Managing E-Mail--When Customers Come Calling

E-mail is one of the "killer apps" that made the Internet worthwhile. The author suggests it's more closely related to voice-mail than to postal mail, in that it provides added convenience of time: you do not have to be in a certain place at a certain time to have a conversation - you read a message at your leisure and respond at your leisure, and the person on the other end does the same. It is this quality of convenience that is believed to have made it such a popular means of communication, even in an office environment.

The author mentions Volvo as a case-study that shows a company is "damned if you don't" use e-mail. When the company initially posted its Web site, with an e-mail address, customers sent complaints about their cars. The lawyers, fearing that e-mail constituted notification (by terms of lemon laws), demanded that e-mail be taken off the site. Customers who were cut off took their complaints public in other forums. Customers who had previously complained and received no response felt spurned. While no evidence is cited, the author suggests that this decision was very costly to the company in terms of bad PR and lost customer loyalty.

It is recommended that you solicit customer e-mails, and that you do not make it hard for people to find your address. Better still, place a contact link on every page (and if you can track which pages generated inquiries, you can identify problem spots on your Web site).

Also, do not restrict e-mail to specific purposes only. While it may seem like a good idea to provide specific topics and route messages to specific departments, keep an open mind: all customer feedback you get is useful, and a customer who does not see a way to contact you about the specific thing they have in mind will be frustrated rather than delighted.

The author also mentions the use of personal e-mails on Web sites, suggesting it's a good idea because people feel they are getting in touch with a real person rather than a nameless mailbox. I don't think he's aware of the lawsuits that have been filed ()and won) against companies for doing this when the publication of a personal address resulted in unwanted messages being received by an employee.

It's also worth mentioning that the time convenience of e-mail doesn't mean a business can respond entirely at their leisure. A general guide is to respond to any e-mail within 24 hours, even if your reply is that you need more time to provide the information the user needs.

Likewise, e-mail is a method of personal communication, and customers expect a personal answer - especially in that it addresses the specific concerns they raised (rather than a form letter). Be careful about stock replies: an actual human being should read and respond to customer e-mail (even though parts of their response may be "canned"). In some cases, an automated response may be acceptable (mechanized responses to standard inquiries, an out-of-office message, or an indication of when you can expect a real response).

A special note is given on the topic of "infobots," as these were carry-overs from "fax-back" information delivery systems, in which a person called a company for information (standard brochures) which would be sent to them via fax. This is not a good use of e-mail: put the fact sheets on your Web site instead.

From a customer-service standpoint, e-mail is similar to the phone calls your company receives from customers, and should be treated with the same degree of seriousness, in terms of both the timeliness and tone of your response.

Companies are also cautioned about proactive use of e-mail: Internet users are inundated with unsolicited commercial e-mail messages (spam). Allow users to opt-in to receiving announcements, newsletters, product updates, and the like. Of importance, do not use a system that opts them in automatically (if they fail to opt-out) - having a large number of newsletter "subscribers" is of no value if most of them didn't want the newsletter: they won't read it, and may be offended to have received it - and if you tell them it's their responsibility to opt-out, that's rubbing salt in the wound.

The author suggests that e-mail may be used for legal reasons in the future, but one of the present barriers is authentication (proof that a message came from a specific person) and verification (proof that the message was received by a specific person). However, no solution has been implemented to date, and the desire for such a solution was a passing notion - it's no longer on the radar.

Finally, the author speaks a bit about clear communications by e-mail:

One thing he doesn't mention, but should, is that not all e-mail clients use HTML formatting. While formatting (lists and tables) and text treatments (bold and italic) can help, consider what the message will look like in plain text if the formatting is stripped out of it.