3 Ways to Maximize the Value of Shared Mailboxes

This eBook explores the rise of email as a transactional platform for conducting business, and the extent to which most companies are under servicing it at the technology level. We’ll demonstrate the importance of emails as transactions (not just messages), and show how transactional transparency, capable email workflows and email auditability lead to cost reduction, revenue improvement and increased customer satisfaction.

Emails are Transactions—Stop Pretending They’re Not!

Email rules the transaction roost. Yes EMAIL! One of the oldest internet technologies has silently become the de facto protocol for business transactions. Not the “one-click” transactions of ecommerce web sites, but pretty much everything else. Let’s look at some examples:

Customs Brokerages: Every single shipment entering the United States must clear customs. For one of the world’s largest custom brokers, every one of those shipments—and we’re talking about a very large number of shipments—begins that clearance process by email. Shipping stations all over the world attach the pertinent documents to an email and send it to the brokerage teams in the U.S., who then clear it accordingly. Email is both the engagement and transport protocol for a significant portion of the overall transaction.

Manufacturing: Most manufacturers have huge, complicated catalogs of products. We’re talking about tens of millions of parts that get ordered every day from hundreds of thousands of manufacturers. Ordering them isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be. These are complicated product systems, so ordering is done with customer service agents or sales reps who are highly trained in this complexity and charged with servicing their clients to ensure they get the right products every time. Ordering mistakes at this level can be extremely costly when the product ordered is several tons in weight, is made to order, or is simply time critical. Email has become the transaction protocol of choice for manufacturers, as the ordering process usually involves several steps: inquiry, quote, negotiation, approval, order, confirmation, etc. Years ago, this was handled through a combination of phone and fax. Email has allowed this to be compressed into one transaction protocol that’s simpler to use, faster by far, and less prone to error.

Travel Agencies: Sure. We all book various flights and hotels directly online ourselves. Expedia, Orbitz, and Hotels.com are just a few of the self-service aggregators we thought would eliminate the need for travel agents. But did travel agencies die? No. They adapted and got smarter. Much smarter. Travel agencies learned to specialize. In some cases, to provide services on behalf of corporate clients, in other cases to create exclusive travel packages that we mere mortals would never be able to construct online on our own. There’s been an explosion of travel clubs in recent years. Once again, email is the de facto means by which this new breed of travel agent conducts the transaction. And not for the obvious means of delivering airline tickets or hotel confirmations, but for all the back and forth conversation that leads to the transaction decision. Email prevails as the most efficient means of conducting business for travel agents. In the US alone, there are over 100,000 travel agents handling 143 million1 transactions per year!

Trucking Companies: Transportation by truck is the leading means by which goods move from point A to point B. As such, it’s one of the most competitive industries in the world. Service quality is a key differentiating factor for trucking companies that desperately want to keep clients that were hard to acquire in the first place. Administratively, trucking is inherently a documentsbased business. It’s all about bills of lading, manifests, quotes, inspections, etc. All these documents pass back and forth between clients and shippers via email. In fact, most transactions start and finish with email—no phone conversations happen at all. Shippers are motivated to answer these emails quickly, with appropriate tracking and reporting systems to ensure customer service reps are meeting the expected reply time goals. Performance monitoring for email interactions is one of the most under-utilized aspects of transactional email workflow today. Pick any other market vertical and it’s the same thing. Email is the protocol driving the transaction.

The Email Advantage

Email offers three distinct advantages over all other interaction modes:

  • It’s asynchronous
  • It’s ubiquitous
  • It’s non-repudiable

ASYNCHRONOUS

The majority of the time we have a question, issue, or concern, we don’t need it answered, resolved or acknowledged three seconds after we pose it. We simply want an answer back in a reasonable amount of time. What’s reasonable depends on the industry. Sometimes an answer back in a day is just fine. Other times, a two-hour reply time is acceptable. Trucking quotes need to happen in about 15 minutes. The key value of email for senders is that while they’re waiting for replies, they’re still productive doing other things. They’re not sitting staring at their monitor waiting for a reply. The asynchronous nature of email is an incredible boost to productivity.

UBIQUITOUS The root of email’s ubiquity is that no organization “owns” the underlying protocols that support it (SMTP, POP and IMAP). These protocols were all created as open standards in the 80’s. This egalitarian approach has allowed unfettered growth at a very low cost base. A winning formula.

Most employees have a work email address. Most people in industrialized countries have one or more personal email addresses. Email predates the web. More than anything else, email is the glue that binds the internet. Even in this age of social everything, email is the mechanism by which social platforms notify us that we should be paying attention to them. Facebook and Twitter are two of the most prolific emailers on the planet. Their businesses rely on email because as popular as any social platform is, email is way more popular. All of this is fairly obvious. Less obvious is how quickly businesses jumped on email at the very dawn of its growth in popularity in the mid- 90s. Email created a new paradigm for instantaneous yet asynchronous business-to-business communication (faxing really wasn’t instantaneous). Moreover, email empowered interbusiness collaboration in an unparalleled way. You can’t edit a fax. But a Word document attached to an email is a whole other ball game.

Smart businesses are always looking for ways to drive greater efficiencies, and starting in the mid 90’s email became the go-to application for improved productivity both inside and outside the organization. And it’s stood the test of time. 20 years later, email has done nothing but grow at incredible rates. Let’s look at some numbers. According to email research firm Radicati Group, the estimated number of individuals using emails is 2.6 billion, sending or receiving on average 216 billion messages per day. 116 billion of those (or 54%) are business emails.2 Business email is more popular than consumer email. And all those businesses emails are ultimately in support of one thing: transactions!

No one predicted in 1982 that the Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP—the network protocol that governs all email delivery) would become the transactional backbone for businesses worldwide.

NON-REPUDIABLE Email has largely eliminated the he said/she said conflict that always plagues spoken conversations—few of us are capable of perfect recall for things we said yesterday, let alone a month or year ago. Even when businesses record calls, referencing that history to resolve disputes is cumbersome and time consuming. Email, on the other hand, is a built-in history tool. Every time you reply to a message, you add to the written history that’s typically copied below your current reply. The mechanism is essentially non-repudiable because the conversation is bi-laterally documented and parties to the conversation tend to police themselves accordingly. This is hugely important as it imbues confidence for all parties in the conversation. The very platform of communication inspires trust. And trust in business transactions is, and always will be, an essential criterion.

Group Mailboxes are the 1-800 Numbers for Customer Interactions

Over the past 10 years, email has grown significantly as a percentage of customer interactions—particularly B2B interactions. Email addresses are no longer only personal or individual (targeted at one staff member). The group mailbox has become the target address for many of the email-based transactions that businesses engage in (it’s the new 1-800 number). I’m talking about email addresses like customerservice@widgets.com, booknow@xyz-travel.com, and orders@abc-manufacturing.com. The group mailbox allows 10, 40, or even hundreds of “agents” to handle the copious amount of emails that arrive every day from customers to these group addresses.

While it’s easy to see how large call centers would need to manage email distribution to 200+ agents, that’s not where today’s corporate email challenges lie. While there are certainly lots of large call centers, there’s orders of magnitude more 10 to 100 person departments that live and die by email every day that don’t consider themselves “call centers” or “contact centers.” Here are 4 key departments that make up the typical organizational structure of every business:

  • sales
  • customer service
  • accounting (especially accounts receivable and payable)
  • fulfilment (shipping, dispatch, etc.)

Even when you look at large enterprise organizations, these departments are typically between 10 and 100 people; because instead of one monolithic department, that function is spread out across dozens or even hundreds of sub-units organized by geography, product line, market vertical, function etc. Decades of organizational behavior experimentation has led to reasonably common departmental structures across companies. Email has evolved to mimic this structure such that most companies have one or more shared mailbox addresses for each of these departments. In other words, the segmentation of email workflow has been loosely aligned with the segmentation of staffing responsibilities (which are between 10 and 100 staff per department). Because most IT organizations treat email as a convenient messaging platform rather than as an engine for driving transactions, they have not provided the kinds of essential services that would normally be in place for a transaction platform. The fundamental premise of corporate email is so flawed that companies are unaware of the extent to which the process is being under serviced. As soon as you acknowledge the value of email as a transactional platform, the dominoes start falling and you realize the extent to which you’ve ignored enormous opportunities for meaningful optimizations that lead to cost reduction, revenue improvement and increased customer satisfaction.

Under Servicing

Since IT departments fail to recognize the importance of email as the leading protocol driving their organization’s business transactions, they chronically underservice email at the technology level. This isn’t intentional. Email has been flying under the radar for so long that IT strategists simply treat it like a status quo operation within the organization; happily maintaining their long-standing Microsoft Exchange/Office 365 servers like they’ve always done. Odds are you can’t name one other corporate transactional system where:

  • Transactions are not tracked. (There’s no record of how many staff were involved with it.)
  • You can’t run any meaningful reports on the transactions (numbers of transactions, processing time, transactions by product, region, specialty, etc.)
  • You can’t easily audit the transactions.
  • You can’t define complex workflows to segment transactions by staff dependencies.

Yet most businesses use Microsoft Exchange/Office 365, and the rudimentary shared mailbox functionality it provides, so these limitations are exactly what they experience. Why should you care? MONEY! Transaction costs are very real. Since email is the protocol for transactions, you’d better be paying very close attention to its efficiency level or you’re likely wasting enormous sums of money unnecessarily while simultaneously failing to maximize revenue potential.

3 Ways to Fix the Problem

To fix the problem, you’ll need specialized software to gain the following:

#1 TRANSACTIONAL TRANSPARENCY

To improve a system, you first need to know how it’s performing. Transactional transparency means you’ll have a full suite of email engagement reports to analyze every aspect of the transaction. These reports will tell you:

  • Company, department and user performance metrics, including:
    • Average message reply times (broken out by user, customer, region, store, etc).
    • Transaction completion times (including linking email transactions with other transactional aspects like order completion within your ERP system).
    • Key ratios such as reply throughput which measures email transactions against staffing hours.
  • Email volume by day, week or month, and by the hour (which is critical for planning staffing schedules).
  • Backlog metrics (typically in the form of dashboards to improve operational awareness).
  • And a dozen other things you should know about your email performance.

#2 CAPABLE EMAIL WORKFLOWS

The single candy jar (aka one inbox) approach to email management for shared mailboxes is a disaster once you start to get any kind of volume. Delivery workflows are essential to driving operational efficiency for email transactions. You need:

  • The ability to efficiently target messages meeting variable criteria to the most capable and available staff (sales rep, C/S rep, agent, dispatcher, etc). This includes load balanced distribution, and conversational affinity that respects schedules.
  • Variable workflows by time of day, day of week, etc.
  • Automated responses where appropriate.

#3 AUDITABILITY Users must be able to find older messages quickly. Period. Especially when it’s messages other staff members dealt with in the past. Shared mailbox history must belong to the group, not hidden in one user’s siloed personal archive. Additionally, managers must be able to track conversations across time in order to tie together the customer email journey.

Customer Satisfaction

Invariably, when asking managers simple questions about how they think they’re performing against their current Service Level Agreements (SLAs) for group emails, they don’t know. They have no means of measuring email performance for the group and can only guess at how they’re tracking against SLA targets. That’s simply not acceptable. A proper email management system provides the data needed to accurately set and evaluate SLA goals, which should be a key driver for every business as it’s the primary metric describing your responsiveness to your customer.

Conclusion

As soon as you acknowledge that email exchanges between you and your customers are in fact transactions, the sooner you’ll realize that they deserve the same level of consideration as all your other transactional systems. Optimizing email transactions will bring a significant and lasting benefit to your bottom line.

About the Author

Henry Lach is the president and CEO of Emailgistics Corp., and has spearheaded email optimization for hundreds of companies (including many Fortune 500 enterprises). Emailgistics supercharges your Office 365 shared mailbox experiences. He’s available by email (of course), at henry@emailgistics.com.