Embracing the Email Demon

I used to look down on companies that hate talking to the public. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t want to personally talk with everyone who came to their doorstep.

That is, until I had my own company.

After that point, I understood firsthand what a time sink talking to the public is.

Being online, the problem is even worse, because now you have email in the mix coming at you day and night in a never-ending stream. But it has to be managed; otherwise, things don’t get done, sales don’t get made, and your public gets upset.

So how do we get an handle on this problem and do so within our budget? (We’ve got $3,500 left after our purchase of shopping cart software last week, if my accounting is correct.)

The first thing to do is to fully embrace the email demon. This is a radical idea and not for everyone, but I think you should take your phone number off of your web site and force people to communicate with you via email.

As we’re a small company with limited resources, it worked wonders for us. The reason is phone calls have to be handled immediately, but email can be prioritized and answered later. Furthermore, email can be answered with templates, and those templates can be sent automatically. Phone calls can’t.

Second, get a real email program, not that crappy Outlook stuff put out by Microsoft. My favorite is Eudora. It is a beautifully written program that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a tool to manage your email correspondence.

Third, create a FAQ (frequently asked questions) document containing answers to the most common things people ask you. That way you can avoid having to deal with simple questions via email.

Fourth, set up email addresses for specific types of correspondence (example: sales@yourdomain.com, support@yourdomain.com, orders@yourdomain.com). It is a million times easier to filter all the incoming email that way. And you don’t need to set up actual email accounts. All you need to do is set up what is called “aliasing,” which is simply a way of telling your mail server: “If email comes to this address, send it instead over to this other address.” The “other address” in this case would be your permanent email address.

Fifth, when possible, use web forms. There are a kajillion PERL scripts out there that will take the data from a form and turn it into a nicely formatted email, which can then be sent to you. When designed to ask the right questions, forms force people to include all the necessary information you need to respond to their query. You don’t run the risk that people will leave out critical information that you’d have to ask for in yet another email.

Sixth, think seriously about investing in a product called GoldMine. It is a contact/sales lead management tool, but it has lots of great features that can be adapted to manage and track your incoming business email. The three most important are:

  1. It has the capability to extract information from an email message and create a record containing that information in a database.

  2. It lets you attach all email correspondence to a specific record.
  3. It allows you to automate steps in the correspondence process so you can stay on top of where you are.

A real-world application of GoldMine to the customer management needs of a web business can be found in a company that sells ski packages to European destinations. The company is called Ski Europe. What they’ve done is build a form at their web site that allows you to request a custom travel proposal.

When prospects fill the form, the contents are emailed to Ski Europe and imported into GoldMine. The program then allows Ski Europe’s customer service representatives to manage the communication process, giving them the ability to quickly and easily engage the prospect in an email dialogue. What Ski Europe has found is that once they can engage a prospect in this type of email exchange, they are three times more likely to close a sale.

But while GoldMine was designed for the long lead-time type of selling Ski Europe does, there is no reason why it can’t be “flipped” and used instead to track and resolve customer service issues. Its power is that it allows you to electronically manage what is being said to your customers.

And the beauty of it is that the program costs only $300 (less in some computer stores). And you can download a demo for free.

So if we subtract that from our budget, we’re down to $3,200 going into next week, when we’ll be looking for an outbound email management solution.

See you then!

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