Are customer expectations of email response times unreasonable?

4th May 2018

Email is and will remain a critical customer service channel, according to new research.

A 2017 study from inContact revealed that just 43% of customers were highly satisfied with their most recent email customer service interaction. Those who were happy cited speed as a top delighter.

The average company takes 12 hours and 10 minutes to respond to an email, according to a 2018 study from SuperOffice. That's certainly better than the old one business day standard, but is it fast enough?

In April 2018, I surveyed more than 1,200 consumers to learn exactly how fast they expect businesses to respond to emails. The survey also examined response time expectations for Twitter and Facebook messages.

Study overview

This is the first time I've done this study since 2015, when those results revealed the new email response time standard was just one hour.

The 2018 study surveyed more than 1,200 consumers to see if this has changed.

Participants were asked how quickly they expected a response when contacting a business via email. Response time expectations for Twitter and Facebook messages were also assessed.

Finally, the study examined whether response time expectations varied by age group. For instance, do Millennials expect a faster response than Baby Boomers?

The age groups were defined using definitions from the Pew Research Center. One note, too few members of Generation Z (ages 21 and under) and the Silent Generation (ages 73 and over) participated to include their perspective in the age group portion of the study.

Email response time expectations

Businesses should target a response time standard of one hour, with 15 minutes representing world-class service.

Email response time

This conclusion comes from looking at the response time that will meet the expectations of at least 80% of customers. 

This can be a little confusing at first because the top choice was one day, with 43% selecting it. But one day only meets the expectations of those who selected one day or 2+ days, which is a total of 56%. You pick up 14% of customers if you can respond to email within four hours, though that's still just 70% of the total.

A one hour email response time will meet the expectations of 89% of your customers. Companies aiming for world-class customer service should respond within 15 minutes or less.

The study looked at response time expectations by age. The responses were fairly close together, but there was a mild surprise. Baby Boomers want the fastest response.

Email response 2

A smaller group of 206 respondents was asked an additional question: How quickly do you expect a response when emailing a coworker?

Email response 3

Response time expectations for this group are very high and arguably unreasonable, with 41% of people expecting coworkers to respond to email within one hour. 

The pressure to respond quickly causes many people skim and scan emails from colleagues. They then send partial responses which generates a lot of unnecessary back and forth. One study found that the average email conversation at work includes 4.5 messages.

Which generation has the highest expectations for coworkers? Generation X leads the pack on this one.

Email response 4

Twitter Direct Message response expectations

Businesses should target a response time standard of 15 minutes. 

Twitter response

Anything slower that 15 minutes risks disappointing a large portion of customers. This can present a challenge for businesses as Twitter is not as popular as more traditional service channels such as email, phone, or even chat. There may not be enough volume to justify staffing for a 15 minute response time. 

Once again, Baby Boomers have the highest response time expectations:

Twitter response

One note from the study is only 40% of participants message businesses via Twitter. That percentage is only slightly lower for Baby Boomers, with 35% saying they use Twitter for customer service.

Facebook response time expectations

Businesses should target a response time standard of 1 hour, with 15 minutes representing world-class service.

Facebook response

A one hour response time may be adequate for most customers, but 17% still want to hear back more quickly. For Facebook, it's Millennials who want the fastest response.

Facebook response 2

Only 50% of participants message businesses via Facebook. Millennial Facebook usage is slightly higher than the group average, with 55% saying they have contacted a business via a Facebook message.

I hosted a webinar where I shared some more granular data from the study along with several tactics for meeting customer demands for fast responses. You can watch the webinar replay here:

Replies (4)

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By ChrisKader
04th May 2018 17:07

It is true that we tend to abandon this practice but it is nevertheless effective if it is correctly used !

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Replying to ChrisKader:
Jeff Toister
By Jeff Toister
10th May 2018 18:59

Thanks, Chris! Companies that are able to respond quickly can definitely stand out from the competition.

Of course, the caveat is they still have to address the customer's issue!

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By PaulineAshenden
14th May 2018 09:26

These are really interesting results Jeff, and demonstrate the relentless upward march of consumer expectations. It chimes with our own research running real world tests at how fast brands answered on email and social media - while this showed that overall speed is increasing, it also showed huge discrepancies between companies. For example, one company answered on email in 7 minutes, another took over 7 days!

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Replying to PaulineAshenden:
Jeff Toister
By Jeff Toister
22nd Jun 2018 00:32

Hi Pauline. Whatever the expected response time for blog comments, I'm sure I missed it!

You are right that there is a huge discrepancy, which I think hurts the slower companies even more.

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