Business Success at Your Fingertips – E-Mail is Your Sales Staff

When you asked anything more than a superficial question, the seemingly irritated salesperson had you wait – yet again – while he went to find someone who might know the answer for you. You waited again. When he returned, again it was clear that whomever he asked knew only slightly more than he did.

You left.

Nobody won. Everyone’s time was wasted; you were frustrated that you didn’t acquire anything new (material or information) and the store lost a sale, while the salesperson — who could have been kept busy providing yet another customer with poor service — lost his commission. It’s also safe to say that you won’t be going back. The store lost you as a future customer.

Isn’t it interesting how this entire exchange (and subsequent loss of sale) had nothing whatsoever to do with the quality or price of the merchandise? The item in question was never mentioned because it is irrelevant.

If your web site is the face you show the world to invite prospective clients into your “store”, then e-mail represents the quality of staff you have to service those customers once they’ve decided to step inside. Any successful shopkeeper knows that even the most attractive, well-stocked and arranged commercial arena is a waste of money and energy without courteous, knowledgeable sales people who can answer clients’ questions, direct them effectively, see that they leave with everything they need, and that they feel welcome to return.

When you run a business on the Internet, your e-mail is your front line customer service staff. If you don’t manage your e-mail well, then the time, energy and expense you have put into setting up your web site so meticulously have been a waste.

It’s quite likely that the vast majority of your customers and prospective clients will have contact with you exclusively by e-mail. Most Internet business can be completely conducted without ever having a live conversation or meeting. People tend to prefer this medium for the very reason that attracted them to the Internet in the first place: they choose the time; they can focus and communicate at a time that’s convenient for them.

You need to be sure you’re never in the position of the shop owner with the poor sales staff, or the flustered, rude, unknowledgeable sales person.

You need to become an expert in e-mail customer service.

Remember that your intelligence, your personality and your credibility will all be judged by how you conduct your e-mail! Every person who e-mails you will judge you (and whether he or she wants to do business with you) perhaps exclusively based on your written communication ability and etiquette.

If this sounds like a big deal, it is.

If this sounds like a lot of pressure, it is.

Your e-mail will make or break your business. Be sure that whomever is charged with this tremendous responsibility knows this, and knows what s/he is doing.

If your business thrives, you’re going to get a lot of e-mail. Ergo, you want e-mail. Tons of it. E-mail is good. The more you get, the better your business should do (if you know what you’re doing once you get it). Instead of constantly scrambling and seeing it as a necessary evil, approach it like this:

1. ATTITUDE SPEAKS LOUDLY.

You can never harbour the attitude (even quietly) of an incompetent sales person; we have all, at one time or another, felt like we were inconveniencing the person supposedly waiting on us in a store. This attitude comes through just as clearly on e-mail.

You must see high volume e-mail for what it is — potential sales for you. If you approach the task with the respect and focus that implies, that too, will come through clearly in your communication with your customers and prospective clients. Without you saying the words “I respect your business and I want to help you in any way I can” this message will in fact, be conveyed — or not — in your e-mail. You must appreciate the fact that, just as in face to face communication, a great deal of your written communication is non-literal. This is called “tone” and it comes through — loud and clear — in everything you write.

2. TIMING IS EVERYTHING.

I’m currently doing some renovations on my house. I called three contractors and left messages asking them to get back to me and say when they could come by to give me a quote. Two of the three had come and gone within 24 hours. The third called me back — I’m not kidding — 10 days after I left the message. I literally asked, “Who?” when he said who was calling. By the time he called, I’d had three meetings with the contractor I’d chosen. I’d selected my tiles and fixtures, agreed on a work schedule and he was due to begin work the day Unlucky Number Three called me back. I simply said that I no longer needed estimates.

Contractor Number Three wasn’t unlucky; he was either a very busy person (in which case the loss of my puny fifteen thousand dollar job won’t bother him at all) or his poor business practices explain why he isn’t nearly busy enough. Not only didn’t he have a chance on this job, but I’d never consider calling him again.

You can’t be Contractor Number Three. It should be your practice from the outset to check your e-mail several times a day, and not just to check the numbers, but when you make some time to sit and actually attend to it. Answer inquiries regarding your products and services. If, for some unknown reason, you need to check or verify something, take a moment to e-mail the person and inform him that you’re working on his request and will forward the clarification within a certain amount of time. And be sure you meet that time limit. You’ll be sending the message, “I mean what I say,” which goes to your credibility, which goes to your products’ credibility.

Think of the “ball is in your court” cliche. Whenever e-mail comes in, answer it. It should go out fast. No matter what the nature of the message to you, a sender should receive a “Hi, I received your message/request/order/whatever and here is what I’m doing about it. You’ll hear from me by such and such a date or time.”

This is true regardless of the nature of the correspondence to you!!! Your credibility will build quickly if you treat all incoming e-mail the same: answer it. Now. Inquiries, orders, complaints, whatever. Treat each as requiring immediate attention from you and your clients will appreciate it. Simply send a note acknowledging that you have received their order and credit card info, their question, or their concern. Then get on it. No one is more impressed than when an answer comes into their e-mail box before they have even left their computer after sending off their message. You love to be acknowledged. I love to be acknowledged. When I enter a store and the only salesperson on the floor is being run off her feet, I love when she cheerfully says, “Hi! I’ll be with you in two minutes, right after I ring up this sale and find this gentleman his size. My partner is out of the store for just a moment.” Everyone loves to be acknowledged. You’re working hard to satisfy your customer’s request; tell her that! Such information should be shared.

3. EXPLAIN THE OBVIOUS

You will find yourself frustrated by the frequency with which you need to answer the same question(s) on-line. What’s obvious to you is not immediately clear to a prospective client, and each and every person needs to know the basics before he can continue. Remember that what is obvious to you is news to your 700th customer.

This is where high volume E-mail becomes especially frustrating, but you can’t let that tone slip into your answer. If you feel frustrated, imagine the outcome if you cause your prospect to feel stupid or like his inquiry is a bother to you. Each person making an inquiry deserves to be treated as the first and only client your business will ever serve.

If the volume of e-mail that fits this description becomes unmanageable, consider adding a FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions) section to your web site so your prospects can get by the basics on their own. Then the questions that they e-mail to you will be of a more sophisticated, individualized nature. Another alternative is to create a text document, or series of documents, which you can simply attach to your outgoing e-mail with a quick, personalized note: “Dear Fred; Thanks for your interest in the Walawala Hoop. I’ve enclosed the information you requested and hope you find it useful. Please let me know if there is anything else I can help you with.”

Or, you can create an autoresponder which bypasses you and allows information to be forwarded from the autoresponder directly to the inquirer’s e-mail box. This is good news and bad news: the good news is that you don’t get bogged down with repetitive e-mail; the bad news is you don’t get bogged down with repetitive e-mail (meaning you get less e-mail since the prospective client has no need to contact you directly). You lose your ability to follow up.

This is a great option for any business that has a very high “weed-out” factor; that is, a very high volume of prospects who need to read preliminary material before a reduced percentage proceed to the next level — dealing with you directly.

4. FOLLOW-UP.

It’s an important habit to routinely follow up when you send information via e-mail. Many users get high volume e-mail and yours might be lost, reshuffled, whatever. A quick note asking if your prospective client received what you sent and whether s/he has any questions shows that you are interested and happy to work for him. This gives him a boost of self-importance and you a leg up on the credibility ladder. Don’t be afraid to do this as many as three times within a few days of your answering a request.

5. SIGN YOUR CORRESPONDENCE

You must have a signature block (or signature file) on every piece of correspondence that leaves your computer. This “stamp” can be automatically added to the end of any and all outgoing messages. When you do this, you’re providing every recipient with your name, company’s name, web site address and phone and fax numbers. Correspondence without this information has a “plain brown envelope” quality about it, that is, less credibility. Your “signature” tells a reader you’re legitimate while it plugs your name or logo. Make it easier for people to return to you.

6. LET YOUR CORRESPONDENTS DO YOUR MARKET RESEARCH

Provide a Guest Book type of form where a visitor can sign in and give information about himself and his comments. This is invaluable information for you regarding your clients’ demographics and changing needs. You can learn how visitors came to access your site, what their interests are, whether they would like to be kept updated on your products and services, etc. This builds your client base and allows you to refine your products and services, as well as providing you with an inventory of potential future customers. When you get to the point where you circulate your own newsletter or e-zine, you’ll have an electronic Rolodex ready to go.

7. NO HOW TO RIGHT GOOD

If you weren’t the stellar grammar student, but you’re a smart business owner, be intelligent enough to have someone with good — no, great — writing skills handle your correspondence. Remember you (your company, your products and services) will be judged by every aspect of your written customer service. Granted, some of your prospects may not know the difference, but a great number of them do. Many surfers looking for products and services on the web are quite literate, and will associate the quality of your product or service with your writing ability. You may think twice about purchasing a major appliance from a salesman who says, “So, you’s are lookin’ for a dishwasher that runs good?” The dishwasher might be great, but its credibility would be harmed by the quality of the communication of the sales staff. Similarly, poor writing style and glaring errors always make me think twice about the writer, and therefore his wares. I find myself wondering how smart a person can be if he doesn’t know basic grammar and sentence structure. This is not snobbery; it’s free-association.

E-mail will be the life-blood of your on line business. Treat it as such, and entrust it to a sales person who is well versed in e-mail customer service and etiquette; consider this the next time you walk into a store and get lousy service — and you take your business elsewhere. Be sure your e-mail correspondences says: “Hello, I’m pleased you chose to visit here; I won’t waste your time; I’m intelligent; your needs are my main priority; I’m listening to you and I’ll give you whatever attention it takes to satisfy you. I want you to be happy you chose to visit and I want you to return. Happy.”