November 30


Serving Customers Through E-Mail 201

by: Bill Ringle

You’ve heard the expression, “Nobody likes to be sold, but everybody likes to buy.” It reminds us that when you have your customer’s interests in mind ahead of your own, you have a better chance of succeeding.

On the Internet, the medium may change, but people respond quite the same way: unfavorably when we feel that someone hasn’t even bothered to learn our interests or needs, and favorably when we are catered to on some level.

To guide you in reaching and pleasing your customers, I present the seven C’s of customer service when using Internet e-mail:

Control. Companies that believe that they have it and their customers do not, take unforgivable liberties with mailing list information, purchase patterns, and even specific demographic identifiers. Perpetrators from every industry, from insurance to real estate to national office supply house, has crossed the line in recent years. If an organization leans too far the other way, it will be too hesitant in communicating with its customer base directly, through e-mail.

Success on this level involves three steps. 1) Start with a small sampling of your customers to work out the kinks in your delivery. 2) Develop a one-year plan to avoid gaps once you start. 3) Provide a balance of control, so that customers can elect whether to continue receiving your announcements or not, at any time, by following the simple instructions included in each e-mail sent.

Choices. Understand the needs of your customers and provide independent avenues for satisfying each need. For instance, some customers thrive on being among the first to know about a new product. These early adopters should be given separate treatment from other the customer segment that wants to be reassured periodically of their investments with your firm. Have separate list designations for announcements, company news, educational tips, customer support issues, and suggestions. Your online newsletter staff (or outsource firm) may decide to aggregate their efforts, and that can also work well, but beware of perfection paralysis all that’s needed is a healthy mix!

Customer education, and other benefits. Take the time to share explanations, insights, and tips with your customers through e-mail. Done on a regular basis, this service will perform two direct benefits for your company. First, you will occupy a special place in the mind of your customers of not only product/service supplier, but of leader. Leaders are responsible for developing the understanding and skills of others, and that’s a fundamental purpose of e-mail newsletters. The second benefit you will accrue is growth in your referral base. E-mail newsletters are forwarded to friends and associates around the industry faster than you can say, “You’ve got mail.” For that reason, always include contact information, such as your web address and sales phone number, in the communications you broadcast.

Community. The Internet was founded in an environment of academic collegiality, not competitive selling. You’ll do better with your online communications when the people running the operation have an inclusive “communicating with likeminded people” mentality. In fact, one of the best ways to derive a steady stream of educational items to share is to think what your customers need to know about your product line, industry, and company that will add value to their business or enjoyment of your offerings.

Conversation, not just information blasts. You can invite participants on your mailing list to submit ideas, success stories, quotes, and more, and then incorporate their contributions into your online communications. Some companies offer prizes for the best customer tip of the month. Another list I participate in for venture capitalists and entrepreneurs credits contributors of quotes by or about famous people that time has shown to be utterly ridiculous (such as the rejection letter for Mrs. Fields Cookies or the academic dress-down of Fred Smith’s Federal Express thesis). You can sometimes add value through irreverence using e-mail, so long as it’s brief, interesting, and not offensive. Humor inspires new connections, fresh thinking.

Comfortable on the eye. Just because it’s e-mail, don’t ignore formatting fundamentals. Use mono-spaced fonts for best control over line length. Break sections using vertical spaces and character lines. Insert hard returns for narrower column widths. Avoid HTML formatting, colored text, and “fancy” characters, such as smart quotes. They just don’t show up well in many e-mail packages. If you’re going to include a web address in an e-mail newsletter, include the http:// prefix so that e-mail software can hot-link the hyperlinks and open your recommended web site in a web browser.

Continuity. If you announce a monthly customer newsletter, you better have 12 issues outlined and three months of issues written, ready to send. Set expectations carefully, because audiences are less forgiving of delays on the Internet than they would be with printed materials or in-person communications.

Ringle’s Rules for Customer Care Using the Internet:

1.Treat your customers with respect, or risk losing their relationship (and repeat/continued business).

2. Provide the information and resources they need in the way they want it delivered.

3. Make sure your customers hear from you at times other then when you want to sell them.

4. Offer value for continuing to stay connected to you through your e-mail and web communications.

5. Every now and then, do something to reward your community for their loyalty.





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