Email Customer Service: What's an Acceptable Reply Time?

Many businesses struggle with a support inbox that is overflowing with customer inquiries. The good news: customers want to talk to you. The bad news: every single one of them thinks their issue is the most important one.

Customer expectations vary as to how quickly they should receive a response. Forrester Research found that 41 percent of consumers expect an email response within six hours. Only 36 percent of retailers actually respond that quickly…and 14 percent never respond at all. Now that is shocking.

That last statistic brings to mind an article by communications expert and customer service guru Peter Shankman. Shankman writes,

“Since we have such low expectations of customer service … it’s so so incredibly easy to blow each and every one of your customers’ minds, and shock them into 100% loyalty, every single time you’re given the chance! All you have to do is simply treat each customer one level above ‘crap.’ Amazingly, you don’t even have to be anywhere near ‘great,’ ‘awesome,’ or ‘outstanding’ to be different than the norm. To be thought of as ‘good,’ we just need to treat our customers one level above the normal expectation of crap. That’s it. Anything we do that goes above and beyond ‘one level above crap,’ is so rare, and so unexpected, that if you do that, you can rule the world.”

Rule the Online Customer Service World

If your team has the capacity, delight at least one customer every day by responding within an hour. Wild, eh? An hour! Imagine their initial joy at your attentiveness, and the customer loyalty built with a single timely, correct and thoughtful response.

Shankman heralds these kinds of simple, but important, actions: “The best acts of customer service are the tiny things that reinforce the customer’s loyalty. They can be done daily, usually without any cost, and can foster customer retention, increase customer satisfaction, and yes, even grow your customer base.”

Understandably, it’s not always possible to WOW a customer by responding that quickly. Twenty-four hours or less is widely considered an acceptable response time, and this is a time frame that every business should meet.

The Speediest Responders

Help Scout’s partner STELLAService conducted a 2011 survey to identify the best email response times from the top 100 Internet e-tailers. Office Depot led the pack with an impressive average reply time of 48 minutes….sheesh! Impressively, even the slowest responder took less than 18 hours, as shown in the graphic below.

Average Reply Times

Your commitment to timely email responses matters greatly to customers. Responding to inquiries within 24 hours—and sooner, if possible!—should be more than a company goal, it should be a standard of practice.

Customer Service Stats Guide Cover

Itching for more data-driven customer service insights? Check out our free Guide, 75 Customer Service Facts, Quotes & Statistics..

Gregory Ciotti

Gregory Ciotti

Greg is a writer, marketing strategist and alum of Help Scout. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.