Royal Mail has recently introduced a new online customer service system, ‘Ask Sarah’, which aims to give customers immediate answers to their queries online.

We talked to Stephen Mitchell, Royal Mail’s Digital Operations Manager, about the introduction of the new customer service system and the impressive early results…

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Why did you decide to introduce Ask Sarah?

We started work on this in the middle of last year, seeing it as a key part of our digital strategy, by allowing people to serve themselves online.

We think that improving customer service online is key. Previously, we had a very static service and wanted to improve it by making it more interactive for the site’s users.

The new system has been put through usability testing, and the results were positive. While we try to answer as much as possible online, we also think it’s important for people to be able to ask a question if they need to.

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What are the results so far?

It has been promising so far, with the number of email queries reduced by 50% overall, while in some areas this figure is as high as 96%.

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Can people still contact someone directly if they prefer?

We still have contact telephone numbers on the site, as some customers will always prefer to talk to someone directly if they have a question or problem. We allow customers the choice of channels to contact Royal Mail. Online is a popular first port of call for people seeking information, but we will always provide other options.

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Has Ask Sarah reduced the number of phone calls from customers?

As well as email queries, the number of calls to our contact centers has been reduced, though we don’t have any specific figures on this at the moment.

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Is this about saving money in staffing costs?

Not necessarily – we would look to reposition staff, and also, by removing simple and time-consuming queries that customers can now find answers to online, this allows our customer service staff to concentrate on more complex calls from customers. It is about putting the customer first.

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How comprehensive is the information offered on the site?

We have started out by providing information to help customers with the most common queries online. While we try to provide as many answers as possible, we also want to keep it accessible and easy to use by avoiding huge lists of FAQs.

To find out the most common queries we have been looking at the kind of questions customers have been asking online, as well as canvassing the opinions of our customer service staff.

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How flexible is the system? Can new information be added quickly, in case of a postal strike for example?

The customer service system was chosen because of its flexibility, so we can react to events which may affect our customers and respond to new queries quickly. We can change the information on the system as quickly as we can create the content.

For instance, we found that customers were using Ask Sarah to find out about the delivery status of their parcels, so we have updated the system to recognise parcel tracking reference numbers, and it now links to our parcel tracking system.

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What were the biggest challenges in implementing this new system?

The biggest challenge was in finding out the kind of information people want to find out online, and the ongoing analysis required to keep the customer service section relevant, while not simply displaying a massive list of questions and answers.

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Does this represent a focus on customer retention?

Yes, this is something we discussed at the recent E-consultancy roundtable briefing, and it was interesting to hear our peers saying the same thing. With more and more competition online, a positive customer service experience is one way of improving retention.

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How many visitors does Royal Mail receive? How many use the customer service section of the site?

We currently have around 4.5m unique visitors per month to the site. I don’t have any figures on how many use customer services, but we now that it is one of the most popular areas of the site. 

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Related research:

Online Customer Service Solutions Buyer’s Guide 2007

Online Customer Service Briefing – June 2008

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10 tips on improving online customer service

Firms could improve customer self-service