Plain-spoken Online Conversion Rate Newsletter - covering web design, sales, marketing, copywriting, usability, SEO, relationship marketing and consumer psychology.


The Case Against Autoresponders

I've been a bit low lately. We've been watching our friend deal with the death of her mom. She's been discontinuing services, closing accounts, doing all the stuff that gradually reduces the material presence of a life. One of her experiences got me thinking about our online efforts to build relationships, and I decided to pass the thoughts along to you.

It's an offline experience, but there are some lessons I believe you can use to advantage.

My friend had to discontinue her mom's AOL service. She called the customer service number and got a lovely representative who completed the request painlessly. The representative gave my friend a confirmation number and said to expect a confirmation letter in the mail.

The letter came, ostensibly written by the Executive Vice President of Member Services, saying how sorry AOL was "to lose a good friend like you," embellishing a useless sales pitch and promising they would "do everything we can to get you back online." To encourage Mom to return, AOL was planning on reserving her screen name, buddy list and preferences. All Mom had to do to reactive was sign on.

You don't need me to spell out how this made my friend feel, do you? She might have just let the bitter taste remain in her mouth, but she decided to reply. She wrote:

"I am greatly pleased you consider my mother a friend of America Online and appreciate you are keen to keep her as a customer, but her account was not cancelled due to dissatisfaction. My mother passed away 15 January 2002. I, quite naturally, was keen on keeping her as a mother. Sadly, we both lose out.

"The purpose of cancellation was made clear to the customer service representative with whom I spoke, and she was sincere in her expression of sympathy and efficient in her role helping me terminate services which my mother is no longer in a position to enjoy.

" I would suggest some remedial marketing strategies to prevent this sort of faux pas from occurring in future. Short of being able to work miracles, I'm afraid there is nothing you can do to get her back online."

Two weeks later, a personal reply from someone in Executive Escalations arrived. In addition to offering condolences, the letter said, "Our billing representatives now have a specific cancellation code to enter when they are informed that the account holder is deceased that prevents the situation you encountered."

Happily, AOL redeemed itself and my friend feels much better about them today. Even better for AOL, she didn't cancel her own AOL account and isn't inclined to engage in negative viral marketing.

If you are in business online, you are, by default, in the business of building relationships with your customers. You apply this effort to your Web site, your fulfillment and customer service, to your emails and your system-generated responses. But sometimes you're going to lose a customer for reasons completely outside your control.

When people bid you farewell for whatever reason, graciously let them go. You might find they come back later. And if they go because they are permanently vacationing in the Great Beyond, then take a moment to say goodbye properly, if you have the option. Do you have any idea how much that means to those who remain behind? My friend conscientiously sent emails to a number of online businesses who regularly sent both email and snail mail to her mom, requesting her mom's name be removed from their lists. Only one replied.

It's the compassionate, human touch. And yes, there is a self-serving reason to do it. Guess who those left behind are going to remember the next time they are thinking about your particular product or service? You would like to leave them with a favorable impression, right?


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