LISTSERV (R) at Work - Summer 2002 IssueL-Soft
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CRM: Rising to the E-Mail Challenge

L-Soft CEO Eric Thomas

By Eric Thomas

With 96% of Internet users citing e-mail as their primary online activity, e-mail is inevitably going to become one of the main communication channels for CRM. But capitalizing on the community-forming and somewhat addictive nature of e-mail requires a keen understanding of the medium, along with a genuine willingness to adapt your approach to the medium rather than trying to hammer it into an existing mould.

E-mail is not mail minus the paper and postage

People use e-mail because it is fast, convenient, and saves them time. They will expect the same attributes from e-mail communications with companies they purchase goods from. In particular, speed is of the essence, especially for two-way communication. While it may be perfectly acceptable to answer a written (paper) inquiry within 2-3 days, e-mail requires an answer within the day or, at a minimum, a personal acknowledgement that the message has been received and is being attended to (not simply an impersonal, computer-generated response indicating that the message was successfully received by the call center). This may require a costly change in business processes, but there is no way around it.

Likewise, e-mail must be convenient and save time for the customer. Irrelevant information should be avoided at all costs, especially if it takes the form of large attachments (e.g. brochures). As a rule of thumb, attachments should only be sent if they are small or if you know for a fact that the customer wishes to receive them. But how many customers will, if asked, agree to be sent a potentially huge brochure by e-mail? A simple yet effective solution to this quandary is to include a link to the brochure in your e-mail response. You can, in fact, include as many links as you want, as long as you clearly describe each linked document. A personal comment such as "See in particular page 5" will almost guarantee that the customer downloads and reads the document - but make sure that page 5 is indeed relevant!

I recently placed an order for $500,000 in miscellaneous computer equipment. Although the sale was closed during a telephone conversation, the winning move was an e-mail message with an enclosed Excel spreadsheet showing the details of my order. I could quickly compare the costs of various options (including options the salesman had not mentioned) by changing quantities from 1 to 0 and back. The company that won the bid was also very responsive by e-mail. The other companies either did not answer e-mail promptly, or rang me the instant I e-mailed them something. They littered my desk with facsimiles and generally tried to fit e-mail within an existing, familiar framework.

Successful one-way communication

The challenge with one-way communication (announcements, newsletters, special offers, etc.) is that the customer is going to apply the same standards of convenience and effectiveness as with personal, two-way communication. Here speed is less important, although it is still appreciated and helps identify you as a company that "understands e-mail."

We have seen that, in order to be convenient and effective, e-mail communication must be relevant. The customer will unilaterally apply his own standards of relevance and, because of "spam," will tend to err on the side of non-relevance, which can trigger hostile actions ranging from angry e-mail responses to boycott. All this without regard for the difficulty of creating content that is relevant to a large and diverse customer base!

It is important to understand that content which is deemed relevant enough when delivered by postal mail will be subject to much stricter standards when e-mail is used. Sending existing, traditional content via e-mail simply to save on printing and postage costs almost invariably ends in bitter disappointment.

The key to surmounting the e-mail challenge with one-way communication is to target and personalize. This is typically achieved with the help of demographics information from the customer database. Recipients are targeted in essentially the same manner as with traditional (postal) direct marketing. Combined with the timeliness of the medium, personalization opens up a range of new possibilities - for instance, birthday greetings with a time-limited discount or credit for online purchases. Although few companies go beyond the "Dear Mary" stage today, every major player has a genuine personalization project in the works.

E-mailed content must also deliver value to the customer. This can take the form of information that the customer finds valuable enough to read the rest of the message, or a good old-fashioned discount or special offer. The message must be easy to navigate through, with a popular format being a series of short abstracts, each followed by a link to a web page where the full article or product description can be found.

The ping-pong game

E-mail and the web are complementary rather than antagonistic media. The web site should advertise the existence of the newsletters and other one-way e-mail activities, encouraging people to subscribe to them for future rewards. The newsletter in turn should make every attempt to direct the customer back to the web site, where he can view ad banners, make online purchases and so forth. The URLs should be personalized to include a customer number or equivalent, so that activity and response can be tracked.

This natural synergy between the web and e-mail will not only increase the number of page views and (hopefully) purchases, but will also appeal to a broader range of visitors. People who do not like surfing, for instance because they have a slow Internet connection, may find the newsletter format more appealing. The top complaint about web site is usually download times, which can be difficult to optimize while keeping the site visually appealing, and the newsletter will help alleviate this.

Let customers do the work for you

Another trick of the trade is to delegate part of your CRM work to your customers. While this may sound nonsensical and at the very least dangerous, it can actually work wonders if done correctly. The idea is to create a forum, usually in the form of an e-mail discussion list, where customers can communicate with each other (openly or, if you want to play it safe, through a moderator - but make sure the moderator approves messages promptly!) You direct the general direction of this exchange by setting a topic for the discussion, and politely but firmly steering participants so that they remain on track. If you have multiple and diverse topics for discussion, it is best to create multiple fora. You should also have a clear charter outlining how participants are expected to behave (no personal attacks, etc.) so that you can justify the moderator's decisions.

You will find that a small number of customers become very enthusiastic and openly voice their appreciation for your company or its products. Some will take a "father figure" role and educate newcomers, offer advice or tips, and generally try to assist other customers in using your products or working with your company. The silent majority will see these messages and develop a positive impression of your company through the repeated, tacit endorsements on the mailing list. It is important not to censor gripes as long as they do not degenerate into name-calling or otherwise get out of control. In most cases, other participants will come to your defense and save you the embarrassment of having to sound defensive on your own forum.

These discussion lists will give you something that no CRM initiative can deliver - peer endorsement, the most powerful form of advertisement. They can also prove very useful as a recruiting tool for customer support people or even CRM project managers - simply monitor the discussions and contact the most helpful and knowledgeable candidates. You will be hiring from a pool of highly motivated individuals who, even when not interested in a career change, will usually be flattered and become even more loyal to your company.

Making it all work

Once you have planned all the ingredients (two-way employee-customer communication, one-way communication, discussion fora), you need to find the right proportions. While you should definitely get advice from CRM experts (but make sure that they have a good, intuitive understanding of e-mail and its proper use in a CRM context), your best advisors are actually your customers. The traditional heavy-handed approach ("We know what you need") is prone to failure when CRM and e-mail are combined, simply because the people who know the customers well are usually not familiar with the technology and vice-versa.

My advice is to solicit customer feedback, listen carefully, and then listen one more time just to be sure. Sometimes the results can be surprising and may conflict with the advice you received. Remember that this is a new field and that best practices are still being refined. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and send too little rather than too much information.

Converting leads to gold

When properly deployed, e-mail is a highly effective channel for applying the results of CRM analysis and converting theoretical findings to concrete purchases. Organizations will need to accept change in their attitude towards and behavior with e-mail. This change may hurt a little, but the results will be well worth it.

Eric Thomas is the founder and CEO of L-Soft, premier provider of e-mail list communication solutions for the management of personalized direct e-mail marketing, e-mail newsletters and discussion groups. You can reach him at

Copyright 2002 L-Soft