E-Mail's Role in Customer Retention

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E-mail has proved to be an efficient and profitable way to acquire new customers on the Internet, and that proves true for providing customer support as well.


Focus groups, surveys and user statistics contribute to determining your customers' needs. But your first and best way of helping your customers comes from the points of contact when they need it -- and in the Internet world, that means e-mail.


E-mail is easy to understand and fairly nonthreatening, unlike some of the newer technologies for customer relationship management that have become popular, such as live chat and voice-over Internet protocol. It is also more cost-effective than a call center and a more direct method of communication.


In the purest sense, effective customer service means providing an efficient and pleasant experience for the consumer that requires no intervention. However, Murphy's law has a way of creeping up on people.


This is where you can create a competitive advantage by having systems in place for dealing with customer issues. This is done not only with an investment in technology, but also an investment in people and a philosophy of consumer advocacy that extends throughout your company.


Sometimes it's easy to forget there are people behind the orders -- people who have a variety of needs, wants and expectations from your company. Unlike traditional face-to-face business, Internet marketers cannot look their customers in the eye or hear the sound of their voices. Therefore, they may miss the nuances that can make or break a traditional business transaction.


A highly visible customer support page with a frequently asked questions section is a necessity. But in the rush to provide FAQs that offer answers for every conceivable question, the option of providing a simple e-mail link for the customer is often overlooked. Sometimes this is intentional. After all, customer e-mails can be a nuisance. They might be poorly written, vague or insulting. But all of them have a common element -- they are from a customer who wants to communicate with your company. While it may not be that the customer is always right, you can almost always learn something about how customers view your business by reading the messages they send you.


By providing a medium for customers to contact you, you have the responsibility to get back to them. Sometimes this is just a matter of letting them know that a human being has read their message, acknowledges their existence and is willing to help them or provide a sympathetic ear.


Timeliness is important. If you don't know the answer right away, it's OK to let the customer know that. By replying as soon as possible and telling them that you are working on the problem, you show that you care about their issue and are trying to find a resolution. Don't wait more than 24 hours to provide your first response.


Ways to streamline your incoming e-mail volume include form-based help centers, where the customer is driven to select predetermined subject lines and other content, as well as auto-replies, which can be based on what the customer has said to you.


As you become more familiar with your customer base, you will find that certain questions are asked over and over again. Providing a standard reply, which is customized by using the customer's name, is a quick and effective way of answering these questions.


There are several programs on the market designed to handle customer e-mails. For a small investment, you can have many of your customer e-mail procedures automated, which saves labor and allows for more personal attention to your special care customers. Also, these programs allow you to develop histories on your customers' communications with you as well as provide reporting capabilities to track customer trends.


Providing your customers with the means to control their personal information is another important component. If you operate a Web site with an opt-in mailing system, provide an easy-to-find method for them to opt out, change their information, etc. This not only frees your customer service staff to handle individual customer inquiries, but also reassures the customer that your business is reputable. Ideally, they will never want to opt out -- but if you show them they can, they will be more likely to stay.


Of course, this takes people and a commitment to your customers. In the long run, the trust you build with your customers and the knowledge you gain from communicating with them will far outweigh any associated costs.


Despite the advances in how we have done business in the past 100 years, keep things simple. Find out what your customers like, how they like it and deliver it to them in that way. By communicating with your customers, you will be doing just that -- and building a loyal, satisfied customer base.

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