Article | 7 min read

First reply time: 7 tips to deliver faster customer service

First reply time refers to how quickly an organization can respond to a customer. Learn how to measure, track, and improve this crucial metric in our guide.

By Hannah Wren, Staff Writer

Last updated October 13, 2023

We’ve entered an era where consumers expect impeccable service. Gone are the days when businesses could respond to customer requests in a day or more. Nowadays, if you aren’t providing rapid, accurate responses, you may fall behind the competition.

First reply time refers to how quickly a business responds to a consumer request or support ticket. Read on to learn why that’s so important—and how you can deliver faster customer service—in our comprehensive guide.

More in this guide:

What is first reply time (FRT)?

First reply time (FRT)—also known as first response time—measures how long it takes a service agent to respond to a customer support request.

First reply times are crucial to an organization because the amount of time it takes to respond to a customer directly correlates to a positive customer experience (CX). Faster FRTs indicate a more effective response system and overall customer experience, while slower FRTs indicate the opposite.

It’s important to note that automated responses do not count toward a company’s first reply time—the metaphorical timer only stops when a support agent responds to the customer’s query or concern.

What are customers’ first response time expectations? 5 key statistics

While it was once 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 an email.”

But today’s marketplace isn’t just email. A comprehensive CX involves connecting with your customers over social media and live chat. Here are consumer response expectations for each medium.

Channel Good Better Best
Email 12 hours or less 4 hours or less 1 hour or less
Social Media 5 hours or less 2 hours or less 1 hour or less
Live Chat 1 minute or less 40 seconds or less Instantly

Sources: Toister Performance Solutions, Sprout Social, CallCentreHelper

While fast replies are essential, what you say is just as important as how fast you say it. 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) and can be just as crucial as FRT.

President of Toister Performance Solutions quote

It’s clear that speed and accuracy are priorities when responding to consumer concerns—and we came to the same conclusion in our Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2023. Here are some notable findings:

  • 72% of consumers want immediate, conversational service after submitting a request.
  • 70% of consumers expect anyone they interact with to have the full context of their situation.
  • 81% of business leaders see customer service and support as growing priorities over the next year.
  • 80% of business leaders plan to increase their customer service budgets over the next year.
  • The companies in our research had an average first reply time of two hours.

5 ways to measure first reply time

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

Here are five ways to calculate that metric.

5 ways to measure FRT

1. Define your first reply time in the scope of business hours

Unless you’re using the follow the sun model for customer service, your team will have off hours.

If a customer submits a request at 4:58 p.m. on Friday and your team responds at 10:03 a.m. on Monday, you shouldn’t include the weekend in your FRT if you are closed during that time. Measuring in business hours ensures you aren’t penalized for requests received on nights or weekends—just be sure to communicate those hours to your customers.

2. Take the median, not the average

Response time can vary widely based on the type and complexity of the issue. Calculating the median response time allows you to control for outliers that may skew your results.

A chat request resolved in under a minute or an issue taking much longer to resolve than normal—like an email assigned to the wrong team member—can paint an inaccurate FRT picture. For example, a data set might include three FRTs of five minutes and one of one minute. The average response time of that group would be four minutes, but the median response time would be five minutes—a more accurate representation of performance.

3. Track first reply time in your service reports

Customer service reports are a compilation of customer service metrics that can help you identify actionable insights to improve your CX. Including FRT in these reports can help you stay proactive and identify issues before they become problematic.

For example, if your first response time steadily creeps up over time, that could indicate you need to hire more agents, improve training, or streamline processes.

4. Use service-level agreements (SLAs) to increase accountability

Service level agreements are written agreements that define standards for customer support—in short, customer service guarantees. Adding FRT to these agreements can increase the accountability and responsiveness of your team.

For example, you could say that you will respond to issues from your top accounts within 12 hours. Following through on that promise will require teamwork and improved communication—factors that could improve FRT across your organization.

5. Use the standard FRT calculation formula

Calculating your FRT with the standard formula can add more insight to your analysis.

FRT calculation formula

To determine first reply time, simply divide the total first reply time by the total number of resolved tickets in the given period. Using this calculation, you can determine FRTs over an hour, week, or longer. Remember to follow our tips above when using this formula.

Discover more crucial CX customer service metrics

To improve your customer service, focus not only on first reply time but other factors such as resolution time and ticket reopens. Download our guide on the top 18 customer service metrics to get a holistic view of the most important metrics in customer service.

7 ways to improve your first reply time

If you want to improve your response time metrics, you need to invest in your support team and the technology they have access to. Here are seven tips to help your agents do their jobs more efficiently and improve your FRT.

7 actions to improve your first reply time

1. Train your agents

An agent training program is essential for efficient workers.

Your support team should know your product inside and out, as well as company policies and customer support best practices. When agents understand these concepts, they can respond to consumer concerns quickly and escalate tickets effectively.

2. Invest in digital customer service

While still useful in certain situations, the customer service phone call is being surpassed by other mediums. For improved efficiency and a more effective CX, invest in a digital solution.

Live chat and messaging platforms can help your support agents answer customer concerns more efficiently. Messaging, for example, allows a single team member to engage in multiple requests simultaneously, resulting in a significant FRT improvement over phone calls alone.

3. Build a robust knowledge base

With a knowledge base system, agents have access to all the information they need right at their fingertips, such as product specs or customer account details.

Access to this system means less time spent searching for answers and more time resolving customer issues. Additionally, more information leads to more context, ensuring your responses are fast and accurate.

4. Provide omnichannel support

Omnichannel customer support is a CX strategy that breaks down silos and creates connected consumer interactions across channels.

For example, if a customer first contacts a chatbot for a complex issue, the chatbot may instantly route them to a live agent to message or talk on the phone. When the customer is transferred, their information transfers with them, so the live agent can pick up where the chatbot left off without needing additional context.

The ability to move interactions seamlessly from one channel to another defines an omnichannel customer experience—one that can result in measurable improvements to your FRT.

5. Optimize the agent experience to prevent burnout

A study from Indeed found that over one-half of all respondents identified as feeling burned out from work. This trend isn’t isolated to specific businesses as call center burnout can be a real problem for support teams across industries.

When agents get burned out, they can feel a lack of motivation to hit their benchmarks, even if they are usually top performers. Combat this by building a culture of gratitude and choosing support technology—like ticketing systems or issue tracking software—that streamlines the agent experience.

6. Embrace strategic AI and automation integration

Strategic artificial intelligence, like AI chatbots, and other automation can speed up first reply time throughout your organization. While automated responses don’t count for FRT calculations, AI can efficiently route customer issues to the appropriate support agents.

According to the CX Trends Report, two-thirds of business leaders say investments in customer service AI result in significant performance improvements. This proves that a commitment to this strategy can make a difference in your customer support.

7. Strive for consistent improvement

It’s not enough to use these tips once without a shift in philosophy. Organizations must foster a culture of growth and improvement to put these actions into practice day after day.

Perform regular service report evaluations to identify successful CX tactics, bottlenecks, and inefficiencies. Be mindful to factor in speed and the quality of responses. A commitment to improvement is necessary to establish your organization as a leader in customer service.

Don’t stress speed over satisfaction

While first reply time is crucial in a CX strategy, it should never come at the expense of quality. You need to achieve both to provide a truly exceptional customer experience.

Your challenge is to be faster and more accurate than yesterday and continue improvements until you hit your FRT objectives. That said, you don’t have to do it alone. Try a free demo of Zendesk to gain a valuable partner in customer support and exceed your CX objectives.

Discover more crucial CX customer service metrics

To improve your customer service, focus not only on first reply time but other factors such as resolution time and ticket reopens. Download our guide on the top 18 customer service metrics to get a holistic view of the most important metrics in customer service.

Discover more crucial CX customer service metrics

To improve your customer service, focus not only on first reply time but other factors such as resolution time and ticket reopens. Download our guide on the top 18 customer service metrics to get a holistic view of the most important metrics in customer service.

Download the guide