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Xerox e-mail response builds global fan club

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When Bill McLain, "Voice of the Web" for Xerox Corp. in Palo Alto, Calif., talks about e-mail, any marketer with a Web site should listen up.

In the past 1.5 years, Mr. McLain has become an Internet legend and given his company an international reputation for smart and caring online service. He has also developed a personal reputation as the man who will take on any question, any time, whether or not it involves his employer.

EVERY QUESTION IMAGINABLE

Reading and responding to nearly 350 messages a day from 126 countries, Mr. McLain and a small but growing staff of researchers answer questions on a wide range of topics, from the usual Xerox product concerns to astronomy, anthropology and "stupid technology tricks."

If you think you may have a long lost relative employed at Xerox, Mr. McLain is your online resource. If you want to know how to fax a coffee cup to a colleague, he can handle that, too. That's right -- fax a coffee cup.

Mr. McLain, 63, has worked for Xerox as a free-lance writer and researcher for eight years, joining the staff full-time in 1995 with the temporary assignment of reading and responding to e-mail sent through the company's Web site. The assignment has turned into a full-time position.

EYE-OPENING EXPERIENCE

At Xerox, the e-mail ranges from customer complaints to virtually anything, according to Mr. McLain, and his first experience was an eye-opener. "Of course, most of the mail involved questions from Xerox customers or complaints from dissatisfied product users. That's what I expected."

But what he didn't expect were questions about general knowledge that were sent by lighthearted Webheads only semiseriously expecting a response. Questions like "Who created pizza?" An early letter really did ask for advice on how to fax a coffee cup.

"I thought it was a joke, but decided to do a little research. I really believe that it is important to try to answer all questions -- except maybe those from political or religious flakes," he says.

HOW TO FAX A COFFEE CUP

What Mr. McLain discovered was a favorite stupid technology trick of college design majors -- instructions on how to scan the image of a coffee cup and fold the single sheet of paper into a cup that will hold liquid.

That response became part of the legend of the Xerox Voice of the Web, a mysterious entity that will take on all comers seeking esoteric information. But most of the e-mail still relates to Xerox products, and the top topic is complaints.

"My style for complaint e-mail is simple. I assume that Xerox is at fault and try to help any way I can," he says. Many e-mailers use the medium just to vent their anger and aren't really expecting serious help, so the honest offer of aid comes as a pleasant surprise.

Since the early days, Mr. McLain has developed a 100-page list of Xerox employee resources that he and his staff can contact for help on any issue. The Voice of the Web responds personally and generally does not refer complainers to a customer service department.

"Most companies respond to e-mail with a toll-free telephone number. I believe that people use e-mail for a reason and if they send us mail, they want a response in the same way. If a question requires a telephone call, we make the call for the writer and communicate the information," he says.

The Voice of the Web, a persona that now represents everyone in Mr. McLain's department, has also developed about 80 boilerplate responses for frequently asked questions, but each response is personalized.

Mr. McLain reviews the responses of new employees to make sure they maintain the Voice of the Web style he created, and many are sent in the language of the writer -- or at least contain some acknowledgement of the language and culture of the correspondent.

THE GOLDEN RULE

To an African correspondent, Mr. McLain responded with a common salutation of the writer's homeland. The correspondent responded and thanked his "Muslim brother" for his assistance.

The key to Mr.McLain's style is the Golden Rule -- treat others as you would have them treat you. Good will rubs off, he says, on you and your employer.

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