First, how do you encourage more e-mail from customers and prospects? Here are some do's and don'ts:
• Do put e-mail addresses and links on as many pages as possible.
• Don't use generic addresses like email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Do use the name of your CEO or the head of your customer service department. You can put a spam filter on that box and route it somewhere else. Then have the executives use another box.
• Don't use forms. Let people write what they feel.
• Do promise to answer each message with a real response within 24 hours, and keep that promise.
Second, how do you meet those promises and deal effectively with all that e-mail? Here are some simple ideas:
• Index each message as it comes in, and put it in a database.
• Have people with knowledge of your company on call to get real answers to real questions. Look at them as an opportunity to thrill someone, not as an up-sell.
• Develop a detailed FAQ (frequently asked questions) file on your company and update it based on e-mail questions that come in. This will speed answers to many questions.
• Use links in your answers, not just to your site but to news sites, consumer review sites and even competitors' sites (if you dare).
• Deliver daily or weekly reports to management on the concerns that come up most often.
If you can meet the e-mail challenge, you're going to get a reputation-a good one. You're going to learn how your customers and prospects really feel about you. You're going to get ideas for new products and services.
Of course, you're also going to get a lot of garbage. You may have difficulty generating much traffic at all, at least at first. You're going to get notes from ignorant people. You're going to see some flames.
Fortunately, there is a ready supply of people trained to handle large volumes of incoming e-mail traffic, to digest it and answer it. I've written about one such company, Participate.com in Chicago, several times. There are also hundreds of free-lancers and smaller firms out there, building expertise in handling e-mail and creating digest lists.
There is also a growing pile of software available to help you. The mySAP software, for instance, already has a "community" function its customers can use, as we reported in July.
Just remember this clear rule (I'll call it "Dana's Rule on E-Mail" so you can remember it): The key to e-mail success lies in answering the e-mail. Gain the discipline and systems needed to do that and you'll win the people's ovation and fame forever.
Dana Blankenhorn is a free-lance journalist who specializes in Internet issues. He is publisher of the Web site www.a-clue.com.