The Dark Side of E-mail Marketing

Spam isn't dead, but it has lost its lead as the No. 1 problem for Internet consumers. The new challenge: unanswered or inappropriately answered e-mail. It's the black hole of e-mail.

An article in The New York Times last month declared: “We Got Your E-Mail, Just Don't Expect a Reply.” The article included results from a survey in which e-mails were sent to 20 retailers. The fastest response time: three hours. Five companies, including Ben & Jerry's, Wal-Mart and Goodyear, never responded. More than half of those tested took more than 24 hours to respond. The Times quoted one company executive as saying that only 10 percent of the 20,000 e-mail messages it receives each day get any kind of response.

As responsible outbound e-mail marketing continues to grow and gain acceptance, the larger problem is lack of responsiveness to inbound consumer e-mail. Companies either don't have the manpower and/or technology or they don't grasp the benefits of establishing an interactive, one-to-one relationship with their customers or prospects. In the consumer's mind, voice-mail hell is being replaced by an e-mail black hole.

As the Times article stated, “E-commerce? One-to-one communication? The promise of these buzzwords is belied by simple reality: many companies, even those with a seemingly sophisticated presence on the World Wide Web, continue to treat customer e-mail as second-class communication.”

Forrester Research put it bluntly: “E-mail [response] management is a mess.” The inability to respond in a timely fashion — something that is tantamount to not answering the telephone — is but one symptom of a much broader problem. There are few procedures to respond to e-mail requests for information or customer service. Most companies, 60 percent according to Forrester, route e-mail manually, which to a large degree defeats the purpose of using the interactive tool in the first place. Customers who anticipate e-mail responses to their marketing and customer service questions are finding that they must return to, of all places, the toll-free telephone system.

E-mail may very well prove to be a piece of heavy marketing artillery in the digital age, but ensuring that it is fired properly is becoming a major stumbling block.

So what can be done? There are three alternatives:

* Build and manage an e-mail services effort in-house.

* Purchase third-party software and manage it in-house.

* Outsource to a specialist company that blends the appropriate technology with human interaction.

Several software application developers have introduced e-mail response management programs. These programs fall into two categories: auto-response programs and e-mail workflow programs. E-mail auto-response programs totally depend on “rules,” or artificial intelligence to read and interpret the inbound message, and, with varying degrees of success, are able to appropriately respond.

Unfortunately, the technology is very expensive to license (more than $100,000) and maintain and is perceived by consumers as impersonal. E-mail workflow programs generally are less expensive to license (more than $40,000) but require more dedicated human resources (customer service representatives, etc.).

While many companies have licensed and implemented both auto-response and workflow programs for their technical support departments, few marketing departments have been able to put the same tools to work. Their IT departments either are too busy or marketing simply doesn't rate as high on the list of priorities.

Those companies that offer some sort of planned response typically have turned to automated answers that simply acknowledge the receipt of an e-mail message. While this response is automated, it does little to take advantage of the all-critical one-to-one potential of e-mail. For example, a major Internet service provider uses an automatic response program to communicate with users who send in e-mails about service issues. Each time an e-mail is received, the system sends an auto response; the process continues, creating what amounts to e-mail equivalent of voice-mail hell.

In addition to a simple program that generates an automated response once an e-mail is received, a number of applications developers have turned to more sophisticated tools. It now is possible for customer inquiries that come via e-mail to generate two or three different automated responses, depending upon the questions asked or the words included in the e-mail's inbound message. To date, software developers have just begun to explore the range of applications.

Simply hiring temps to handle e-mail probably is an effort in futility, especially if there's no specialized software at work. There's an extensive learning curve — a company that turns to a temp firm to provide bodies to answer the mail must train these employees to understand the processes in managing, analyzing e-mail and responding to customer e-mail inquiries.

Thus outsourcing may become the most viable alternative for most marketing departments. There are minimal up-front costs, maintenance is on a monthly purchase order, and implementation is immediate. The successful track record of outsourcing customer telephone activity is well known. Don't be surprised if this trend re-appears in the e-mail message distribution and management business.

John Lawlor is president of e-mail service bureau EmailChannel Inc., Boca Raton, FL. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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