Fast answers

How quickly does your company respond to customer e-mail? In a recent “mystery shopping” test, Chicago-based The E-Tailing Group Inc. rated 100 online retailers in categories including speed, accuracy of information and ease of use.

We checked in with two companies that earned five-star ratings: and Inc. In addition to strong overall showings in the study, both businesses responded to e-mail in less than four hours on average. Here’s how they do it.

A division of KB Holdings LLC, Pittsfield, Mass.

Quick take: KB Holdings is the parent company of both and, so incoming e-mail must be split and customized by brand. Because toy retailing is a seasonal business, “we scale in a hurry,” says Jim Scherman, vice president of customer care and operations. “We needed a tool [customer service representatives] could learn quickly.”

How many? The company receives thousands of e-mail messages per week during the holiday rush but only hundreds per week the rest of the year.

How fast? In the E-Tailing Group Mystery Shopper Survey, answered e-mail in three hours, 22 minutes, on average the fourth-best of the 100 online retailers tested. (The top three performers were Nordstrom Inc., and Lands’ End Inc., respectively.)

Technology: uses a pair of in-house applications called Customer E-mail Management System (for e-mail alone) and Customer Interaction System (for other channels, such as voice). Built on top of an Oracle8i database, the tightly integrated systems are browser-based for easy training and use.

The key to efficient e-mail response, according to both analysts and users, is to automate as many processes as possible. “We wanted as much [artificial intelligence] as we could get before an e-mail touches a customer service rep,” says Mark Anton, director of customer care applications and lead architect.

To that end, developed algorithms and set pattern-matching criteria. For example, with few exceptions, the company doesn’t ship outside the U.S. So when the e-mail response software recognizes words and phrases indicating foreign shipment is being requested, an automated response is personalized and sent out. Anton says 25 per cent to 40 per cent of all incoming e-mail is answered this way.

Payoff: “Two years ago, almost every order generated a contact to us,” Scherman says. The contacts-per-order ratio is a critical measure of not only an e-business’s e-mail response, but also of its operational efficiency as a whole; after all, if the fulfillment or shipping department isn’t up to snuff, angry e-mail from customers will surely follow.

Contacts-per-order is also a closely guarded secret at most companies. Scherman won’t reveal what’s ratio is, but he says the company has been able to “drive it down substantially” since implementing the new e-mail response tools.

Next steps: Tops on’s enhancements list is tighter integration with other enterprise applications. “We want to automate processes that are still manual,” such as credit processing, says Anton.

Bellevue, Wash.

How many? The site receives between 2,000 and 5,000 customer e-mails per week, depending on the season (holidays being the busiest).

How fast? averaged responses in three hours, 42 minutes, which landed it in fifth place, just behind

Technology: built its own “gateway” application that performs the first screening of all incoming e-mail. This tool generates an automated response to as many queries as possible. “And even if it can’t actually be answered automatically, we parse it to see what it relates to,” says Scott Green, senior technology director. After parsing, messages are funneled to Response, an e-mail management tool from Kana Software Inc. in Menlo, Calif. Green praises Kana’s ease of use, a vital factor in the high-turnover world of customer response. “During the holidays, we pull people in from all over the organization to help” the customer service reps, he says. “They can be up and running in 15 minutes.”

Little-known fact: Among the keywords scans for are profanities. “That would classify the item as a flame e-mail,” which receives high priority, Green says. The idea is to mollify angry customers as quickly as possible.

Payoff: won’t say how much it spends on e-mail response. But because it’s an online-only business, Green says, e-mail is even more important than it might be to a brick-and-mortar company.

Next steps: Green and his team never stop tweaking the in-house component of the software. He says parsing and triaging are the key components in lowering the all-important contacts-per-order ratio. “On the inbound side, that’s the name of the game,” he notes. As for the outbound side, has created a sophisticated direct e-mail system that tracks customers’ purchase histories and clickstream habits and then creates personalized messages enticing them to buy products that interest them.

Ulfelder is a freelance writer in Southboro, Mass. Contact him at [email protected].

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