"As soon as possible" (ASAP) is not as nebulous as you might think. Customers are innately aware of what an acceptable timeframe is for certain interactions. These expectations are generally based on the status quo, available information reporting, and communications medium. ASAP is measured quite differently than it once was. Efficiency when dealing with customers is a strong loyalty builder -- or breaker.
Optimize User Paths
A family member ordered a ring from her favorite online store last week. The Web site was easy to navigate; she found the ring she wanted and easily located all the information she needed to make the purchase. Checkout was speedy, and the product arrived in only a few days. Unfortunately, the ring was the wrong size. Although it was returned via overnight delivery, an automated e-mail confirming receipt of the package said it would take 15 days to process the exchange.
There are two basic problems here, both involving customer expectations. The first: Companies have spent all their time optimizing the purchase path for customers. Is this actually a problem? Of course not. But it becomes painfully obvious to users the same optimizations haven't been considered for other customer paths, including returns and exchanges. In the above case, order path and delivery were optimized, but exchange wasn't. Fifteen days! It would have been quicker to buy a new ring and return the first one, rather than exchange the ring for a new one. In this scenario, ASAP for product delivery is measured depending on why the product is delivered. Purchase ASAP is measured in days. Exchange ASAP is measured in weeks.
Real-Time Tracking Measures ASAP by the Minute
The ante has been raised, and that's the second problem. This holds especially true for package delivery. Now that UPS and FedEx offer real-time tracking, customers are more keenly aware of the time it takes (or the time they believe it should take) for packages to arrive. They're irritated with carriers that don't offer detailed, real-time tracking.
I remember becoming upset when the carrier that delivered barnesandnoble.com packages within Manhattan didn't offer the same level of tracking other carriers did. I wanted to be home for delivery. FedEx and UPS let me see when my packages are on the delivery truck. This carrier couldn't even accept a tracking number until after delivery.
What's worse, not knowing anything about your shipment or knowing too much? The more detail you have, the more detail you have to think about (does it really take that that long to haul a package from the New Jersey loading dock to the Manhattan distribution center?). Also, you'll have more to worry about. Remember when you knew only that a package would arrive "sometime this week"? There was a time when we never worried about how long it took for a package to fly from Arizona to New York. Who cared?
Now that we have access to that level of information, we expect the same details from everyone. If we measure package delivery by the minute at FedEx and UPS, it's frustrating when we can't measure other delivery services (such as USPS) by the same increment.
E-Mail: ASAP Communication, Right?
Like you, I e-mail constantly. When I wrote letters, I didn't expect an immediate response. How could I? Letters took a good amount of time to write and days to arrive. A response took equally long to write and to arrive. (Do kids still know what a pen pal is, or why they're called "pen" pals? Do they still use pens?)
E-mail is different. I compose e-mail messages quickly. As soon as I press "send," the message is waiting to be read. E-mail is an ASAP technology. When companies (or people) don't respond immediately, it riles me. I might as well have written a letter if I didn't want to hear back for a week. Compounding this are online customer service forms that read, "E-mail us. We'll respond as soon as possible."
If I write a letter, I measure ASAP in terms of days, even weeks. I measure ASAP for e-mail in terms of minutes. With instant messaging (IM), I measure ASAP in seconds.
What Does ASAP Mean to Your Business?
ASAP is a variable. It's measured depending on the medium. Look closely at your business processes and how long they take. Then, consider the medium through which you communicate during these processes. You should be able to benchmark an acceptable range of time based on those two criteria. Remember, there are different user expectations for what amount of time is considered ASAP. If you don't meet these expectations, you sacrifice customer loyalty.