Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Corporate voices and online communication strategy

Erik notes that he received some e-mail from eBay recently that got flagged as spam, for a variety of reasons. Implementing a fix should be relatively simple, if eBay finds out about the problem.

As Erik writes:

Naturally, I tried to contact Ebay about this problem, as I assume they don’t want their email looking like spam. But Ebay makes it really hard to send them email. You have to send them email from their website and choose a pre-defined topic, but the topic of my email didn’t fit into one of their pre-defined categories, so I chose “Report fake eBay emails (spoofs) and unauthorized account activity.”

Ebay did reply, but it was a canned reply that did not address the subject I had written about. Lovely.

I’m a big fan of eBay, and generally think that they have done a terrific job of thinking things through… back in April when I listed a number of DVDs on eBay, I was impressed with some significant improvements they’d made to their listing process.

But Erik points out what is an important element of customer service, one I think is often overlooked with companies who operate online. Specifically, the need to provide humans on the other end of an e-mail address. At Socialtext, we get hundreds of requests a month for free trials, and I respond to every one. I hadn’t thought of my non-form e-mails as a big deal, until one prospect specifically pointed out that our “personal” e-mails were a welcome exception to the canned spam he received from other companies.

The gold standard here is; a simple feedback form is provided (though Erik dislikes having to use eBay’s web form, I actually think routing customer communications through a common interface is OK, and it should result in a more appropriate targeting of a response) and I’ve always heard back from within two hours, often within 30 minutes. When I hear back from them, I don’t get a generic reply, but one obviously typed by someone who’d read my original note. In one case it took a series of e-mails to resolve the issue — and it was obvious at each stage that the person on the other end was reading my comments and responding appropriately.

As comfortable as I am with the technology (I realized the other day that this is my fifteenth year online), I’ve often been reluctant to use e-mail when corresponding with corporations. E-mail can be great for corresponding with people, but sending a message into a nameless, faceless organization is a leap of faith that is often not met with success. got me over the hurdle, and for me sets the standard by which other companies should operate.

Developing an identity in this way is similar to how businesses can use blogs, by the way. Give your company a voice, give it a face, and above all, make it distinctive. The benefits are real, and customers will appreciate it. Scoble has done wonderful things in personalizing Microsoft (as have the hundreds of other Microsoft bloggers), and Jonathan Schwartz’s blog (he’s Sun’s COO) is another great example of corporate personality (I smiled at Schwartz’s admiration of Carly Fiorina’s “titanium spine”).

As for the larger strategy? People have relationships with individuals, not businesses. (Consumer brand loyalty notwithstanding, loyalty to people is far stronger than loyalty to brands.) As the software market starts to commoditize, one defense for companies who want to succeed is to develop and sustain those identities. The individuals become representative of the whole; the company’s values become obvious, and help customers decide which companies to do business with.

This started out with a simple observation about mal-formed e-mail headers, but got me thinking about how companies communicate with customers (and vice versa). has shown me that its customers’ opinions matter. Microsoft and Sun, in their own way, are showing me how they think (and therefore demonstrating what they think matters).

Would that the current election worked on the same model. One step at a time.


  1. Sun Keeps Its Customers In The Loop

    I love how SUN's President & COO, Jonathan Schwartz, dispenses with the boring, uber-sterile traditional glossy marketing approach and just tells customers what's going on. For example, the organization has recently begun . For example, the organization has recently begun phentermine online

  2. Another offender: iTunes. There is simply no link or other access to any form of customer support for this widely-used software. Given its wide cross-platform range of users/fans, and Apple's prominence in geekdom, this is amazing to me.