True Customer Dialogue

Every e-mail program I've worked on was founded on a desire to better understand the customer and create an interactive dialogue. But virtually all have missed an opportunity to do just that by reading and responding to e-mail replies.

We disdain customers who reply to a mass e-mail. "They should know better," we think. "This is obviously not sent by a real human being, so they shouldn't expect a response. We have contact information on our Web site."

The main concern at budget time is expense without a hard ROI. As any call center manager will tell you, the corporate directive is to cut costs, not capitalize on opportunities to nurture or rescue customer relationships. But a successful salesman tells me that if you fix a problem for an unhappy customer, he or she is loyal for life.

How are you handling your e-mail replies? Do customers get a canned "no one is home" response or, worse, no response at all? Does a computer answer them or a real human being?

Consider the worst-case scenario: a customer sends a complaint e-mail, receives no reply or an inappropriate reply, and the next day gets a marketing e-mail. Nothing says "just shut up and buy" more effectively. Remember that at that moment, your e-mail IS your company, from the customer's perspective.

Then consider the best case scenario: customers are so surprised by a helpful response from a real person that they tell people about it. As great service becomes rarer, it is more likely to become a topic of conversation. With the diffusion of blogs, the audience for these conversations, both positive and negative, can be vast. Check with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association ( for some examples.

Yes, it's expensive to respond to the few customers who provide feedback by replying to e-mail. But the payoff--an interactive dialogue with and better understanding of your customers--makes it worthwhile, in terms of great word-of-mouth marketing and fulfillment of e-mail's promise to senior management.

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