the case, and the Quarterly Fraud Report also revealed that online fraudsters are continually targeting customers of particular organisations.

The top 3 ‘phished’ banks have increasingly become the focus of the majority of attacks, accounting for 77 per cent of all phishing emails in December, 79 per cent in January and a massive 88 per cent in February.

Jonathan Robinson, Chief Operating Officer of NetNames commented, “Just as phishing seemed to have slipped off the consumer radar, online fraudsters have leapt on the chance to capitalise on this false sense of security and have increased their phishing activity drastically in the past few months.

“Consumers must be aware of this renewed and increasing threat and make sure that they never give out personal details over email, and it is also crucial for the reputation of financial services organisations that they make their customers aware of and help protect them from these threats.”

The analysis investigated the numbers of phishing emails sent to customers of major financial institutions over a three month period between the beginning of December 2007 and the end of February 2008.

Spammers vs. the spam filter

Andy Thorpe Andy Thorpe heads up Pure’s Customer Accounts Department which proactively and reactively supports and consults Pure’s ever growing customer base. Andy has earned the nickname of ‘Captain Inbox’ as there is very little he doesn’t know about how to get email delivered; from creative tricks, email content and the nature of spam filters all the way to ISP reputation.

Spammers vs. the spam filter

Since email was first in general use spam filters and spammers have been battling it out to gain control over our inboxes.

Spammers, for the uninitiated, send out mass, unsolicited mailings which flood inboxes and, if sent in their thousands or hundred of thousands, cause a slow down in data flow for ISPs.

In an attempt to overcome this, spam filters were put in place to at least restrict if not prevent spam emails from arriving in users’ inboxes.

So who’s winning – the spammers or the filters? Let’s look at the story so far.

The warm-up round

Initially, filters were able to detect if emails were spam by crawling through their content and blocking anything regarded as unsolicited.

As filters can’t read the text hidden in images, spammers hit back by concealing text content in an image to get past the filter.

Spam filters became savvy to this and stopped letting through image-only emails.

Round two

In retaliation, spammers included some text content that was vaguely coherent or even Shakespearean. Not to be defeated, filters upped the pace and blocked emails that contained just one image and some text. Emails that were allowedthrough, then had to contain plain text and non-touching, multiple images with complex HTML.

Protecting the innocent

Legitimate mailers, not wanting to get caught in the crossfire, began designing their emails with a heavier ratio of text to images covering the area of the page.

Spam filters calculated the area of an image using its height and width. For text they stripped out HTML and left text-only content.

Assuming medium sized text is used, the filter calculated the number of characters and then calculated the ratio between the amount of text to image covering the page. If there was a higher image ratio to text, the email was more likely to be blocked.


And then, before accepting emails into the inbox, email clients chose to automatically disable images altogether – putting the power into the hand of the recipient and allowing them to choose whether to download images in an email.

The moral of the story

Where you have normal text in an image, make it actual text and always include a full plain text version of your email – it may be a chore but spammers won’t bother doing it, so you’ll set yourself apart.

And if you’re really conscientious, include a link to view your HTML email in a web browser – a good email reporting system can still track which parts of your emails are clicked on.

Increase your chances of getting your messages opened with “Trust Earning Text"

Increase your chances of getting your messages opened
with “Trust Earning Text”

The first line says it all

Why are pre-headers becoming a must for email marketers?

Now that all images are blocked in inboxes (unless the sender email address has been specifically marked as safe) it can be difficult for a recipient to read the email without going through the motions of loading the images, especially with certain mail clients such as Microsoft’s Outlook 2007 which do not render the images alternative text either.

Plot your Trust Earning Text wisely

“What we call “Trust Earning Text” is a few lines of text, often in a smaller font-size than the main content, above the logo banner at the very top of the email content. It should not be affected by any image blocking and is your chance to motivate your recievership to either allow the blocked content or click an external view link.

Other messages like ’Add To Safe Sender List‘ will appropriately find their place in the pre-header space. Any good ESP* will give you a link to use in your emails to let the recipient see your html email in their browser and still have tracking.

Trust earning text also doubles up as the ‘Snippet’ content.

Increased competition for email recipients’ attention pushed email providers and email software vendors to adapt mailers. Gmail, Yahoo and certain view settings in Outlook, now display the first line or two of content from the html version of your email in the inbox with the subject-line known as a snippet.

Using snippets, you can give your recipients a better idea of what your email is about and hopefully increase your chances that it will get opened. It is also popular to add personalization here as well as or instead of in the subject line.

Safe Senders Lists

Most iInternet service providers and inbox hosts view email marketing as permission based emailing. With mailers’ option Safe Senders List it is easy for email recipients to identify your company as a trust worthy sender address.

Once added to the recipient’s address book and/or safe senders list, the email will not go through as many spam checks and stand a much better chance of getting in the inbox.

Words: Andy Thorpe, pure360

*PureResponse External View Link is a custom hyperlink destination which will duplicate the traceable html in the email and open it as a web-page in the browser, thus giving the same tracking in the browser as the inbox. This is also useful for the plain text version as plain text-only recipients will be able see your email in its full glory, providing an opportunity for bookmarking and repeat clicks.

Email marketing services and deliverability

Latest posts | Feed | By Mark Brownlow on March 04, 2008

sending a letterIn his usual irascible manner, Ken Magill waves an admonishing finger at the many marketers who rate deliverability services and features as their number 1 criteria when choosing an email marketing service (ESP).

But there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Ken’s main and valid point is that the vast majority of problems with getting email delivered are down to the marketer and not the ESP. The best service in the world can’t help if you mess things up on your side.

But deliverability services and features should still be an important issue when choosing an ESP.


Two reasons.

First, your ability to undertake the practices that lead to good deliverability is improved with the right tools. For example…

  • Automated bounce management helps with list hygiene
  • Auditing services can flag where you have problems with your whole setup
  • Spam filter simulators can pick up on issues with your content
  • Segmentation tools allow you to send more targeted emails (leading to fewer spam reports)
  • Support for email authentication

In a sense then, a lot of important ESP features are indirectly “deliverability” features.

Equally, while a great ESP can’t save you from pushing your own deliverability self-destruct button, a bad one can push the button for you.

If they, for example, tolerate bad emailing practices, then your sending IP address might end up on blacklists. Even if you follow every deliverability best practice. See this post for more info.

So Ken’s right. Your ESP needs your help to achieve high delivery rates. None have magic wands. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: the tools they provide and their deliverability skills still impact on your success.

E-mail Copy Tip From a Great E-mail Copywriter

<!– | Biography–>

Pat Friesen is an award-winning, results-oriented on- and offline copywriter, as well as a friend. Her client list includes AT&T, Century 21, Hallmark, Hasbro, Hershey’s, IBM, Motorola, and many other household name brands.

Friesen is my go-to copywriter for client projects. Driving response, not just writing copy, is one of her strengths. She was kind enough to share her keys to successful e-mail copy with me for this column. I encourage you to check out her regular column in Target Marketing. Her most recent column is an interview with yours truly, discussing the similarities and differences between offline direct mail and e-mail marketing.

Be Clear on Objectives

“It’s important to clearly define the e-mail’s objective,” said Friesen. “Do you want people to buy, fill out a lead-qualification form, or just raise their hand [click through]? The copy needs to motivate the reader to the action needed to meet the objective. The more you’re asking from them, the more information you will probably need to provide.”

Prepare Before You Write

I know Friesen immerses herself in projects before putting fingers to keyboard. What I didn’t fully comprehend was the amount of preparation. “Although I don’t charge by the hour, I do keep track of my time.” Friesen told me. “On average, only 20 percent is spent writing; the other 80 percent is research. I go deep into the product or service I’m writing about, as well as the audience I’m writing to. I look at current e-mails that are working for the client, as well as competitive information.

“The more information I get from a client, the better. Performance of past e-mails, including clickstream information from the open to the conversion, helps me identify opportunities and gives me a goal to beat,” she continued. “Reviewing past e-mails, especially controls, is critical. Often there’s a small detail that was under emphasized or just missed. By making this detail the hero of the new piece, putting it front and center with the same offer, you can often get a lift in response.”

Understand the Sender

“Who is the e-mail coming from? What type of relationship does the sender have with the audience? These are critical questions to answer before you start writing.” said Friesen. “E-mails come from people, not companies, so I try to work that into the copy. In some cases, the e-mail may be from a person (the director of marketing, product manager, or CEO); in other cases, it may be from a community (the company’s customer service team, your friends at that company, etc.).”

Something Friesen and I agree on: there are pros and cons to using a real person’s name in the sender address. If you take this route, be sure to include your company or brand name along with the person’s name so you familiarize recipients with the company as well as the person sending the message.

Visualize Your Audience

Friesen says she “always has an image of who I’m writing to in my head. If the e-mail is going to mothers of little girls, I picture a woman I know and her little girl. If it’s to a businessperson, I picture someone I know who’s in that audience.

“I think about where they’re reading the copy — at their desk, in their home — as well as how they are seeing it — holding a piece of paper in their hand, viewing it on a computer screen, or scanning it on their mobile device. Also important are the distractions they may face while reading it; the copy needs to be interesting enough to gain and hold their attention.”

Focus on What’s in it for Readers

“The more specifics the client provides about what would motivate the audience to take the action desired, the better,” said Freisen. “It’s all about putting myself in the shoes of the reader. What’s in it for them? Why should they open, read, click, and follow through to meet the objective?” is what Friesen focuses on. I think this is what makes her copy so highly relevant to the target audience, which is the secret of all great e-mail marketing.

Know the Features, But Talk About the Benefits

Friesen stresses the importance of knowing the different between the features of your product or service and its benefits. “A pocket is a feature; the benefit is that it can hold business cards or other things that the reader needs to keep with them,” she said. “The benefit is what’s in it for the reader, what’s important to them, not the feature alone.”

Use Violators to Highlight Key Messages

Many traditional direct marketing tactics translate beautifully to e-mail. Friesen has had success with “Johnson boxes, bursts, slashes, sidebars. These are all ‘violators’ which pull the key message out of the copy and give it more emphasis, so it won’t be missed by the reader. Most people scan copy, rather than read it, so these techniques help you highlight the key takeaway and get your point across, even if the reader only skims.”

Develop a Unique Voice and Use It Consistently

Friesen can’t emphasize enough the importance of voice. “No matter what the medium, you should have a voice that you use to speak to your audience and keep it consistent throughout the relationship. E-mail tends to be more conversational, looser than copy used elsewhere. Even if you’re targeting a business audience, you wouldn’t want to use the type of language you find in an annual report.

“The voice you choose needs to be an accurate reflection of your brand personality. For an entertaining consumer product, it should be a fun voice; this is reflected in the vocabulary you use as well as the way the dialogue is structured. For business e-mails, you’ll want to be more business-like but still conversational.

“Reading copy out loud is a great way to make sure your tone is appropriate to the audience and suitably conversational. Often I’ll rewrite sentences which initially seemed good on paper but which don’t work as well when I read them out loud.”

Be Your Own Best Editor

“Don’t say or tell too much,” advised Friesen. “Hone in on the two or three things the reader needs to know to take the action you’re looking for. If something in the copy isn’t moving the audience toward the objective, get rid of it. If possible, step away from the copy and come back to it a few hours or a day later. Keep cutting until the message comes through loud and clear, without clutter.”

Test, Test, Test

Friesen is as big a fan of testing as I am. “That’s what makes it direct marketing!” is how she puts it. This is another reason she’s one of my favorite copywriters to work with. It’s not just about copy that reads well, it’s about beating the control, lifting response rates, and creating an e-mail that’s more effective than anything the client has used before. Once we get a winning e-mail, it’s about tweaking it to make it even better or going back to the drawing board to create a new e-mail that will beat it.

Use Friesen’s tips to write your own copy and let me know how it goes!

Until next time,


Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.