When it comes to digital customer communications, email stands out as not only the most prolific, but also the most preferred by customers.
Surveys indicate a striking 83% preference for email over post or customer portals. Let's explore why email is the channel of choice.
An Evolution Of Customer Communications
The way businesses and customers communicate has been changing.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this change, shifting communication from traditional mail to digital methods like email and online portals.
However, this transformation began well before 2021, and it reflects a growing consumer preference for digital convenience.
So, how did we get where we are today?
The History Of Post
The foundations of the modern postal system were laid in the 17th century - the beginnings of global communication.
Innovations such as the introduction of the postage stamp in the 1840s and the expansion of rail and shipping routes dramatically increased the speed and volume of mail delivery.
However, the advent of digital technology in the late 20th century challenged the dominance of traditional postal services.
Digital communications were cheaper, increasingly convenient, and instantaneous compared to physical mail.
The increased proliferation of digital communications has, especially in recent years, led to a notable decline in postal volumes.
This trend is highlighted by data from Royal Mail, which reported that it delivered just under eight billion letters in the financial year ending March 2022, a 33% decrease from five years prior.
The History Of Email
The development of email technology in the 1970s marked the beginning of a new era in communication.
Although it was initially used to send messages on local computer networks, the commercial use of email surged in the late 80s with increasing adoption of the internet.
By the late 90s and early 2000s, email had cemented its role as a pivotal tool for business communication.
Email offered numerous advantages over traditional mail, such as faster delivery, greater efficiency, and the ability to keep a digital (and therefore searchable) record of exchanges.
However, with increased usage, came year-on-year growth in the number of cyber attacks looking to exploit email data.
Businesses today are wrestling with how to continue using email for its efficiencies without putting sensitive data at risk.
The History Of Portals
Parallel to the rise of email, the concept of self-service customer support began to take shape in the 1990s.
Initially, these self-service options were basic, limited to FAQs or knowledge base sections of websites.
However, as cloud technology advanced, businesses began to offer more sophisticated self-service tools including account management features, support ticket submissions, and interactive knowledge bases.
Today, customer portals offer a lot more than troubleshooting.
They are a core part of business and customer communications, where a majority of interactions take place, including:
- Document exchanges
- Digital signatures
- Order tracking
- Product upgrades
- Privacy management
- Billing and payments
However, while portals have driven efficiencies and access for some, they have often failed to win other customers over.
Research shows a lack of engagement with customer portals; 42% of customers have abandoned a portal due to frustration.
Postal mail might be an inefficient communication channel for everyday messaging, but has it really fallen out of favour in business?
Amid a cost-of-living crisis, the last thing that businesses and consumers want to be doing is spending on stamps.
The cost of sending a first-class letter has increased from 70p in 2019 to £1.25 today. That’s a substantial 78% increase in the last 4 years.
When you also factor in that paper prices have risen by over 20%, sending communications by mail is no longer a cost-effective solution – especially with so many digital alternatives available.
Businesses want to know their communications will be delivered, and consumers expect a reliable delivery service.
Under Ofcom regulations, Royal Mail must deliver 93% of first-class mail within a day of collection, excluding Christmas.
These delays have negatively impacted 7.3 million people, causing missed health appointments, financial penalties, and a general reduction of business and consumer confidence in the service.
A Focus On Sustainability
The longevity of the planet has become a key concern for consumers and businesses, with the effects of climate change already taking hold.
7-in-10 UK adults feel that businesses should decrease their postal communications to reduce their carbon footprint.
Every tonne of post generates an estimated 3 tonnes of CO2e, with Royal Mail’s carbon footprint reaching a staggering 1.2 million metric tonnes of CO2 in the financial year of 2021-22.
With digital solutions readily available, it's easy to see why switching off post would seem like a no-brainer to consumers, and businesses and their regulators are starting to follow suit.
Rising Security Concerns
Postal mail is not just inconvenient – it can be a security risk.
Senders lose control over a document once it's mailed, making post a risky way to deliver sensitive data.
The most obvious issue is the potential for theft, as physical mail can easily be intercepted at various points during transit.
Equally worrying is that unlike like digital formats, physical document formats lack protections such as encryption to prevent personal contents from being read if they were to be intercepted or lost.
In the past few years, mail offences have been increasing, leaving sensitive customer data that is transmitted by post vulnerable.
The benefits of a customer portal are clear - it centralises all customer and business interactions. So, why do customers prefer email?
A Lack Of Engagement
While portals are becoming more readily available, many consumers either struggle with them or have no interest to engage.
Looking specifically at portals in healthcare, a study revealed that 63% of adults who had a healthcare visit did not visit their patient portal to retrieve key information in the subsequent 12 months.
The reasons for lack of use included a preference for more direct comms (70%), no internet access (25%), and privacy concerns (22%).
From our own work with financial services providers, we know that lower than 50% engagement rates are a common problem.
The Human Touch
Many consumers prefer direct human interaction over navigating knowledge bases or automated chatbots.
Portal support, even from a human, is associated with slow response times, often taking 2 to 3 days to resolve a query.
This asynchronicity can be off putting, particularly to older consumers who favour immediate solutions via phone or email.
Significantly, 52% of Baby Boomers say they would avoid businesses that don't provide live one-to-one support.
Across all age groups, customers are four times more likely to switch to competitors for service-related issues.
Many users report problems with confusing navigation, small font sizes, and overall unintuitive designs that fail to cater to older customers and others with accessibility issues.
Businesses often fail to understand the continual resource burden of a bespoke customer portal that exceeds customer expectations.
Addressing The Threats
Portals mainly use usernames and passwords for security, but weak passwords and advanced hacking techniques, like brute force attacks, can put customers' information at risk.
Even stronger passwords are now at risk, with complex 8-character phrases able to be cracked in only five minutes if the latest processing technology and artificial intelligence were to be used.
This requires business portals to adapt to the latest and changing threats by implementing multi-factor authentication and integrating a range of digital identity processes to prevent the unthinkable.
Many businesses have made the news in recent years for leaking customer data held in their portal, and research shows consumers are getting more careful about who they entrust with their information.
Why Is Email The Channel Of Choice?
There are a lot of digital messaging alternatives to email, which is a comparative old-timer in the space. Why is it still on top?
The Default Option
Communications channels gain adoption through their prevalence, and email's prevalence is hard to beat.
Unlike newer digital channels, email has long been the go-to tool for both personal and professional interactions and transactions.
The fact that everyone already has an email address makes email's dominance for digital communications unparalleled.
The rise of customer portals has only made email more vital, with your email address fundamentally tied to every account you have.
The near-universal usage of email in the western world makes it a more efficient alternative to other channels, physical and digital.
Traditional post takes several days to reach a consumer and online portals are associated with low customer engagement.
Emails, on the other hand, quickly deliver important and sensitive information directly to a recipient's inbox.
This not only offers organisations greater control over the speed of processes, but greatly improves customer satisfaction.
Delivering customer communications via other digital channels, for example messaging apps, would be inefficient because of the wide variation in customer preference for disparate platforms.
Ease Of Use
Most people are already familiar with using email, and this is a rare and significant benefit for a digital communication tool.
Consumers find it easier to manage emails than navigating unfamiliar online portals, each with its own interface and login requirements.
The intuitive and integrated nature of email platforms makes them highly accessible, even to those with accessibility requirements.
In comparison to post, online portals, and messaging apps this means that data can easily be found, archived, and organised, making it simpler to keep track of and to engage with as a consumer.
For businesses, email eliminates the high costs associated with physical mail, such as paper, printing, and postage.
Especially if documentation is being sent to customers with the expectation that they return it, print and post costs can become a significant line item on your profit and loss sheet.
In a recent survey, 68% said first-class post was too expensive, and 15% stated that they struggled to afford postage.
Our research found that for enterprise companies with high outputs, email can generate 95% savings on print, pack, and post.
Using email reduces the need for paper, printing, and physical delivery - all of which have a much larger environmental footprint.
4 out of 5 people state that they are more likely to interact with a brand that has a positive approach to sustainability.
Our studies show that companies that switch their postal communications to secure email can reduce the carbon impact by over 80%.
Email's prevalence likely helps its cost efficiency in comparison to customer portals and proprietary messaging apps, as it gains efficiencies from having a shared and more mature network.
Security And Privacy
Email stands out for its potential to be highly secure, despite its underlying technology sharing risks with post, portals, and other digital solutions.
This enhanced security is achievable through specialised, enterprise-grade secure email software solutions, like Mailock.
Secure email solutions employ end-to-end encryption and recipient authentication processes to ensure that only the intended recipient can access a message's content.
This enables organisations to exchange information with customers through their channel of choice, without exposing it to the risks associated with unprotected emails.
The Importance Of Email
The evolution of communication in the digital age unmistakably points to email as the preferred choice due to multiple benefits.
As we embrace an increasingly digital world, email remains a vital, adaptable, and reliable cornerstone in the realm of communication, successfully bridging the gap between businesses and customers.
Originally posted on 19 12 23
Last updated on December 21, 2023
Posted by: Sabrina McClune
Sabrina McClune is an expert researcher with an MA in Digital Marketing. She was a finalist in the Women In Tech Awards 2022. Sabrina has worked extensively with B2B technology companies conducting and compiling thorough academically driven research to produce online and offline media. She loves to read fantasy novels and collect special edition books.
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