Francis Wade, Sunday Business Columnist
The end result is tragic: employees burn out and quit after making themselves available to their company's customers 24 hours a day while replying to customer emails within 60 minutes. At some defining moment, they realise they can't do it anymore and leave.
Where did this kind of stress come from? How did a straightforward service job turn into a nightmare?
Here's one reason: Companies fail to manage customer interactions via email. Many firms are pressuring their employees to provide a level of service via email that they can't deliver.
It began in the late 1990s when customers began to demand email communication with companies. Some firms refused, deciding to ignore the new technology altogether. Lots of government agencies still don't deal with customers via email. Many tried and failed, setting up generic 'email@example.com' addresses that go nowhere.
Others made a good-faith effort, encouraging customers to email anyone in the company at any time. This may have worked well when the number of email messages was low - one or two per day. At the time, it met the needs of the occasional tech-savvy customer.
As time passed, however, the use of mobile technology expanded, and the number of emails sent by customers increased exponentially. But no policies were changed. Individual employees were still expected to respond to emails within the hour and customers were conditioned to expect a response to each and every message.
What happened next was unintended but disastrous. Employees became slaves to email.
Consider the problem this was. An important customer innocently sends the company a message: "I'm coming by to pick up the (very important) cheque in 20 minutes' time."
Not wanting to disappoint this customer and others like them, management tells its entire workforce to 'be responsive', which requires responses within 60 minutes. To meet this objective, employees need to check their email every 45 minutes at least. In a company of 200 people, this translates into 2,400 separate inbox visits per working day. Multiply that by the number of minutes it takes to scan every inbox message and you arrive at a total amount of email checking time.
Most of this time is wasted. Perhaps only one per cent of emails is from customers, but 100 per cent of messages need to be checked, most of them more than once.
What managers don't know is that 'just checking email' interrupts productive work.
According to Mihaly Csikszen-tmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Expe-rience, it takes 25 minutes to get back to your most productive state once you have been interrupted.
Do the math: that leaves a mere 20 minutes of productive time per hour before it's time to check email again.
The solution, as IT departments will attest, has been around for a while. The best IT departments don't let technicians respond to individual emails in a scattergun fashion. They use help desks as single points of contact to coordinate their responses.
Follow these steps to apply the same idea to your customer email:
1 Discourage customers from using email for emergencies:
This principle, which must be implemented companywide, solves two problems. First, due to technical glitches, email is successfully delivered only 80 to 85 per cent of the time. Using email — an unreliable medium — for time-critical communication is crazy.
Instead, a live phone call guarantees that the message is received and helps the employee understand the urgency of the situation.
Second, training customers to avoid email in emergencies frees employees from the constant email checking mentioned before.
2 Set up a help desk for customer email:
Let customers know that an instant response to their queries is available at a designated email help desk. Staff it full-time, and programme an autoresponder that tells the customer what to expect next and how to immediately escalate an urgent problem.
3 Teach employees how to steer customers:
Employees need to retrain customers to use the appropriate channels under the right circumstances. They need to understand that individual responses to customer issues might solve an immediate problem, but they create a much bigger one for everyone included. They need to be able to explain this logic.
My June 10, 2012 column, 'How executives unwittingly turn employees into morons', explains why executives also need to be retrained.
The contract between employee and customer must be constantly re-examined to keep up with the times. When this doesn't happen, everyone suffers, including employees who can't handle the stress - all because the problem and its resolution don't fall neatly within a single executive's portfolio.
Employees bear the brunt of a lack of cooperation between departments, falling victim to policies that simply weren't meant for the mobile Internet age.
They struggle hard, but they can never, ever catch up.
Francis Wade is president of Framework Consulting and author of 'Bill's Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure'. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.