Shaking Hands, Email, and All That Jazz

When you and I close a deal, we shake hands on it. It’s like signing a contract, but much more informal and profoundly human. Still, it has the cachet of a binding action that inspires confidence and trust. Thing is, you can’t reach your hand through the ether and reassuringly clasp your customers’ hands every time they make a purchase (and they’d positively freak out if you could!). So, in lieu of your hand, offer your customer your assurances through effective email communication.

I’m talking specifically about the fifth step of the sales process: managing the close. This is not about the possibility of future email relationships with your customers; it’s about finishing the job at hand in a way that inspires confidence, trust, and delight — so they’ll want to stick around for a future relationship.

Joe Consumer has worked his way, yes, delightedly, through the first four steps of your online sales process. The two of you have tackled prospect, rapport, present, and qualify successfully (see “As Easy As 1, 2, 3 (4, 5)“), and Joe has decided to buy two widgets and one thingamajig from you. He’s filled out the order form, selected his preferred shipping method, and reviewed your policies. He now clicks the submit button for the secure transaction. Now what?

If you are on top of things, you immediately give Joe a page that visually confirms his order. It has an order number on it, a list of what you are going to send him, cost details specified to the last penny, and the expected ship date. You include both a toll-free customer service number and a customer service email address. You remind Joe he can print this, using his browser’s print feature, for his records. But do you stop there? No!

Now you send Joe the first email associated with this transaction. If you’re sharp, it goes out at the same time you generate the confirmation page. He gets it immediately, and he is impressed. It confirms everything that just happened online, listing all the pertinent information. It thanks Joe for his business. It repeats the contact information in case of a problem and restates your guarantees. Most comforting of all, it lets Joe know you are on the ball and really did process his order. You’d be amazed at how many “canned” autoresponders — written by the same techies who developed the shopping engine — I still see.

Assuming everything goes well and Joe’s widgets and thingamajig are in stock, the second email you send is a confirmation of shipment. It references the order number you sent the first time and lists all the pertinent information: It confirms what is being sent, estimates arrival, and provides tracking options. If one of Joe’s widgets is on back order or is discontinued, your second email is going to detail the issue and explain Joe’s options. He can wait, cancel the order, accept a partial order, or order something else — maybe at a discount as compensation for the inconvenience. You bend over backwards to make Joe happy. Then make his case a priority (you do have a system for that, don’t you?) so he doesn’t have to wait long for the second handshake after he makes his choice.

Wondering what this would actually look like? Well, Lands’ End, Amazon.com, and Total Health Source do a wonderful job confirming orders.

When Joe’s package is delivered, you’ve finished Basic Handshaking 101 and can move on to more advanced forms of handshaking, in which you shake Joe’s hand as you lead him to other offers you are dying to give him, and he is dying to receive — even if he doesn’t know it just yet.

The classiest acts I’ve seen track Joe’s package, wait a few days, then follow up with a “How did we do?” email (properly personalized, of course). Here’s Joe’s opportunity to sound off. Maybe he’s so thrilled that you can use his words as a testimonial (do ask his permission). Maybe he’s had a problem, and you can use the info not only to make him happy but also to make improvements to your system. Maybe he doesn’t reply, but at least you cared enough to ask, and that’s worth a lot of goodwill all by itself, isn’t it?

At this point, you can let Joe know you’d like to stay in touch with him, because now, and only now, have you really demonstrated to Joe that there’s true value in doing business with you. Now you can begin “managing your customer relationship” (see “CRM, Yes, But Don’t Forget to MRC“). This is where you can offer the option of opting in, via direct hyperlinks in your email, for other customer perks. Maybe you have a newsletter. Maybe you will provide advance notice of sales exclusively to subscribers. Maybe you can offer great savings on discontinued products or bundled packages to your loyal customer, Joe. Maybe you will let him preview new stuff before it even hits the Web page. Maybe you’ve got affiliates Joe would like to know about. The list of maybes is endless, and every “maybe” really is a “why don’t you.” (I know, I can be so subtle.)

So, shake that virtual hand. Use email to cement the relationship, then use email to maximize it. If you do it right, Joe might even send you a thank-you email!

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