Worst practices: 12 ways to lose a customer fast

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E-mail marketing is great when it’s done well, but it’s an embarrassing disaster if you do it wrong. Stick to safe e-mail practices, or you’re going to anger your customers and embarrass your company. Here are 12 e-mail marketing mistakes that will cause you to lose customers:

Mistake # 1: Screw up the unsubscribe. There is only one correct way to handle e-mail unsubscribes: one-click, instant, automatic removal. No password, no log-in, no 10-day processing time. Remember, if you send a second e-mail after someone has asked to be removed, it’s spam. (This is really, really easy to do. Have a long talk with your tech guy today.)

Mistake # 2: Fail to answer the e-mail. Your customers assume that when they write you a letter, you’re going to answer it. Quickly. Make sure a human being is double-checking all mail that is directed to automated servers. If no one is, you could be missing complaints, service requests and new sales. Treat e-mail responses like the sender is on the phone, waiting for an answer.

Mistake # 3: Sell a name. Permission doesn’t transfer. A box on your Web site that says "get offers from our partners" doesn’t make your customers happy. You may make a little quick cash, but remember: Your partner gets the sales; you get the complaints and the unsubscribes.

Mistake # 4: Trick people into giving permission. Opt-ins must always be clear and optional. You have a problem if the average visitor doesn’t realize what they are getting. Being technically correct doesn’t stop anger and complaints from a formerly happy customer. Combine this with problem #1 and you’re dead meat.

Mistake # 5: Rent a spam list. Assume that every e-mail list for sale on the market is a spam list unless proven otherwise. Before you rent a list, check out the broker’s CEO, find out the exact source of the names and talk to at least three former clients. A clue: Brokers who won’t put their name and mailing address on their Web site have something to hide.

Mistake # 6: Mail too often. How much is too much? It’s a question of good taste. Sales often increase when you mail too often. But so do angry customers who unsubscribe or ignore you. Survey your customers, test carefully, and let them choose how often they want mail.

Mistake # 7: Spam your own customers. Be very careful when using techniques like e-mail appends (where a database service adds e-mails to your postal lists). Yes, you can get a bunch of e-mails cheap. But how many of your current customers are saying, "That’s creepy. I know I chose not to give them my e-mail address, and they have it anyway?" Loss of trust is more expensive than a few new e-mail addresses.

Mistake # 8: Ignore the angry people. Upset customers will report you as a spammer if your unsubscribe doesn’t work or you don’t respond. Your e-mail will be blocked and your brand will be embarrassed. Make it easy to unsubscribe and easy to complain. And apologize often, even when you are right.

Mistake # 9: Bore your readers. Are your e-mails a bunch of coupons, press releases or self-serving news? Didn’t your mother teach you anything? Don’t talk about yourself. Share content that is interesting and engaging, every time.

Mistake # 10: Break the law. Thanks to new federal and state laws, the rules of e-mail are clearly outlined. Study the laws and do it right. It’s surprisingly easy to do: Don’t lie about who you are, don’t use deceptive language, don’t e-mail people who don’t want it and take people off your list when they ask.

Mistake # 11: Lose control over your lists. Who else in your company is e-mailing your customers? Build a companywide do not e-mail-list and enforce its use. "It was another department" doesn’t protect you from spam charges.

Mistake # 12: Forget to listen to your spouse. Ask your significant other when you’re not sure if an
e-mail tactic is going to scare away your customers. If you get the slightest hesitation, a raised eyebrow or an invitation to sleep on the couch, do not do it. You have been warned.

Always remember: You acquire most e-mail addresses after someone has visited your site, expressed interest and maybe even made a purchase. These are your best prospects and customers. Don’t abuse them if they trust you with their e-mail addresses.

Andy Sernovitz is founder and CEO of GasPedal (, an e-mail consultancy in New York that helps major marketers improve and implement e-mail marketing campaigns.

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