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Web sites drowning in deluge of e-mail

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"We thought we could build greater name recognition by becoming a source of industry information to designers and manufacturers in the field." Toko America, a Chicago-area electronic component manufacturer, never expected that using the Internet to improve its flow of product information would actually create an unmanageable flood of e-mail.

But it did, and Toko America isn't the only company facing such a problem.

More than 70% of large companies can receive e-mail -- but only about half (52%) accept requests for corporate information, according to a survey of Fortune 500 companies conducted by Matrixx Marketing, a Cincinnati-based communications service company. And less than half (48%) have the capability to respond via e-mail.

RESOURCES NOT KEEPING PACE

Among the companies that were equipped to accept e-mail, only half responded within two weeks to a test request sent by Matrixx and only 17% responded via e-mail.

Matrixx, which provides telemarketing and interactive voice customer service, also began offering e-mail response services to consumer marketing companies earlier this year.

"Companies want a presence on the Internet and believe they need one to keep pace with their competition," explains Matrixx Marketing Director Elizabeth Stites. "But the resources needed to provide Web-oriented customer service haven't kept pace with the growth of the medium."

That's what happened at Toko America, says marketing communications manager Bill Davis.

"Our goal was to provide technical information such as data sheets, application notes and other specifications to our customers and wireless equipment designers. The technology changes so quickly that there's always a need for fast updates on new components," he says.

Toko America also hoped to become recognized as a leader in its industry by inviting visitors to its Web site to use e-mail to ask general technological questions about the fast growing wireless communications industry.

"We thought we could build greater name recognition by becoming a source of industry information to designers and manufacturers in the field. We could fill a critical informational need and demonstrate our expertise at the same time," Mr. Davis says.

The idea worked, but way too well.

A REAL PROBLEM

The Toko America Web site quickly became a crossroads of technical Web surfing, attracting 15,000 visitors in the last three months and more than 700 pieces of e-mail. Only about half of the letters came from present or prospective customers in the U.S., 30% from overseas manufacturers and about 20% from colleges and universities.

"The e-mail has become a real problem," Mr. Davis says. "Many of the messages contain very specific technical questions that can't be answered by the marketing staff -- and our technical staff already has a full workload."

Ms. Stites of Matrixx compares the growth of e-mail traffic with the rapid rise of toll-free telephone inquiries more than 20 years ago and predicts a corresponding growth in outsourced service firms to help manage online correspondence.

Communications companies also are adding cyber response services.

MossWarner Communications, a Hartford, Conn.-based business communications consulting company, develops Web sites and customer databases for consumer and business-to-business marketers and recently added e-mail customer service.

"Most companies just don't have the resources to respond appropriately to e-mail from the Internet," says Bob Smithers, VP-general manager.

"Web surfers are more sophisticated than ordinary consumers and when they communicate via a Web site, they are usually looking for very specific information."

Outsourcing response, however, is only one potential solution and may not work for all companies, Mr. Smithers observes.

"Routine responses may be handled by a service company, but many questions simply require the attention of corporate experts," he says.

B-TO-B RESPONSE MORE DIFFICULT

Dan Mendell, president of 800 Support, a technical service company in Portland, agrees. 800 Support provides toll-free and online help desk services to computer hardware and software marketers.

Business-to-business response is particularly difficult, say cyber rep companies, because customer e-mail questions can be specific about complex product or service details and responses need to be sensitive to present and future customer relationships.

That was the problem at Toko America, which toyed with the idea of outsourcing its response, but decided against it. Toko also tried routing technical questions to internal subject matter experts, but gave up when responding took more than four hours a day.

"We finally just gave up. We took our general information offer off the Web page and sharply limited the amount of product information that was promised online," Mr. Davis says. "Until we can find a better solution to the e-mail problem, we'll just have to scale it all back."

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