How long is too long for a customer to wait for a reply to their question? Does “faster” equal a meaningfully better experience?

In this article, we’ll dig into all the details on measuring, benchmarking, and reducing email response times for customer service teams.

Why measuring email response time matters

Time is a powerful factor in measuring customer service interaction quality. An answer to a question might be considered wonderful if it arrives within 30 minutes but disappointing if it arrives three days later.

Customer satisfaction research consistently shows positive correlation between faster response times and higher customer satisfaction. According to Forrester Research, 77% of customers say that valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide them with good online customer service.

Customer expectations drive their experiences. If you can exceed their expectations by getting back to them quickly, it reflects positively on your customer service and on your company as a whole. If you are slower than anticipated, you’re creating a negative experience.

Jeff Toister reviewed social media posts and determined that waiting times were the number one cause of public complaints about companies.

Email response times matter because they are a (somewhat) controllable element with a clear and immediate impact on your customer’s experience.

How to calculate average email response time

In general, average response time is measured by recording the time that passes between when a customer sends a message to the support team and when a response is sent back to that customer.

As with all customer service metrics, there will be individual variations in the measurement depending on how your help desk software defines it. Our reports documentation at Help Scout details how response time is defined, including some of the edge cases like a customer emailing in twice before the first response can be sent.

Many systems will break out first response time as a separate metric, which looks only at the waiting period between the first customer message in a conversation and the first reply.

Refer to your help desk software’s documentation to be sure that you understand what is being measured and what is not.

Email response time benchmarks

How fast is “fast enough”? That depends on answers to questions like:

  • How urgent is this particular issue for this specific customer?
  • What promises have you made (e.g., formal SLAs or support page copy) about how quickly you will respond?
  • What expectations have you set with this customer before?
  • What expectations is this customer bringing to you because of experiences with your competition?
  • What are your own internal goals for response time?
  • What channel is this enquiry on (if you’re measuring response times across several channels)?

We reviewed public numbers on customer expectations for response times and found they covered a wide range. Your customers will not behave identically to any other customers, but these may be useful guideposts.

SuperOffice & Toister Performance Solutions joint survey

This joint survey reveals that the recommended time of response is one hour. They point out that, “While some customers are still okay with a 24 hour response time, 31.2 percent of customers surveyed want a response in one hour or less. Responding in an hour will meet the expectations of 88 percent of consumers surveyed.” Read the full study at Toister Performance Solutions.

Microsoft’s 2017 State of Global Customer Service

With regard to social channels, 40% (or more, depending on the country) of respondents expected a response in less than 24 hours. Read the full report.

Klaus’s ‘First Response Time in Customer Service’

For Klaus, “50% of email respondents expect a reply within 24 hours.” View Klaus’s full collection of statistics here.

HubSpot Research

90% of customers rate an “immediate” response to a customer service question as “important” or “very important,” and 60% of customers define “immediate” as 10 minutes or less. Read the research quoted on HubSpot’s site.

As you can see, there is no simple “best practice” when it comes to response time. Instead, review your own reports for baseline measurements to work with. Then focus on one thing you can change, like reducing response times during certain hours or for specific customer types, and compare the results to those baselines.

How to reduce your email response times

How do you go about responding to customers more quickly? We think of it in three steps: Understand what you are trying to achieve, understand the opportunities to improve speed, and implement a plan.

1. Set yourself a goal

Before taking any action to increase the speed of your email responses, take a moment to formulate a clear goal. “Reduce response time” by itself isn’t sufficient. Sending an automatic “We’ve got your email! We’re on it!” reply might drive that number way down, depending on how your reporting tools work, but that isn’t the point of the process.

The reply speed in isolation is easy to game, and a more useful goal might be framed in terms of the customer’s overall experience. For example, you might decide: “Every paying customer who emails during business hours should receive a helpful and accurate response within 4 hours.”

A goal like that is harder to game because a speedy but unhelpful or plain wrong answer would not qualify. It can’t be measured by a single report; it needs to be combined with your quality rubric.

With a clear goal in mind, here are some ways to bring down that response time.

2. Start with First Reply Time

When a customer sends you a request for help, they may never have dealt with your support team before and may have had poor service experiences with other companies. So your first reply time matters more than any response time, and that is reflected in the correlation between customer satisfaction rates and response times.

Getting a fast, solid, helpful first reply back builds their confidence in your team and your product, and it creates a positive impression that you can reinforce over the rest of the conversation.

When you have already been responsive and helpful earlier in the conversation, your customer will be more understanding about needing to wait for you to get them answers later on.

3. Set a quality standard

Measuring a team’s performance purely on their speed can lead to manipulating the system. If you’ve ever called a business and had someone “accidentally” disconnect you or transfer you to the wrong department, you might have experienced the results of a too-narrow focus on speed.

Speed targets need to be matched with a clear quality standard and the service interaction judged as a whole. That quality standard may be as simple as a checklist of “what a good support answer should include.” Consider a peer feedback approach to building and maintaining quality.

4. Identify and address points of delay

Browse your closed conversations, and take a look at the time they were received and the time the first reply was sent. Where was the time spent during that window? Sometimes it will be clear, and in other cases you may need to speak to team members or use your own experience to judge.

Here are some of the common ways that time is spent while a customer is waiting for a reply, and some tips for addressing them:

Team-wide issues

Delays are happening because... How to reduce that time...
Conversations are being missed in a busy queue.
  • Review your triage processes and assign someone to identify opportunities for a quick first response.
  • Investigate the tools your help desk offers to sort and prioritize your queues.
  • Automatically flag aging conversations using workflows and tags, and pull them into a separate view.
Conversations require specific expertise that isn't always available.
  • Train others to be able to handle those questions where possible.
  • Create a helpful "first reply" that acknowledges the customer, explains why there may be a delay, and asks for any other necessary details in the meantime.
The team avoids picking up the most complex cases ("cherry picking" easier cases).
  • Review your individual performance metrics so that handling a complex, slow-to-resolve conversation isn't a disadvantage.
  • Practice troubleshooting skills as a team to build confidence in approaching those cases.
  • Any time a complex issue is answered, document it in your internal knowledge base and share that with the team.
It is not clear who is responsible for answering them.
  • Figure out who does know the answer.
  • Create a flow for deciding who should own certain types of conversations.
  • Build a process for handing over the conversations to the right owner.
Conversations are handled by another team that is slow to respond.
  • Work with the other team to understand their goals and resources.
  • Create a consistent plan for giving the customer a good first response, and then handing them over.
  • Consider a system for following up on open conversations.
Frontline team members don't have the authority to take the necessary actions (e.g., can't give refunds or change plans).
  • Create a report on the impact of that lack of authority on your responsiveness, in order to build a case for changing internal policies.
  • Offer to work with management to create safe guidelines for frontline staff to use, and allow them flexibility to help customers quickly.
The internal tools the team rely on are slow, inaccessible, or poorly designed.
  • Measure how much time is spent trying to use those tools, and tie it to your response times and customer satisfaction rates. That will help build a business case to invest in improvements.
  • Try having internal engineers handle some of those cases so they can really feel the impact.
  • Give your internal engineers a prioritized list of improvements they could make and the impact you expect to see on customers.
The customers don't provide the necessary details to answer their questions properly.
  • Look at your support contact points: Can you ask for relevant information up front? Can you build integrations to pull contextual data into your help desk?
  • Give your triage team the responsibility of spotting unclear questions and sending back a quick clarifying question, so it doesn't have to happen hours later.
There are not enough staff members to handle the volume.
  • Review your performance reports for indications of problem areas. For example, are slow Monday response times caused by weekend backlogs?
  • Map your available support resources against the incoming support requests so you can see where you might have a mismatch, and move hours around.
  • Build a case for new hires by estimating the impact of those people on response times and customer satisfaction rates.

Individual agent issues

Sometimes delays are not systemic, but can instead be attributed to individual skill levels or behaviors.

Delays are happening because... How to reduce that time...
The agent lacks the necessary knowledge.
  • Use @mentions or similar features to loop people in on tricky questions so they can learn without being responsible for answering.
  • Run group learning sessions where you all answer the same question and learn from each other's answers.
  • Practice general troubleshooting techniques as a way to make progress on questions that don't have an immediate solution.
The agent is capable, but not confident in their knowledge.
  • Have them write an answer and assign to another teammate for review (as we do during Whole Company Support at Help Scout).
  • Build a checklist for support answers so they can check they have covered what is needed.
  • Ensure your team knows that mistakes are recoverable, and that you will back them up.
It just isn't clear what the customer is asking.
  • More experienced agents may be able to share what context clues they use to decipher confusing questions.
  • Develop your team's analytical reading skills.
They know the answer, but struggle to write it quickly and clearly.
  • Collect examples of high-quality answers and share them with the team, explaining why certain words and phrases were used. See our example answers for one annotated approach.
  • Review and update your saved replies so your team has solid bases to work with for your most common questions.

When deciding how to bring down your response times, look at the issues which are eating up the most time, as well as the issues which are easiest to resolve for your team. If the support team can show that they are already reducing response times with internal changes, they are in a stronger position to ask for help from other teams on the bigger projects.

Don’t forget that speed might matter more to certain customers or in certain situations. For example, a fast response time might be vital when:

  • The conversation is in public on social media.
  • There is an outage or other crisis happening.
  • The customer is trialing your product and trying to get questions answered.
  • The customer is a VIP or otherwise high value.

In other cases, speed is less important, and rushing to get an answer out might not improve the overall experience at all. Your energy could be better spent elsewhere.

One final option to consider for reducing your response times is better self-service options. If your customers can solve their own problems via your conveniently located knowledge base without ever having to ask you for help, that might be the best experience of all.

Balance speed with experience

Different customers have different requirements, and focusing on speed to the exclusion of other improvements can have diminishing returns. If you are already consistently beating your customers’ expectations, consider looking at some other elements of their service experience for a bigger impact.

However, timely, responsive customer service is central to delivering quality customer experiences. It is well worth spending effort monitoring and tweaking your response times, and we hope we’ve given you plenty of ideas to work with.

Mathew Patterson
Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.