E-mail Business: Management failure can be costly

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Brent LearyImagine a potential customer taking time out of his schedule to call you about your product. The caller gives you a detailed description of what he is looking for and waits for your response. Instead of answering his inquiry, you say nothing. The caller continues to wait for a reply?positive or negative?and finally gives up. The clicking sound you hear next is the phone being hung up. Thanks to your silence, a prospect has turned into a disgruntled witness, willing to tell everyone of your lack of customer service.

Months ago I came across an interesting Web site for a magazine I had never seen or heard of before. It appeared to be the kind of publication I would be interested in reading. I wanted to read an issue before investing in a subscription, so I e-mailed my request for a free issue based on the promotion on the Web site. I am still waiting for a response.

Cost of Slow, or No, Response
E-mail and small and midsize businesses (SMBs) should be a match made in heaven. There is no cheaper, quicker way to reach a lot of customers and prospects than by e-mail. According to a recent study by Interland Inc., a provider of Web hosting and online services to small and medium-size businesses, 70 percent of the small businesses surveyed view e-mail as critical to their business, 72 percent use e-mail to communicate with customers and 53 percent use it to reach prospects. That?s tantamount to saying, ?I love and respect you, e-mail!?

How, then, does one reconcile Interland?s findings with two recent studies by BenchmarkPortal, a leading source of customer-relationship-management best practices information for call centers? The studies, which were sponsored by eGain, a provider of customer service infrastructure solutions for businesses engaged in e-commerce, found the following:

-51 percent of SMBs failed to respond to e-mails
-70 percent of SMBs did not respond within 24 hours
-79 percent of SMBs responded inaccurately and/or incompletely
-Not responding to incoming e-mail is the worst thing you can do (or don?t do). A recent study of Ford dealers found that those who responded to e-mail inquiries within 15 minutes achieved an 18 percent close rate, against 10 percent for dealers who took more than two hours. In this instance, silence is neither golden nor profitable.

E-mail Response Systems
Businesses of all sizes have spent large amounts of time and money to make sure that incoming telephone calls do not go unanswered. According to Pizza Hut, a call that goes unanswered costs them $5.40 in business. Elaborate systems have been created to link incoming calls to customer information stored in databases, then route the call to an agent who understands the customer and the issue he or she is calling about. Similar thinking should be applied to e-mail, one of the business world?s fastest-growing communication tools.

Most customer relationship management packages worth their salt have auto respond capabilities, allowing you to quickly and accurately respond to inquiries. I love Microsoft Outlook, but it?s an e-mail client, not an e-mail response management system (ERMS), which is what you may need if you?re overwhelmed by the number of e-mails your company receives. Companies that offer effective ERMS solutions include InQuira, iPhrase Technologies, eGain, KANA, Knova Software, RightNow Technologies and Talisma.

Immediate Threat
Asked in the Interland survey to identify the biggest immediate threats to small businesses, companies cited inflation, energy supply shortages, devaluation of the dollar, offshoring and terrorism. They should have put ?lack of e-mail response management? at the top of the list. Do your business a favor by showing some common courtesy to those who thought enough of your company to take time out of their busy day to ask you something about it. Think about this the next time you get ready to send out an e-mail asking prospects to buy your product or service or customers to take time to fill out your survey.

As I was writing this column, I received an e-mail from someone who had visited our Web site and who was interested in receiving our newsletter. Another e-mail arrived from a Web site visitor who wanted to learn more about one of our services. Both inquiries received immediate responses. A ?thank you? e-mail with our latest newsletter went to the first person and another with an information sheet on the specified service went to the second, along with a promise that we would call within 24 hours. Both were done automatically, allowing me to finish this article. Pretty nice, huh?

Brent Leary is a partner with CRM Essentials Inc. He may be reached at bleary@crm-essentials.com or via www.crm-essentials.com.