Almost every business relies on customer service, at least to a degree, to retain customers and build brand loyalty. For some businesses, that means providing technical support when a product malfunctions. For others, that means helping customers best take advantage of your services. However you use customer service, you’ll need a strong medium to facilitate communication between your support team and your customers—and perhaps surprisingly, using Gmail for customer service works pretty well.
Gmail is free or cheap for business users, and your team is already likely familiar with it. There are some challenges to using Gmail for customer service, but it’s easy to compensate for them once you recognize them.
Why Email Is Still the Best Medium for Customer Service
When it comes to customer service, email is the platform of choice. Live chat can be useful, as can phone conversations, but nearly a quarter of all customers prefer email as their primary means of communicating with companies. On top of that, email offers several advantages to you and your team:
- Timing flexibility. Dealing with customer emails gives you much more timing flexibility than dealing with phone calls; phone calls require an immediate response, and if customers are left waiting, they tend to get impatient. Customers expect a bit of wait time on an email, though it’s still best to respond within 24 hours.
- Collaborative potential. Email also offers much more collaborative potential than a phone call, or even a live chat. If things get complicated for a tier one expert, they can CC a tier two expert and possibly resolve the situation together. A point person can also forward emails to specific individuals on the team as a way of assigning them.
- Documentation and tracking. Emails provide you with a communication log, which you can refer back to at any point. It’s extraordinarily helpful for resolving disputes that may arise in the future, and gives you a way to track success rates and response rates from your team.
And among email providers, when comparing Outlook vs. Gmail, Gmail is still the best in terms of cost, efficiency, and features.
The Basics: Gmail as a Customer Service Channel
So how can you start using Gmail as a customer service platform? Follow these six steps:
1. Identify your support team.
First, create a Gmail address specifically for customer support queries—or several addresses for different purposes. For example, [email protected] is a common choice, as is [email protected] You may want to segment these addresses by department, or add extra letters or symbols for different applications; it will make it easier to sort and find emails in the future. If you have an entire customer service team, you can set up a distribution list so multiple people get emails in the future; however, it may be better to have them all going to one person, so they can forward emails to other team members as they see fit.
2. Establish best practices.
If you want to use Gmail for customer service as productively as possible, you’ll need to formally document a process for your team to follow consistently. Describe the different customer service roles you’ll have on your team and specify who’s responsible for what. Explain what should happen when new emails are received, and specify an escalation strategy for when you can’t resolve the matter immediately. Be sure to leave some wiggle room so you can adjust this process as you learn more about Gmail for customer service.
3. Create and share templates.
If you’re like most businesses, there are a handful of common customer service inquiries you get on a regular basis. It wastes time to have your customer service team write the same responses over and over, so instead, rely on Gmail’s Templates feature (formerly known as canned responses). In the Advanced settings, you can enable Templates; when you do, you can draft and save Gmail email templates for future use. Better yet, share these templates so your entire team can rely on them to handle the most common incoming questions or complaints. To get you started, here are 15 customer service email templates you can use!
4. Use collaborative task tracking.
Things can get messy if you have multiple customer service reps working equally on incoming emails, so consider utilizing a task or project management app to keep track of who’s handling which emails. At the very least, have some method of internal communication that prevents team members from responding to the same email at the same time, or worse, neglecting an incoming message.
5. Take advantage of G Suite apps.
If you’re subscribing to G Suite, you’ll get access to tons of apps designed to make your team more productive or collaborative. It’s in your best interest to make the most of them. For example, you might use Google Sheets and Google Drive to track your incoming queries and resolution methods, or use Jamboard to help your team collaborate on issues that stump your first responders.
6. Track incoming messages and response times.
If you want to improve your provision of customer service, it’s important that you have some way to track your efforts and results. Fortunately, if you’re using Gmail, our email analytics tool can help you keep track of all your team’s messaging and response habits. EmailAnalytics can tell you how many emails your team members send and receive, your busiest days of the week and times of the day, and even how long it takes your team members to write and respond to emails. It’s your best bet if you want to better understand your customer service department’s effectiveness.
Key Gmail Customer Service Weaknesses to Compensate For
Gmail does have some weaknesses if you’re using it as a customer service channel. They don’t ruin Gmail’s customer service potential, but should be acknowledged and compensated for.
- Direction and ownership. If you have all incoming customer service queries going to an entire team of people, you’ll need some way to determine ownership, or someone to set direction for your individual teammates; otherwise, you’ll duplicate efforts and end up wasting a ton of time. If you have a 1-person team, this won’t be a problem. If you have 2 to around 10 members on your customer service team, it’s best to designate a single team lead, who can be responsible for forwarding emails to the best rep (or balancing workloads between your team members). If you have more than 10 customer service reps, you may need to start segmenting your team into different fields of specialty.
- Prioritization and tier levels. In customer service, it’s best to have some system to prioritize, segment, and/or escalate the severity of different customer conversations. In Gmail, there are many markup methods and tools you can use to organize your inbox, but these may be difficult to use if you’re relying on the inboxes of multiple team members. Again, the solution is to have a single “point person” taking control of the majority of conversations and assignments. At the very least, you can create a clear system of prioritization for all your customer service reps to follow.
- Internal and external threads. It’s helpful to have both internal and external conversations regarding customer issues; that way, you can talk about the customer’s needs in a frank manner when discussing an issue between employees, but still be courteous and respectful when engaging with customers. You can do this by separating conversations between email and chat, or by using separate platforms, but the nature of email means you’ll still likely have problems with employees failing to distinguish between Reply and Reply All. Drill your employees to ensure this kind of embarrassing mistake doesn’t happen.
If you do plan on using Gmail for customer service, here are a few extra tips to help you get started:
- Don’t make Gmail an exclusive customer service channel. Even if you love how Gmail works for customer service, don’t let it be the only way customers can reach you. People have radically different communication preferences, so it pays to offer multiple possible channels. For example, in addition to email, you can offer live chat and phone calls. You may also need to have an alternative way to collect customer tickets.
- Establish areas of specialty. As your business grows, it’s a good idea to segment your team into areas of specialty. For example, one team member can handle technical issues while another handles questions about your services. That way, it’s easier and more straightforward for your team lead to assign emails as they come in. In larger teams, it may be a good idea to create multiple, independent support addresses.
- Perfect the art of concise emails. You can improve your customer service team’s productivity by helping them perfect the art of the concise email. You’ll want to reply to your customers’ queries as thoroughly as possible, but you’ll also want to respond as quickly as possible. Coach your customer service representatives on making articulate word choices, thinking critically, and responding decisively to incoming messages. Be sure to also train your employees on the art of showing customer appreciation with these customer appreciation ideas!
- Use redundancy to avoid dropped conversations. If you have multiple people receiving customer support emails, establish some kind of system to pick up on dropped conversations. For example, you might use a Gmail tool to alert you when a message has gone more than 24 hours without a response.
Gmail may not be the best customer service platform if you’re working for a large corporation with thousands of daily incoming messages from customers, but for small- to mid-sized businesses it works quite well. You just need to know how to maximize its strengths and minimize its inherent weaknesses. For more help, see our post on customer service email best practices and our posts on managing customer relationships and the most important customer service skills to master.
If you’re interested in improving your team’s email capabilities, regardless of whether you intend to use Gmail for customer service, you’ll need a comprehensive tool that can help you identify patterns in your team’s emails and improve your overall productivity. EmailAnalytics is one of the most robust analytics tools for Gmail on the market. Start your free trial today, and learn how you can master your team’s email efficiency!
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.