A surprisingly short time ago, a query, complaint or even order was sent by post and you sat back and waited for a reply perhaps a week or two later. Now a call is made, or perhaps an email sent, and an answer is expected immediately, or is it?

Does everybody need or even want an instant answer? Does industry or the customer drive expectations up and are the expectations realistic or desirable?

Many businesses believe they are customer driven but few are. Call centres, the source of much controversy in sectors as diverse as insurance and banking to mobile phones and white goods are a case in point.

If you know what your customer wants and manage their expectations, both customer and staff have a better experience and are likely to be more loyal and, above all, more profitable.

A poor experience leads to higher (and more expensive) levels of contact, more costly resolution, less staff satisfaction, higher staff turnover, more training costs and less experienced staff giving poorer customer experiences in a downward spiral.

Technology now offers a wide choice of communications options between an organisation and its customers – letters by post, fax, email, hosted response on website, SMS text, landline call or call to mobile.

Within some of these there is the further option of timing, when would a contact be convenient or even practical, to meet the customer’s needs of work, leisure or discretion?

Putting the organisation and the customer on the spot in head-to-head confrontation, with lots of hanging on and no time to consider responses, often leads to frustration, frayed tempers on both sides and an overall lack of satisfaction for both parties. An element of managing the customer’s expectations might produce substantial direct and indirect savings.

So, let’s look at the direct savings first. The first question a customer could, and arguably should, be asked when they make contact, usually to a call centre, is how they would like this matter dealt with in terms of communication – hold while an attempt is made to sort the matter on the telephone through to a text to their mobile phone with the answer.

The next question might be, if relevant, when would it be convenient to make contact. Some will choose to hold but a good many will choose another response method. Emails and text messages will always be cheaper than the other options and are by happy coincidence the most favoured routes for many customers.

Even if they choose a call back in the evening or weekend, the matter is likely to be resolved quicker and more amicably when the response has been worked out in advance of the call.

Whatever happens in terms of choices made, there will almost certainly be some direct savings. Once the method and time of contact is established, giving and accepting the customer choices, a time frame can be presented ‘we will contact you between 7.00 and 7.30 Wednesday evening’.

Again, most customers will accept a reasonable sounding response time – unless they are serial complainers, their ‘expectation’ of reasonable is likely to be whatever you tell them it is, because they have no experience to tell them otherwise. Of course you then have to stick to the timetable agreed and provide a resolution or a progress report at the appointed time.

The potential gains on indirect savings are enormous. Just imagine if 50% or even only 25% of callers to your call-centre or customer service department accepted the principle of deferred response.

This would take an enormous amount of pressure off the customer service agents and remove a lot of the confrontation situations. They would have time to sort queries and questions properly and provide accurate answers, if necessary after reference to other departments or colleagues.

This would lead to greater job satisfaction and therefore greater staff retention – with the related benefits and savings of reduced recruitment and training costs, and more experienced staff dealing with customers. It would also mean that fewer staff could deal with a larger volume of customers.

On the customer side, satisfaction levels would also be higher as they receive the service they ‘expected’ – the call came when promised etc. Customer satisfaction promotes loyalty, referrals to friends and family and good relations with the supplying organisation.

The technology can support this type of operation easily. Many document management systems will enable all types of messages (notes from voice, letter, email, text and, if applicable, pictures, video etc) to be stored and linked to a customer reference for quick access.

A simple workflow system will sort and flag priorities or track response progress so that responses are prepared and issued in the timeframe agreed with the customer. If a response is delayed - no response from another department on say parts availability - then the system can at least give warning that no response has been received so that it can be chased or at worst the customer advised that there is a delay.

The customer care agent can issue the response in the format agreed (letter, fax, email, SMS or telephone call) direct from their workstation to suit the customer.

Nick Rowley is managing director of customer service specialists Oceanus

Now read Nick Rowley on What does a good customer look like?