How to Improve First Response Time

26 Oct 2023

7.5 min read


Ever felt the anxiety of waiting for a reply? Maybe it was an urgent email or a vital customer service question. It's nerve-wracking, right?

Now flip that feeling around... Imagine being the one causing this stress because of slow response times in your business. Not quite as easy to brush off now is it?

But don't worry...

We've all been there - trying to get back to every customer as quickly as possible. But in gunning for speed, you can risk losing the quality of response and frustrating customers more with bad or incomplete answers. From personal know-how, improving first response time (FRT) isn't simply a matter of acting hastily.

Let's unravel the true essence of First Response Time and why it's such a big deal. Together, we'll explore how to speed up responses without sacrificing quality.

Understanding First Response Time

The clock starts ticking the moment a customer reaches out for help. That's what we call First Response Time (FRT). It's more than just a number; it’s your first impression in solving their problem.

A shorter FRT can lead to happier customers, but if you take too long? They might feel ignored and frustration builds up. This could lead to them being less likely to stay, causing retention levels to decline.

Statistics show, 88% of consumers expect a response within an hour, yet most businesses don't meet this expectation. So improving FRT isn’t just nice-to-have – it's crucial for any business that values its customers.

We've seen this firsthand at DigitalGenius with our own clients - those who prioritise reducing their FRT have noted significant improvements in overall customer satisfaction scores. And who doesn't want happier customers?

If you send an automatic reply to tell a customer that you are looking into their query, and to set expectations on timing, we would argue that this does NOT count as a first response. The first response ought to be a meaningful one that either solves (or at least makes a good attempt to solve) the customer query, or goes back seeking more information in order to resolve the query.

Obviously this can get muddy when it comes to automation and self-service, but the important thing is to pick your method and be consistent about it.

Key Factors Affecting First Response Time

The first factor affecting FRT is the volume of customer inquiries. When businesses get more questions, it takes longer to respond. To manage this inconsistent level of traffic, they need effective AI tools to help triage and alleviate the burden on customer service agents.

A second element influencing FRT is staff training and availability. Skilled team members can answer queries faster than less experienced ones.

Last but not least, business hours also play a role in response times because customers often ask for help outside normal working hours, which creates a big backlog of tickets to pick up in the morning. If a customer submits a request just after you close for the night at 6pm, and an agent picks it up first thing at 8am the next morning, is the first response time <1 minute (because it was the first minute an agent could have responded) or is it 14 hours? You can argue for the 1 minute, but in practical terms for the customer, it's 14 hours.

How should you measure First Response Time?

This is where data can make a big difference, so it is important to make sure that you are measuring successfully. We've already argued about what should constitute a first response, but how should you report on this number?

Mean average: This is probably the simplest method to report. Any improvement you make will naturally bring this number down, but it can hide a lot of variance in the data. For example, if you take a blended approach between automation and human responses, then the FRT for automation will likely be < 1 minute, while the human responses will almost certainly be longer. So if you shift more and more to automation, you bring down first response time! But that doesn't tell you anything much about how your agents are performing.

Median average: This may be more complicated to work out. For those of you that need a reminder of median, it means taking the middle value when you rank all of the values from highest to lowest. This may give a more accurate impression of what a "typical" first response is.

By channel: Different channels go at different speeds. Live chat should be live, as should phone, whereas email or SMS may be more asynchronous. You should want everything to be as fast as possible, but with anything "Live" there is someone at the end of the line, twiddling their thumbs getting more and more annoyed. People who send emails will expect things to take a little longer, but they can be getting on with their lives in between. You need an approach to all channels, but if you're getting back to emails quicker than you're picking up the phone, then something has gone wrong.

Strategies to Improve First Response Time

If you want your customers to remain, it's critical that their queries are responded to promptly. But how could you guarantee this happens? Let's explore some effective strategies.

Extend business hours: This is a costly solution, and may involve outsourcing to another country, but check your data. If you get a lot of queries just an hour after you close, then you can adjust shifts and really reduce FRT.

Hire More Staff: It may seem obvious, but having more hands on deck can help reduce response times, but it's expensive.

Prioritize Queries: Not all customer requests are equal. Use a ticket system or CRM software, which lets your team prioritize based on the urgency of each query.

Leverage AI Technology: Implementing AI chatbots and automated responses can resolve some queries immediately while freeing up human agents for complex issues.

Improve processes: A big delay will be that your agents are dealing with another query and can't turn to the next one as quickly. Is there anything in the processes that is slowing them up? For example, On found that manually generating return labels was taking agents 10-15 minutes. They managed to automate this process and save their teem 800 hours a month.

The Role of Technology in Improving First Response Time

Technology can massively improve First Response Time (FRT). Automated systems give immediate replies to customers' questions. If these quick responses are meaningful and help move the customer towards a resolution then this improves FRT while These quick responses can keep the customer engaged and prevent them from feeling ignored.

AI-powered chatbots are another tech tool that helps with FRT. They're able to answer common questions without needing a live agent's input, plus they can do it around the clock, meaning that customers are not waiting until an agent comes online the next day.

DigitalGenius helps retailers to actually resolve queries automatically in a matter of minutes, going beyond simply issuing a first response.

Challenges in Improving First Response Time and How to Overcome Them

Improving First Response Time (FRT) is not always a walk in the park. It's more like climbing a mountain with hidden obstacles along the way. But, fear not. Let's confront some of these difficulties without delay.

Limited Resources

The challenge: You want to improve FRT but lack sufficient manpower or tools. This can leave your customer service team feeling overwhelmed and stretched thin.

The fix: Use AI-driven technology. Automating certain aspects of customer support lets you respond faster without overworking your team. Alternatively, look at how long your agents are spending on certain tasks while resolving queries and see if there is room for improvement.

Focusing entirely on FRT

No customer service metric sits entirely in isolation. If all things are equal then improving FRT is likely to improve customer satisfaction (CSAT) because customers haven't had to wait as long and won't get as frustrated.

But if you throw everything out of the window in the pursuit of FRT, then you risk sacrificing the quality of interaction, and you may not actually resolve queries as quickly as you could. Customers have had a response, but the response hasn't helped them.

That's why, even though we are an automation platform, we wouldn't advocate throwing everything at automation until you have the right conversation flows in place. You can send customers down rabbit holes and get them tied in knots, which doesn't make the experience any better – even if the first response was quick! The first step is always to use AI to analyse the tickets and then do the most appropriate response.

The fix: prioritise where FRT sits in your list of metrics. If CSAT is your gold standard metric, then monitor how changes in FRT affect CSAT, and iterate accordingly. But also understand your customers. We spoke to one retailer who described her typical customer as very matter-of-fact, who just wanted answers fast and didn't have time for "warm fuzzy" interactions.


Getting a grip on First Response Time isn't just about speed. It's also about quality and context.

Remember, understanding the factors that affect your FRT is vital. Use this knowledge to shape how you interact with customers. But make sure that FRT isn't your sole focus at the expense of other key performance indicators. A bad outcome is still a bad outcome, even if you got there quickly!