EMail Encounters: Anecdotes of a Professional Life Online

I’ve spent probably half of my working life answering email. And therein lie a number of tales…

Some people were convinced I had to be mailbot, because I answered so quickly. As I told them: “If we had a mailbot this good, we’d be selling that instead of CD-R!”

The Unexpected Response

It seems that when people write to a general address at a company, they don’t necessarily expect a response, and are surprised when they get one.

I often received extremely abusive messages from people who were angry about products, service, or whatever. I usually managed to respond calmly and politely. Most of the time, the second email from these people was a great deal politer, and a few even apologized for their previous harsh tone. On two memorable occasions, the answer was: “Ohmygod, I’m so sorry! I never thought a real human being would read that!”

Which is a sad statement about how some companies handle their email – how has it happened that this medium, which was supposed to help companies communicate with customers, is routinely used so badly that, when customers write, they don’t even expect a reply?

Bringing in the Big Guns

Perhaps this is why many people, in their very first contact with a company, come in with  bazookas blazing: “If you don’t make me a happy customer, I’m going to sic the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, and a pack of lawyers on you.” Or “I’m going to write to all the major magazines about how rotten you are.” As if they had to greet me with a kick in the teeth in order to get my attention.

Again, many of these people backed off as soon as they got any sort of polite and semi-competent response from the company. But it makes for a tiring workday, being barraged with abuse from people who assume that you won’t help them unless they’re nasty.

Perhaps we’d all suffer less stress if we started from the assumption that the people whose job it is to help us actually want to do so, and only escalate to threats if they fail to take that job seriously.

There were two types of aggressives who made me laugh:

  • “I’m going to put up a nasty website about you. You obviously don’t understand the power of the Internet!” (The second sentence is an actual quote that I remember very clearly – I received that message a few years ago, but, even then, trying to tell me about the power of the Internet was a clear case of ‘trying to teach Granny to suck eggs.’)
  • “I’m a journalist and write for [blank] magazine – you’d better make me happy or your name will be mud.” (Not an exact quote, but the gist was clear.) These were both amusing and irritating. By the time I left Roxio, my own newsletters had a combined circulation of over 190,000. I think that qualifies me as a well-read journalist, no? But I always bit my tongue and handed those guys over to the PR folks,  who would give them whatever special treatment they deserved.

Myself, I never treated anyone special. Or rather, I treated everyone the same. I truly felt that all customers deserved the same consideration, and all of their problems and gripes should, as far as possible, be resolved.

This runs counter to the current wisdom of “Customer Relationship Management,” which says that you should use fancy software to determine who your most valuable customers are (those who have bought the most and are most likely to buy again), and make sure that they are kept happiest (offer them special deals and so on – the same principle as frequent-flyer mileage).

Many times, the sheer fact of my answering the email kindly, even if all I could say was that I couldn’t help, reversed the customer’s attitude towards the company and “saved the day.”

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