Please Reply

do-not-replyEver try replying to an email newsletter or customer service email from a big company?

If you have, you probably received one of those annoying, frustrating or infuriating (depending on your situation) automated responses telling you that you can’t reply directly to the email.

Or worse, maybe you didn’t receive any response at all.

Evidently that big company can occupy your time by sending you massive amounts of email, but you can’t get a response via email the one time you have a question. How’s that for customer care?

Unfortunately big companies can get away with the “do-not-reply” attitude, at least for the time being. In the future hopefully they’ll learn that connecting with your customers is a growth strategy, not a burden. For now, consumers have gotten used to the one-way “push” form of marketing from big companies.

For small businesses it’s a different story.

If you have a small business or are thinking of starting one, you should think hard about your attitude towards customers. Do you consider interactions with customers a burden, to be avoided or limited whenever possible (much like the way big businesses treat customers)?

Or, do you look at each interaction with a customer (paying or not) as an opportunity to show how much you care and how helpful your company is, with the potential to turn that customer into a lifelong fan and extension of your marketing team?

There’s a self-destructive attitude among some small businesses (both online and offline). They almost expect you to shop with them, just because they’re small or local. You know, so you can “do your part” and support local businesses.

Supporting local businesses is great, and I always try to support small businesses over large ones, but there are places where I draw the line. If your service sucks, I’ll go elsewhere. If your prices are way higher for the same thing and you don’t offer anything to make up for those higher prices (like caring about me as a customer, educating me or providing a better physical environment), I’ll go elsewhere.

Average consumers actually prefer the familiarity and comfort of the big brands they already know, so your job as an unknown little guy is even harder.

As a small business, you can’t afford to adopt the “do-not-reply” attitude. It might be tempting to act like the big guys, but remember that no one owes you a sale just because you’re small, and if you don’t show your customers a little love, there will be plenty of other small businesses waiting to show your lost customers that respect they were looking for.

Big business might be able to get away with not caring about customers in a one-on-one way, but as a small business, you have to care about every individual customer if you want to thrive.

I’ve seen the individual customer appreciation strategy work wonders in person recently on two occasions. I attended book signings for both Chris Guillebeau and Gary Vaynerchuk in San Francisco within the past six months. Both guys had nearly 200 people show up to the respective events.

At Chris’s event, he asked me to speak briefly to the group. During my talk I asked the crowd how many people had written Chris via email, Twitter or Facebook and had received a personal reply from him. Four out of five hands went up.

At Gary’s event, he asked a similar question. Gary asked the group in San Francisco how many people were there because he had created a personal one-on-one connection with them, again either over email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. or in-person. Nine out of ten hands went up.

Gary and Chris are walking examples of the massive impact you can have by personally caring about every single person you interact with, regardless of the number of Twitter followers someone has or whether or not someone has bought something from you.

Gary wrote an entire book about applying this old school strategy to the web called The Thank You Economy. Gary practices what he preaches in a big way. He recently hired someone to proactively reach out to his readers and customers to do nice appreciative and unexpected things for them, because he likes to “play offense” when it comes to caring about his customers.

How do you show your customers that you care?

Plenty of businesses just don’t get this yet, and their ignorance is your opportunity. Connect with people and care for them more than your competitors and you win. The rules for small businesses couldn’t be simpler.

Instead of “do-not-reply,” try a “please-reply” address.

I love every interaction I have with customers, because I know that every interaction is an opportunity to win someone over. Some people scoff at the idea of spending hours every day replying to email and tweets, but I know how critical that effort has been to any success I’ve already had and will be to anything I do in the future.

Don’t believe me? If you’re reading this via email, just hit “reply” and you’ll get to me directly. Send me an email, tweet me up or leave a comment below. No matter how you get in touch, I’ll get back to you with a real thoughtful reply, not some automated response, and not some virtual assistant in my place.

Will someone respond if I reply to your company’s email?

Thanks to Erica Douglass for sparking the idea for this post in a tweet last week.

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  • http://coffeehousewordsmith.com Joe Barlow

    What odd timing!

    Mere seconds before this post appeared in my Google Reader, I had experienced this very phenomenon: I received an e-mail letting me know that a certain large organization had received the correspondence I sent them a few days ago, and that they would get back to me as soon as it suited THEM. Meanwhile, I should not, under any circumstances, reply to the e-mail I just received, even though the very same e-mail went out of its way to tell me how important my satisfaction and business was to this company.

    Idiots.

    Great post as always, Corbett!

    -j.

    • Corbett

      Your satisfaction is important, unless of course your satisfaction requires a response ;)

  • http://passivepanda.com James Clear

    It’s funny how most people think it will be too much work and that’s why they avoid it. In reality, the benefits (as seen for both Gary and Chris) far outweigh the extra time commitment.

    Plus, it’s just nice to interact.

    • Corbett

      I find that I enjoy talking with people anyway, so it’s kind of a no-brainer for me. But yeah, I look at interactions with people as one of the four most important things I can do for my business (along with educating myself, producing valuable content and creating and marketing products).

  • http://www.SilverMagpies.com SilverMagpies

    I’ll vouch for Corbett. He astonished me by getting in touch to let me know I’d won a contest on Think Traffic. I was approximately comment 1003 and yet he had obviously read each one! Emails responded to, tweets acknowledged!

    Connections are what creates a repeat visitor & paying customer for small businesses and repeat customers are the best kind.

    • Corbett

      I think there’s an extra zero in there, a thousand comments would be pretty crazy! But yes, I read each one and reply to most comments (unless it’s a contest or “ask the readers” post, then I just get out of the way). Thanks for vouching for me ;)

  • http://www.danielroachblog.com/blog Daniel Roach

    I love Gary V’s “playing offense” idea, that’s awesome.

    Personally, I use my solopreneurship as a selling point many times by telling people that if they ever reply to a newsletter or email support for a product, they get me every single time. When consulting clients hire me, they never deal with someone else, it’s always me.

    It think in many cases it makes people feel better knowing they have a name and a face to praise for great work or to track down if something goes wrong :)

    • Corbett

      I think it’s a mistake when solopreneurs try to pretend to be a big company instead of using the small aspect of the business as an advantage. Yes, some people prefer working with bigger companies, but pretending to be big won’t help you serve those customers any better. Focus on the people who think the one-on-one aspect is a benefit and you’ll do much better.

      • http://www.philippknoll.com/blog Philipp Knoll

        You are so right about that. It is a mistake to pretend to be big. I think it works the other way around. Large companies are the defense. Us solopreneurs (or small businesses) are the offense. They need to defend there market and if they are smart they do it by pretending to be small. There will always be a market for the big ones.
        But I wonder if those customers are the ones you should be targeting. They go to where the prizes are low or to names that they have know for a long time.

        I strongly believe the our generation and the ones following will function differently as customers. The only chance large companies have is to be big but act small.

        Right now is the very best time to be small so long as your product AND service are outstanding.

  • http://www.fundly.com Derek

    I’m stunned by the examples of Chris and Gary. I guess it goes to show that personal interaction is worth its weight in gold. While promoting his new book, Gary had signs up outside all the major subway stops in New York with a phone number on it where people could call and reach him directly. Phenomenal and effective approach.

    • Corbett

      Wow, that’s crazy, I hadn’t heard about that little stunt in NY. I’m guessing that got people’s attention.

  • http://radzone.com Radman

    You hit the nail on the head with this one. I’m dealing with two large companies (and one government) on this same issue – no reply. Heck, one has me in for a grand. I guess that’s just chump change to them. I guess they haven’t heard about the cost of bad publicity.

    Radman

    • Corbett

      Bad publicity from individuals is getting more and more powerful (or destructive, depending on which side you’re on). A negative review on a popular site can be read by thousands of people.

  • http://www.waynejohn.com Wayne John

    So very well said. It infuriates me too, and I just assume that the company is only out for themselves and taking as much of my money as they can, instead of actually trying to provide value.

    I’d rather do business with a company that I can communicate easily with…why should I have to work that hard to do so, when at the end of the day, they are trying to get MY money! You’d think they would cater to my needs instead.

    It’s backwards thinking, or the mentality that they are “too big to need to worry” in my opinion.

    • Corbett

      Or maybe they’re just trying to attract the “low maintenance” customers who don’t expect much.

  • http://www.nickyspur.com Nicky Spur

    Nice article — definitely agree. I also feel like if you have a thriving business that you’re passionate about, you WANT to reply. When two or more people who love a subject are together everyone is actively engaged. That’s when the customer service aspect comes easy.

    • Corbett

      That’s another great reason to start a business around something you’re passionate about.

  • http://almostbohemian.com David William

    That personal touch goes a long way. I know with my company I even hate the thought of no-reply emails. It shuts down any conversation and makes the client (or customer) responsible to do the work to look up how to get in touch.

    A poor performance for those companies.

    • Corbett

      Conversations are so important, not only for winning over customers but also for learning about how you can improve your offerings.

  • Nancy Davis

    This is really excellent. I think that engaging in conversations anywhere is always good for your brand. Too many companies want to hide behind emails and give terrible service. No one wants to be out in front and that really is a shame.

    I recently contacted GameStop about poor service I received at one of their stores. After the “sorry you had a bad experience – now answer these questions” email, I heard nothing. Crickets.

    I guess they don’t care where a single mother goes to buy her eight year old son games for his DS. It won’t be at GameStop.

    • Corbett

      You make a great point. Truly engaging with customers doesn’t end with some form letter saying you’re sorry. Where is the follow-through? Your problem wasn’t resolved and the fake apology did more to insult you than make you feel like anyone cares.

  • http://www.journeytopeak.com Jia Jun

    That’s actually one of the awesome things in blogging. We actually interact with the person behind the blog, rather than computer or nobody. This alone leads blogging to a higher level to compete and even take down some that don’t.
    That’s why social media that focus on relationship and people is widely spread, because people does matters to them, and people are engaging with each other.
    If a company is good, word of mouth will do the marketing for the company, without the need to spend millions on marketing, and the words are spread.
    It change, and if company follow the change, I believe they’ll do better in connecting people with their product and services.

    • Corbett

      That’s definitely something that attracted me to blogging (and retains me as a big proponent of the platform).

  • http://easyextramoneyonline.com/blog/ Sunil from The Extra Money Blog

    dead on man dead on. customers have become a nuisance to businesses. what a crazy, ironic thought. this is a big why there is more opportunity today for a smaller fish to capitalize on the gaps left open by bigger companies. It’s that customer service differentiating factor that many desire

    • Corbett

      And it’s a pretty fun and rewarding differentiating factor in my book.

      • http://easyextramoneyonline.com/blog/ Sunil from The Extra Money Blog

        right on C!

  • http://www.commonsensemarketing.net Sarah Russell

    Okay, I’ll be the one to admit that sometimes the amount of time and effort you can pour into customer followup seems overwhelming, and that that can be frustrating. My current site is the first one that I’ve built around myself as a brand, and putting yourself out there to the level that most bloggers do can be stressful.

    And then I see constant reminders about people like Chris and Gary doing things that I let slip to the wayside because I’m “too busy” or “too important” to be doing things like answering emails, and it puts me back in my place. I mean, who the F am I to neglect my readers (really, the only reason I have a business at all in the first place) when these people (my idols) do it as part of their daily routine?!

    So thanks, as always, for the reminder on how important customer follow through is – especially when you’re a small business with everything to lose if you aren’t willing to put in the effort. It’s humbling, and much appreciated :)

    • Corbett

      Darn, I started reading this thinking you were going to disagree, then you turned it around on me ;) But yes, I’ve been through the same thought process in my mind many times. It always comes back to building real relationships and helping people out.

      • http://www.philippknoll.com/blog Philipp Knoll

        Sarah, I had the same experiences and wondered how those guys do it. I came to the conclusion that I need to take my business to a more professional level and get help – outsourcing! It works great for me and is getting better as I find the right people to outsource to.

        It is important to make the right decision on what to outsource. And I guess that is what Gary, Chris etc. are doing right. Outsource any / all tasks that are repetitive and can easily be accomplished by others. BUt – and that is important – keep the communication aspect of your business to yourself! Write your own articles, interact in the comments in person, post your own status updates etc.

        This is what is currently helping me to somehow manage the tasks I’m facing.

  • http://martinairing.com/blog Martina Iring

    Great post Corbett! Like Joe, I had a bad customer service experience this morning and it made me think it’s time to stress the importance of killer customer service (again!) to my small business peeps. If you treat a customer as though you’d really rather not have them around bothering you, you’re just driving them straight to your competitors. On the flip side, if you treat your customers well, they will be loyal to you to the end, even if you make the occasional mistake.

    • Corbett

      I wonder how many people reading this had a bad customer service experience within the past week?

      The thing is, we’re all so used to shitty customer service that when some person or company actually takes the time to respond and help us out, we notice. It’s an underused and powerful differentiator.

      • Paul

        Had good and bad in the last week.

        Good – Optus, the large Phone Company I have my mobile with. Once again they had a real live human being help me with some things. Whilst not the best phone signal coverage in my area I’ve signed a new 2 yr contract with them, as has my wife, and I’ve talked about their service to at least 500 people in seminars because they make consistantly an effort.

        Bad – Bluehost, large hosting company that guarantees their service. We had issues with a client account, asked them to make good on their ‘guarantee’ and received an email from “Management” that “we do not do credit or compensation for this type of situation”. Am now moving eight accounts away. They will never notice me going but I have no doubt over time they will keep bleeding clients away bit by bit until one day they wake up and wonder where everyone went. I found it so insulting that they could not even bother trying to provide a dialogue with a real person, just “Management”.

        (Actually their first email was from “Management team” and the second from “Management” – I’ve asked them to clarify if going from plural to singular is an escalation or downgrade of my issue – no response yet)

  • http://www.virtualbusinesslifestyle.com Chris C. Ducker

    Hey Corbett

    I love this post.

    As someone that has been involved in the sales and marketing industry for two decades, I couldn’t agree more that the power of that ‘open minded’ type of customer service is incredible.

    And the ‘Please Reply’ mentality is so, so true. At my company we used to have an auto-responder go out to each and every email inquiry we received. When I decided to stop them, and have someone answer them personally there was a dramatic increase in the amount of people that we spoke to about working together – where as with the auto-reply (where we asked a few standard qualifying questions) we would generally hear back from only 20% or so.

    Great post, which will obviously get a lot of people thinking about this side of their business more. An area that I believe is brutally forgotten all too much.

    Cheers,
    Chris

    • Corbett

      I’m glad you decided to spend your one comment of the week here Chris! I’m pretty sure some of the hours we spent chatting over the past few days had some part in inspiring this post, so thanks for that as well.

      • http://www.virtualbusinesslifestyle.com Chris C. Ducker

        No problemo, big guy.

        And, actually – rightbackatcha…! You’ve given me a few things to think about, too! I’ll keep you up to date.

        C

  • http://analytics.net.in/ Avadhut

    Hi Corbett,
    Thanks for this article.
    I have replied 9 out of 10 mails I recieved since I started my venture.

    • Corbett

      Sounds like you’re on the right track.

  • http://www.celiacdiseaseinchildren.com/sensational-scrambles Tim

    Hey Corbett,

    Coming from you this seems almost like a no-brainer as your communication and feedback is always top-notch. However, I know a lot of other businesses, particularly online businesses, find it all too easy to hide behind the auto-responder and keep customers at arms length. That can only harm customer relations.

    I have a shortlist of trusted contacts/mentors/partners/teachers/marketers (actually the title of the list is probably as long as the list itself!) none of whom I have ever met in person but all of whom are the first people I would approach with business ideas or to provide/sell me information or services. What makes the people on that list special is their communication and approachability. In fact, I had one guy I wanted on the list but he didn’t reply to two e-mails I sent him so I guess he just didn’t want to do business with me…so he’s not on the list anymore…

    In my business I’ve sometimes learned the hard way in the past that if I don’t provide a great personal service to clients there will always be a whole queue of other guys that are prepared to do it and will nip in and steal the client at the drop of the hat, just by communicating with them in the way they require.

    Every client/customer may be worth their weight in gold, if not now then maybe sometime in the future, particularly if they refer friends and family, and they should always be treated as such or they’ll just go elsewhere…

    Cheers, Tim

    • Corbett

      Well said, Tim. I think all of us have informal lists like the one you’re talking about. It’s natural to do business with the people who show the most interest and approachability.

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  • https://plus.google.com/115354751986081277259 Dan

    Another reason why the little guy can always crush the big guys. In 5-10 years I think this kind of service will be necessary across all industries. If anyone ever sets up a do not reply address at my company I will crush them.

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