How long should companies take to respond to your email?

August 12 2007 by Ellen Roseman

Hurray for Amazon.ca. When I ordered a book that arrived with a torn cover, I sent an email complaint and got an answer back — from a real person — within an hour. I ended up settling for a 20 per cent credit, since I didn’t want to return the book. That’s the kind of service I’d expect to get from a customer-centric organization.

But in my column yesterday, I highlighted Capital One’s policy to respond within seven to 10 business days when customers send emails to its ombudsman’s office. Why should it take that long to hear back from a company when you have a problem urgent enough to go to the highest level of appeal?

A Connecticut-based marketing company, Hornstein Associates, has been doing a study each year since 2001 on companies’ response time to email. Only 33 per cent of the top firms replied within 24 hours in 2007, compared with a high of 63 per cent in 2002. Firms polled included Starbucks, Microsoft, GE, Toyota, Wal-Mart and Apple.

Hornstein did the survey by sending a one-sentence to each company, asking “What is your corporate policy regarding the turnaround time for emails addressed to customer servicel?” Nearly half didn’t respond at all in 2007.

Here’s what firm founder, Scott Hornstein, told CBC News Online about the slow turnaround time:

I think it’s a lack of strategy. I think we’ve got plenty of infrastructure, we’ve got more technology than we know what to do with. The problem is there isn’t a strategy in place that says it’s important to treat the customer well. We keep recreating the wheel, bringing new customers in to take the place of those who’ve had bad experiences and leave.

Robin Ritchie, a business professor at the University of Western Ontario, had this to say:

E-mailing makes complaining very easy and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Feedback from customers, good or bad, is a real opportunity to learn what you’re doing well and what you’re doing badly. Good companies will encourage and solicit that feedback. But I do think that firms just don’t put enough money into monitoring, handling and responding to customer feedback. It’s the practical reality of the short-term focus of business, which is driven in part by stock-market valuations and even performance evaluation measures used by firms that really reward performance in the last quarter or the last year, rather than long-term brand-building efforts.

So, tell me how long you’re waiting for an answer when you send a complaint to a company. Letters take weeks, maybe up to a month. But emails should be returned, in my view, within a couple of days. Is that the standard you expect and receive? How are companies doing?

Readers with Bell Blues and Seeing Red with Rogers, tell me about your email experiences. Is it better to write than call? Or do you find the emails vague and bland and generic?

5 comments

  1. RM

    Aug 13 2007

    After a particularly bad experience with Telus I emailed the CEO directly. I never did get a response, but on my next bill there was a credit for the exact amount I had requested. I’ll take that over an email response any day.

  2. S Campbell

    Aug 13 2007

    A couple of positive reports:

    After some NeoStrata HQ Plus cream ‘separated’, an email to the company brought a quick reply with replacement tubes.

    A Mitchum deodorant started crumbling, and a phone call (to a real person) got coupons for replacement product.

  3. CB

    Aug 14 2007

    Several years ago I had a problem with a pair of Merrell sandals that started deteriorating within two months of purchase. I emailed several times but never received a response. I did, however, almost immediately started receiving email newsletters. The most frustrating part was that they didn’t have any other contact information on the website. I was also told by a sales clerk in a sporting goods store that this was pretty typical for Merrell.

    On the other hand, I have received superior service from Paderno (cookware) and Speedo (swimsuit). The customer service reps were polite, helpful and efficient.

  4. Albin Forone

    Aug 18 2007

    I emailed Loblaws from its website after purchase of a plain stoneware bake/microwave vessel that we later noticed was made in China, seeking an assurance there was no lead in the glaze. There was an autoreply and prompt further notice they were looking into it – within a week came final word that they didn’t know for sure, but assumed it complied with Canadian import standards on lead (?!?)

  5. Dale

    Aug 30 2007

    I’ve found that if companies respond to emails at all, it’s often slow in coming. I recently got an online quote (within an hour) from CanAmerican Van Lines that made no mention of a minimum # of hours, so I wrote them and asked. They called late on the 3rd business day. By then, I’d already made alternative arrangements.

    Besides the 4 hour minimum that was not mentioned anywhere on the original quote, the CSR’s attitude seemed to be “Well, at least I called you back”.