Article | 7 min read

First reply time: 6 tips to deliver faster customer service

Customers expect quick responses and with the right tools, you can be both fast and helpful.

By Sarah Olson, Senior Associate, Content Marketing, @seolson5

Last updated June 19, 2023

When we asked customers the most important aspects of good customer service, their top answer was speedy issue resolution.

So we know customers want quick answers but how fast is fast enough? Read on to find out.

First reply time definition

First reply time (FRT), or first response time, is a metric referring to how long it takes a customer service agent to respond to a customer support request (aka a ticket).

Automated responses do not count towards a company’s first reply time.

First reply time expectations

Although it was once a best practice to reply to customer service requests within 24 hours, expectations are changing. As Jeff Toister, President of Toister Performance Solutions, says, one day is too long to respond to email.

Here is a guide to expected first response time by channel, based on a review of benchmark data.

Channel Good Better Best
Email 12 hours or less 4 hours or less 1 hour or less
Social media 2 hours or less 1 hour or less 15 minutes or less
Live chat 1 hour or less 5 minutes or less 1 minute or less

Sources: Customer Experience Trends Report 2020, Multichannel Customer Care Report 2017


How quickly do customers expect a response?

We offer concrete guidance in this article on how much time a first response should take. But it’s important to realise why: speed is a customer priority. Our 2020 CX Trends report found that fast resolutions and replies continue to be most important to customers.

    When we asked, “What matters most to you when you want to resolve a customer service issue with a company?”

  • 72.5% of respondents, the top answer, said “they resolve my issue quickly”
  • 58.9%, the next highest response, was “they respond quickly”

Empathy and having the channel the customer prefers also scored highly but speed was by far the most important.

Send the right message to your customers

We know that faster response times are correlated with higher customer satisfaction but your reply time also sends a message to your customers. A fast reply to a ticket says: we’re here, we’re ready to help and we care about you.

A slow response, on the other hand, can send the wrong message.

“Companies that take too long to respond send a signal that the customer’s issue isn’t a priority or the company simply isn’t organised enough to respond quickly,” Toister points out.

That’s not a great look but Toister provides an important caveat.

There is one caveat to sending a quick reply: it has to be helpful.
Jeff Toister, President, Toister Performance Solutions

“There is one caveat to sending a quick reply: it has to be helpful,” Toister says. “Companies can fall into the trap of prioritising speed over quality, which creates extra effort and frustration for the customer if they don’t get a complete and thorough answer on the first try.”

Providing a helpful answer on the first try – without an endless back-and-forth between customer and agent – is often referred to as first-contact resolution (FCR) or one-touch resolution.

While FRT measures speed, FCR is an indicator of helpfulness – and you need both to be successful.


Measuring first reply time

First reply time is calculated by measuring the duration of time between when a customer submits a request and the time when a customer service agent responds to the ticket.

Here are a few tips for measuring first reply time:

  • Measure your FRT in business hours
  • Unless you’re using the follow-the-sun method for customer service, your team will have off hours. Measuring in business hours ensures you aren’t penalised for requests received on nights or weekends. Also, be sure to communicate your business hours to your customers, so they know what to expect.

  • Take the median instead of the average
  • Response time can vary widely based on the type and complexity of the issue. When you calculate the median response time, you can control for outliers that may skew your results, such as a chat request that was resolved in under a minute or an email that got assigned to the wrong team member.

  • Track FRT in your service reports
  • Including response time in your service reports can help you identify issues and stay accountable to customer expectations. For example, if your first response time is steadily creeping up over time, that could be a sign you need to hire more agents or streamline processes.

  • Increase accountability with SLAs
  • Go a step further by adding FRT to your service level agreements (SLA). For example, you could say that issues from your top accounts will be responded to within 12 hours. Using Zendesk Support, your team can sort tickets by time to SLA breach, so they know which tickets need to be prioritised.

3 types of customer service metrics you need to measure

Not sure how to measure success?

How to improve your first reply time

If you want to improve your response time metrics, you need to invest in your support team. Speed is really a matter of how well equipped your team is to do their jobs – and that includes basic training and tools you provide as well as the culture you create for your customer service team.

Here are 6 tips to help your agents do their jobs better (and faster):

  1. Train your agents

    An agent training programme is essential. Your agents should know your product inside-out and be familiar with company policies and best practice around support. When your agents really understand the product, they don’t need to spend as much time searching for answers. They can answer customer questions much quicker.

  2. Reduce multitasking and increase focus

    “Support leaders have accidentally encouraged distractions,” Toister states. “They’ve outfitted agent desks with two and sometimes three monitors. Agents are required to handle three or more chats simultaneously. Many are asked to respond to customer emails between phone calls or while answering live chats. It’s unsustainable.”

    Instead, try creating a schedule where agents focus on a single channel for a few hours at a time. This can increase accuracy and quality, resulting in fewer touches and faster issue resolution for customers.

  3. Build a robust knowledge base

    With a knowledge management system, agents have the information they need right at their fingertips. If they don’t know the answer to a question, they can search and find relevant information for customers. In Zendesk Support, helpful articles can be surfaced automatically, so your agents can answer even faster.

  4. Embrace conversational channels

    Prioritise in-the-moment assistance (and faster reply times) by offering service channels such as live chat and messaging. More customers have been relying on messaging during the pandemic and it makes sense given the fact that these channels can deliver a more immediate response for urgent questions.

  5. Improve the agent experience

    A recent study found that improving the agent experience is essential to increase customer satisfaction. And do you know what agents’ biggest pain point was? Navigating hard-to-use systems.

    Choose a support solution that streamlines your agent experience and allows them to do their jobs without toggling between multiple tools and systems. For example, after switching to Zendesk’s unified agent workspace, Showpo was able to get their live-chat reply time down to just 26 seconds.

  6. Prevent burnout

    COVID-19 has put a lot of pressure on workers, which could lead to agent burnout. When agents are burned out, they can feel a lack of motivation to hit their benchmarks – even if they’re normally top performers.

    You can help alleviate burnout by showing gratitude for your agents’ hard work. These downloadable stickers are an easy way to say thanks and recognise your team’s many talents. Building a culture of gratitude can help sustain your team through this crisis and into the future.

Don’t stress resolution over satisfaction

If you start stressing full resolution time above all else, says Dave Dyson, senior customer service evangelist at Zendesk, there’s a risk that agents will solve tickets before they’re really solved. Or they may choose not to look for opportunities to think about the next question the customer might have for fear of extending the time taken in the ticket. Perhaps worst of all, says Dyson, answers can be less friendly and more abrupt when speed is the top consideration.

A little bit faster now

While speed is definitely important, it should never come at the expense of quality and helpfulness. You need to achieve both to provide a truly exceptional customer experience.

Your challenge is to be just a little bit faster than you were yesterday and continue improving until you hit those reply time expectations.

You can be faster with the Zendesk Support Suite. Try a demo now.

3 types of customer service metrics you need to measure

Not sure how to measure success?

3 types of customer service metrics you need to measure

Not sure how to measure success?

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