Don't Automate This

This morning you sent out 50,000 emails to your in-house, opt-in list. You included one link in the email to connect them to a page on your site that makes a special offer on a widget.

Over the next 48 hours, 2,500 people will click on the link you asked them to click. Over the same period, you will receive 250 emails with a question, comment or complaint about this promotion:

“I don’t need a widget. Can I get a wodget for the same price?”

“I live in the Keeling-Cocos Islands. Does Fed Ex deliver here?”

“Is this the same widget you offered last February? If it is, you’re pretty stupid.”

“Have you read what the American Dental Association has to say about widgets?”

And so on and so on.

With these 250 in your inbox, here are three things that you could do:

  1. Plan on getting to them later in the week. Then forget about them until Monday. Figure it’s too late to reply. And finally dump them.

  2. Kick in the trusty auto-responder. “Your question is important to us. Please go to the FAQ area on our site and you’ll find that you can probably figure out the answer for yourself.”
  3. Actually employ smart, helpful and knowledgeable people to answer each email one by one.

I’m not aware of too many e-commerce sites that take the trouble to try number three, so I was heartened to read the following at

On a recent afternoon, in yet another grubby and windowless room,’s customer service group is meeting. It’s a motley yet earnest crew of 30 people. In peak season they collectively receive as many as 1,500 email messages a day, and they respond to them all. “We stay away from the automatic response,” says the group’s manager, Kristen Herron.

Good for them. When you take the trouble to reply to inquiries one-on-one, you’re very likely to convert the recipient into a more responsive prospect next time.

People really do seem to be delighted when they stumble across a real person at a web site. And a delighted person who has been touched by a living, breathing soul is more likely to become a loyal customer.

What the article at didn’t explain is what happens to those 1,500 emails a day — after they have been answered. I would hate to think that they end up in a virtual shoebox.

Why? Because there’s gold in those questions.

When a customer asks a question and the answer is at the top of the list of your FAQs, it’s tempting to dismiss that customer as stupid. And, truth be told, one may come across the occasional customer who is a few bites short of a mouthful.

But when that question is asked five times a day, you have to consider a more likely explanation: Your FAQs are hard to find or poorly explained.

Inbound emails — particularly those that ask questions or complain are one of your best sources of user feedback. This is how your visitors let you know about your site.

Up to 1,500 emails a day? Fantastic! After replying to the individual messages, what you have in your hands is an incredible snapshot of your visitor’s user experience. That’s better than a dozen fancy usability studies. It’s based on what is actually happening, right now.

Of course, to take that snapshot, you have to have some people analyzing the emails. What management needs is a report that highlights areas that need improving, opportunities that are being presented, and problems that have still not been solved. All of a sudden, all those pesky customer emails that come in each day are looking quite valuable.

First, you’ll have the opportunity to convert each sender into a loyal customer by touching him or her with a personal reply. And then you’ll be able to mine all this feedback to get a clear picture of the user experience at your site.

So. Don’t automate this.

Related reading