Email and Avoiding Customer Service Nightmares

As soon as I saw “United Airlines” trending on Twitter, I thought of an email I wrote about last week.

As soon as I saw “United Airlines” trending on Twitter, I thought of an email I wrote about last week.

In case you missed it, I posted my story under this headline: “United Airlines’ Friendly Email Centers on the Customer.”

United emailYeah.

Part of my job is to analyze and write about direct mail and email efforts that catch my eye. I use my judgment to select ones that exemplify best design and copy practices and tactics. And I consider how they support a brand’s strategy.

The February 25 email I broke down was supposed to promote “A flying experience built around you.” “United puts you first,” it said, emphasizing the word “you.”

Well. My piece ran on April 3, and the United incident happened 6 days later.

This post is not about what sparked or resulted from that event.

I’m not going to offer anything that hasn’t already been said by many other critics. My colleague, Thorin McGee, put it best: “That is putting your customer last.”

But it got me thinking about how companies can do better when things go wrong.

I’ve written about how to deliver an effective apology with email. Too bad that so few do this when they most need to.

Another thing that bothers me is how difficult it can be to find good customer service when starting with an email, as I did.

A quick look through my inbox revealed a few interesting things.

Many companies bury their customer service link in mouse type in the footer of its HTML.

Mattress Firm does this, as do Kate Spade, Brooklyn Industries, Hot Topic, and Sprouts Farmers Markets.

PublixCalvin Klein and Zenni Optical at least put a toll-free number in the body of their emails. Publix uses a simple, nice-sized call to action button near the bottom of its emails.

And a company called Goat Case emailed me promoting its new live chat as the replacement for customer service contact over any social media. They gave me their hours, as well as a 20% discount, now that they had my attention. That was pretty good.

Customers should be made to feel that the company is on their side. They should be easy to reach when there’s an issue, big or small, that needs to be resolved. And, if the conversation starts with email, well, it’s certainly better than any worst-case scenarios.

The Worst Customer Experience I Regularly Have: Philly’s SEPTA Transit Network

We talk a lot here about how you should treat your customers. On my way home from work Monday night, Halloween, I was reminded both how important that is, and how some companies get it wrong. There is one really, really bad customer experience I go through regularly, and it’s my commute home on SEPTA Regional Rail.

We talk a lot here about how you should treat your customers. On my way home from work Monday night, Halloween, I was reminded both how important that is, and how some companies get it wrong. There is one really, really bad customer experience I go through regularly, and it’s my commute home on SEPTA Regional Rail.

What’s SEPTA?

SEPTA is the public transportation company that covers the greater Philadelphia area. For the past 9 years, I’ve spent about 2 hours a day riding it’s Philadelphia-to-Trenton line to and from work.

So on Halloween night, Monday, I was standing on the train platform trying to catch a slightly early train home. The train comes — already a bit late — and we all get on. I put on some headphones, start listening to music, try to get enough connectivity to check my email … Train doesn’t move. A few minutes later a voice comes over the speakers and tells us there’s a crew change, we all have to get off the train.

Once we’re on the platform, a different voice comes over the platform speakers. And with all the sympathy of a prison warden canceling the inmates’ movie night, it says “the 5:59 Trenton train is canceled.” We get no other information.

The tone of the voice makes it clear they know we’re going to be upset, and the speaker doesn’t want to hear it. (After all, it’s been a hard night for our monolithic transportation agency, we really shouldn’t burden them with our pitiful riders’ concerns, should we?)

There’s another train coming, but I’m not getting home early.

They announce this several more times. Finally the wording changes: “Due to a personnel shortage, the train is canceled.” The next train is at 6:24 PM, it’s running 10 minutes late itself, and they’re making it a local.

The Customer Experience Is Personal

This all means I’m going from trying to get home before 7, when some trick or treating might still be going on, to getting home after 8 when Halloween is essentially over.

4 Ways to Apologize With Email

When you make a mistake, sometimes a good email apology can help smooth things over.

When you make a mistake, sometimes a good email apology can help smooth things over.

I’ve received several of these messages in the last several months. Now, I’m not the kind of person to get outraged by missteps. Stuff happens. Technology, like people, is fallible.

But if it’s something that’s offensive, that’s a big deal.

Your company’s brand reputation can be damaged when an “oops” results in lost or angry customers. Or at least some social media badmouthing.

I looked through email collected by Who’s Mailing What!, as well as my own, for some ideas on how to respond when disaster, or near-disaster strikes.

1. Get Out In Front ASAP
nycoWithin hours of a website glitch on October 12, New York & Company announced in a subject line: “And We’re Back!” The preview text explains: “Our site was down earlier, but we’re back up and running. We apologize for the inconvenience.” OK, so it’s not much (see below) but it was quick.

2. Be Sincere
oartDon’t fake it, express your sorrow. Show some empathy for the plight of the customer or donor. Use a lot of text to do so, and avoid images so the customer can focus on those words. Here, OverstockArt.com apologizes by dispensing with its usual format by using a framed apology from the company’s founder & CEO.

3. Explain What You Need To
illysorryYou don’t owe a customer a full accounting of the reasons for a crash. But when properly positioned, it can help to not only deal with the damage it may have caused, but also to raise your statute in the customer’s eyes. Illy Caffe North America’s email from earlier this year says that its breakdown happened during “an effort to improve your shopping experience.”

4. Offer a Discount
reebokWhether it’s an offer code, a coupon, or even a gift, you need to keep the recipient’s trust. Otherwise, they might be reaching for that unsubscribe link at some point. In this example, Reebok extended its 40% off sale to compensate for the website problems.

Ultimately, a mistake serious enough to require being addressed with an email is an opportunity to learn how to be better. And with this second chance, you can reinforce or rebuild the customer’s confidence in your company and its marketing. After all, it’s all about them, not you.

When All Hell Breaks Loose

With automation comes risk. In the course of drafting, testing and deploying automated programs, many of us have suffered through the terrible realization our automation didn’t work exactly as expected. Do you send yet another email and risk alienating our clients further?

With automation comes risk. In the course of drafting, testing and deploying automated programs, many of us have suffered through the terrible realization our automation didn’t work exactly as expected.

After auto-sending many emails to clients in the span of a few hours, we find ourselves faced with a dilemma. Do you send yet another email and risk alienating our clients further? Do you stop all communication until the recipients have been given enough time to forget you spammed their inboxes? Do you remove them all from your list entirely? Do you respond to the dozens or hundreds of hate emails? Lastly, what do you do to salvage unsubscribes?

Many of my peers believe you should always apologize when you make a mistake in your automated program—be that a simple typo, an unfortunate parallel (when your marketing message inadvertently aligns with an unfavorable situation, e.g. “Retailer Apologizes For ‘Unfortunate Timing’ Of Isis Lingerie Line”), or, as in this instance, when your automated program goes haywire and sends your subscribers 37 emails in the span of 14.6 minutes (or something like that).

If this happens to you, remember to keep the gravity of the error in perspective. Panicking will not help you, but this checklist may.

  1. Evaluate the extent of the damage: For most errors of this type, you can get a feel for how angry your constituents are by reading the reply emails. As you do this, keep in mind not everyone feels the same way. Don’t let a vocal few represent the entire list, but do give these responses careful consideration and use them as a guide to gauge the overall impact. Take a look too at opens, clicks and unsubscribes. Though irritated, your list may have actually engaged with the content to an acceptable level and this should help you to decide next steps.
  2. Choose an appropriate response: With a clear understanding (and some best guesses) at the level of damage, think next about what you would say to these recipients. Don’t draft a response to the most annoyed and most vocal, deal with those persons individually and separately in more personal emails if the group is small enough to do so. Your response should instead target the group just below the most angry; those who are smoldering in silence. Pick up the phone and dial one or two of your best customers and ask how they felt about receiving three dozen emails and in what way could you best show your concern for the event and desire to lessen the impact. For best results, act quickly, be frank and forthright about what happened, do not make excuses, and do apologize.
  3. Choose a response method: You may learn sending another email would only worsen the situation, but everyone has likely been the recipient of more than just your wayward program. A simply apology with an offer designed especially for them may do the trick. If you’re not retail, perhaps a small gift card at a local coffee shop or Amazon.com (which typically has a very low redemption rate) might be in order. Find a vendor that charges you only for gift cards redeemed. If another email is not recommended, try reaching out through social media or direct mail. Admit your mistake, take it in the chops, and perhaps add in a bit of self-deprecating humor to lighten the mood as you extend the olive branch.
  4. Distill the analytics. Go beyond opens/clicks/unsubscribes and look at visits to the landing page, form completions and more. This is a golden opportunity to learn something, so don’t consider the entire event a disaster. Even tornadoes leave a trail useful for educating storm chasers about patterns and other types of data, which can influence prevention and protection.

You are not alone. Even software/hardware giant HP apparently experienced issues with its automated program and sent a few too many emails to subscribers. HP sent an email apology with oops in the subject line and title. As a side note, this is the subject line I receive most often, and for me it’s effective. Short and sweet, and though I don’t have statistics to support this, my guess is it elicits good open rates—even when tempered by the influence of the multiple emails preceding it.

If you choose to promote your oops in social media, know that some people who did not receive the multiple emails will also use the discount code, but that’s probably a good way to turn a bad situation into a redeemable fiasco. That’s not such an awful thing—is it?

Surviving Email Errors: It’s About the Perception

Let me start this article with an admission: I hate typos. Further: I make typos. Yet, in this day of electronic, casual-communication devices used for texting and chatting, the boundary between business and personal communications has been blurred. As this casual style edges into our business correspondence, and marketing messaging, we run the risk of causing harm to both our and our brand’s image.

Let me start this article with an admission: I hate typos. Further: I make typos. Unfortunately, I also subscribe to the premise that to be considered a professional, you must sound like a professional. Yet, in this day of electronic, casual-communication devices used for texting and chatting, the boundary between business and personal communications has been blurred, and I believe we have become less sensitive to typographical errors and more receptive to text shorthand, even when the type of correspondence calls for something far more formal. As this casual style edges into our business correspondence, and marketing messaging, we run the risk of causing harm to both our and our brand’s image.

Despite my abhorrence for the misspelled word and my dependence upon editors to ensure I toe the line, my writing is seldom (perhaps never) perfect, and I suffer great angst on the occasions when I find a string of badly ordered letters hidden in plain sight within my writings.

Undaunted, my quest for the perfect content continues, and with good reason: The Web Credibility Project conducted by the Stanford University Persuasive Technology Lab found that typos are one of the top factors for which a website’s credibility is reduced. If this is true of websites, surely the same can be said about other content we marketers produce, including emails.

According to a University of Michigan and University of Maryland study on grammatical evaluation and social evaluation (opens as a pdf), in general, homophonous grammatical errors (e.g., your/you’re) affected judgment and readability more severely than typographical errors (e.g., teh) or hypercorrections (e.g., invited John and I), but all typos have shown to have a negative impact on how you and your organization is perceived, and how receptive your recipients will be to a message with a typographical error. Typos imply carelessness and irresponsibility, especially when you are creating content on behalf of your clients.

When You Err
Many marketers believe that when a typo makes it through, they should immediately issue a correction or apology, but this is not always the best response. You need to keep the gravity of the error in perspective and resist the urge to panic. Take an objective look at the error and evaluate how egregious the error. If the error is statistical data or other numbers, it’s likely more important to address it than if the error is a typographical error such as teh. Likewise, if the error occurs in your subject line, this alone can adversely affect your open rate, so sending out a second email with a new subject line may be appropriate. On the other hand, sending a second email might well be more than your recipients will tolerate, and the correction email could be marked as spam or elicit an unsubscribe simply because it came so closely on the heels of the first. A balance must be reached.

If you find that you’ve made a mistake in your email, take a deep breath and:

  1. Assess the damage. Evaluate the impact of the mistake. Ask yourself questions such as: How many emails were sent? How does the open and click-thru rate compare with other emails of the same type? Was the typo offensive? Will the typo cause a negative perception of our brand? Will the typo cause your customer harm or lead to misinformation? If the typo is a pricing error or incorrect date, it may have a far-reaching impact on your company, in which case a correction is mandatory.
  2. Choose an appropriate response. Once your assessment is complete, work with your colleagues and management to draft an appropriate response, one in step with the gravity of the error. If you do decide that sending a second email is called for, follow these tips:
    • Act quickly. In many cases, a speedy follow up will be seen before the original email.
    • Be upfront. Write a subject line and preheader text that gets directly to the point: You are making a correction.
    • Apologize, without excuses. Take ownership of the error, be frank, and say you’re sorry. Don’t belabor the point with excuses that may well come off insincere or seem as though you want to blame everyone but yourself. Use words such as “correction,” “oops,” or “we apologize,” so your recipients immediately know why they are receiving a second email so soon.
    • Improve the offer. If the typo is concerning an offer on which you cannot deliver, offer them something better.
    • Mind your brand. Be brand consistent, but self-deprecation or humor can be a good approach.
    • Reach out socially. Use your social networks to further acknowledge the error (especially effective with humor) and offer ways your constituents can reach you with questions or support needs.
    • Vet programmatic solutions. In some cases, and depending upon which email automation solution you use, hyperlink errors can be fixed programmatically. While you cannot change the text of the email once sent, be sure to speak with the support team to glean options for fixing the underlying link. If the typo is in the form of an incorrect image, you may well be able to swap the image so that any unopened emails will display the correct image. If the email has been opened but is later opened again, the new image should appear there as well. In this case, a correction will only need to be sent to those recipients who opened the email before you corrected the error.
  3. Monitor analytics. Once assessed and addressed, your email software should be able to provide you with ample analytics about how things went. Keep a close eye on the open, click-through, and unsubscribe rates—these are the best places to discern the level of damage done.

We all make mistakes in our content, but it’s important that we learn from them and learn to avoid them. Here is a collection of tips that may help you avoid the need for an apology altogether:

  • Write your email content in Word and use autocorrect, spell check and grammar check. It won’t be perfect, so don’t depend on it solely, but it can highlight possible areas that need a closer look.
  • Printed emails are usually easier to proofread and pass around for others to review.
  • Read the text aloud, preferably to an audience.
  • Have a child read the text aloud to you. Children are more likely to read exactly what they see since they are typically unfamiliar with the content.
  • Read the text backward, from end to beginning.
  • Send draft emails to a select group on whom you can rely to read the content carefully and thoroughly.
  • Reread and proofread each time you make changes. Many typos are injected after content has passed through proofreading and while you are making on-the-fly and last-minute changes. Resend your draft email to your test group after all last-minute changes have been completed.

It’s one thing to make the occasional error, but quite another to consistently send emails with errors. Each error will erode your customers’ confidence and thus, damage your reputation and this can be a lasting impression. When asked of their perception of companies who send emails with errors, people use words such as “careless,” “rushed,” “inattentive to detail,” “incompetent,” “uneducated,” and “stupid.”

Your email typos might find their way to the inbox of a charitable person who is willing to overlook your error, or to someone simply too busy to notice, but odds are a customer, colleague or [gasp] your boss will notice and will assume that you are careless or uncaring—neither of which is ideal for your continued employment.

If you are sending SMS messages or posting to your social media, you’ll find that these mediums offer a bit more forgiveness, and what might seem like an apology-worthy error in email is a simple snafu socially or in text messaging. Though the formats are forgiving, there is still a call for professionalism, so resist with all your might the urge to use text shorthand in any type of business message, regardless of the vehicle.

Your content sets the recipients’ expectation, establishes you as an authority, and validates your knowledge of the industry. Typos can change this perception in a heartbeat, especially when repeated. Take the time to ensure your content is error-free and you will continue to foster a positive relationship with your recipients—and look brilliant in the process.

As a matter of record, my worst typo was a caption for the photo of a three-star general’s wife, where I noted that she was a “lonely lady rather than the “lovely lady” the client described. What’s yours?

Chicago With a Purpose: Wrapping up the DMA2013 Session Picks

With apology, I want to say that this blog is a little about me—what topics I’m interested in, and sharing a little bit of this knowledge (or lack of knowledge) with blog readers. In the process, I’m hopeful you’re doing the same bit of pre-conference research—because it is this forethought and planning, beyond the engagements and booth visits on the Exhibit Hall floor, which make for a truly informative DMA13 conference

With apology, I want to say that this blog is a little about me—what topics I’m interested in, and sharing a little bit of this knowledge (or lack of knowledge) with blog readers. In the process, I’m hopeful you’re doing the same bit of pre-conference research—because it is this forethought and planning, beyond the engagements and booth visits on the Exhibit Hall floor, which make for a truly informative DMA13 conference

With the Direct Marketing Association Annual Conference starting literally at the end of this week, I’m still at it here lining up MyDMA2013 schedule with sessions I’d like to attend—admittedly doing some double-booking because of the great, comprehensive content on offer.

Yes clients and professional colleagues are on hand, and I’ll be sitting in on some of their sessions—but my guideposts for session picks are simply the subjects to which I welcome new learning, new updates and state-of-the-art in data-driven marketing such as it is. That’s why “The DMA” is always a conference attendance “must.”

A few weeks back, I cataloged some of first-impression session and events picks here: http://targetmarketing.adweek.com/blog/creeping-up-fast-dma13-making-plans-chicago

I’m hopeful our paths will cross in Chicago as I add 10+1 to the session wish list here…

  1. Who drives client relationships and customer engagement today? Advertising. “Mad Men + Data Specialists: When Two Worlds Collide,” Tuesday, Oct. 15, 9 a.m. to 9:45 a.m.
  2. Follow the money (and media) trail… “Outlook 2014: Data Driven Marketing in an Omnichannel World,” with The Winterberry Group’s Bruce Biegel, darnnit, also Tuesday, Oct. 15, 9 a.m. to 9:45 a.m.
  3. And trending too, “B2B Trends in 2014” with SAP’s Jerry Nichols, B-to-B magazine’s Chris Hosford and leading biz marketing consultant Pam Ansley Evans: Monday, Oct. 14, 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.
  4. “The Big Data Ecosystem: Informing Effective Marketing Campaigns,” with Time Warner Cable—curses, also yet again, Tuesday, Oct.15, 9 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. This is really a parochial pick, since my apartment building is now allowing RCN to enter my building—and I’m curious to see (finally) if TWC will give me a better deal on pricing its services.
  5. Multichannel (yet digital) ROI—too bad we don’t have offline here, too, but it has some client-side folks, “No BS, Strictly ROI: Definitive Case Study Panel on Successful Multichannel Digital Marketing” with Intercontinental Hotels Group, Travel Impressions, Equifax and FedEx, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 9 a.m. to 9:45 a.m.
  6. Pinterest + Email = Customer Engagement, with Sony and (disclosure, former client) The Agency Inside Harte-Hanks—now here’s a social media case study that taps Pinterest users, first I’ve seen in a venue that I’ve attended, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.
  7. “Creative Masterclass” with “THE” Herschell Gordon Lewis, and it won’t be a horror film classic (one of Herschell’s other talents), but I know it will be entertaining, focusing as it will on word choices and testing with minimal waste. Afterall, we all should test and choose our words carefully, on Monday, Oct. 14, 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.
  8. “USPS Goes Mobile: Direct Mail Integration with Mobile Technology”—hey this is a postal-focused blog, and USPS is offering postage discounts here, so there is money to be made/saved: Monday, Oct. 14, 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.
  9. Evaluating marketing service providers—”Why You Must Look at Least Three: Solutions Showdown.” Yes Bernice Grossman—database marketing extraordinaire—has lined up Neolane, SDL and IBM to help us evaluate and compare leading trigger-marketing vendors, on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2 p.m. to3 p.m
  10. The elusive attribution question gets answered, at least by Petco: “Power-Up: How Petco Uses IBM Marketing to Drive Attribution.” OK, this is an IBM-sponsored track on real-time and automated marketing, but I know many brands struggle with attribution assignment in multichannel and omnichannel environments, so I’d like to hear this case study, Monday, Oct. 14, oh well also 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.
  11. AND a BONUS: Speaking of real-time marketing, my editor Thorin McGee at Target Marketing, is moderating his own panel on “Real-Time Marketing: Tools and Techniques to Own the Moment,” on Wednesday, 10 am – 10:45 am. Do I get extra credit for mentioning this one? Afterall, this blog post was a bit behind his deadline—though I’m hopeful it will be posted on time!

See you in Chicago!

When Mistakes Happen

Mistakes are a part of the learning process. Every company will experience them at one time or another. Ideally, with good planning, they will be minor and won’t happen often. With better planning, there is an action plan in place to quickly right the wrong. Knowing what to do before it needs to be done simplifies fixing the problem.

My Coke Rewards Apology Email
This My Coke Rewards apology email was delivered quickly and followed the four best practices of making amends for a marketing mistake.

Mistakes are a part of the learning process. Every company will experience them at one time or another. Ideally, with good planning, they will be minor and won’t happen often. With better planning, there is an action plan in place to quickly right the wrong. Knowing what to do before it needs to be done simplifies fixing the problem.

Handling mistakes well is a great loyalty builder. You can measure the effect by conducting a comparative analysis. Pull two segments to compare from customers who made their first purchase five years ago. Choose customers who are very similar in order source, size and selection. Select people who had seemingly perfect orders for the first segment. “Perfect orders” describe orders that are processed quickly and delivered without issues. Place people who had problems quickly resolved for the second segment.

Detail sales history, average order and returns for each segment. Use the information to compare the value of the customers who had problems with the ones who didn’t. This analysis almost always finds that the people who had problems quickly resolved are much more valuable than those who had a perfect order. I believe there is a simple explanation for this: People who have problems resolved to their satisfaction trust the company more. Trust and loyalty go hand in hand.

Planning for failure seems counterintuitive, but it is the best way to be prepared. The first part of the action plan is determining the extent of the problem. Will an apology suffice, or does something need correcting? Apologies are sufficient when the mistake is simple and doesn’t overly inconvenience the person or create an expense.

My Coke Rewards provides us with a good example of a mistake where an apology is enough. Last month, the automated points’ expiration notice malfunctioned. Members received a notification that they needed to add or use points or they would expire. The deadline for keeping the account active was two weeks before the email was sent. The apology came quickly and followed best practices (refer to the image in the media player):

  • Be direct with the apology and explanation.
  • Tell people what they need to do (if anything).
  • Thank them for their business.
  • If necessary, offer a reward for the inconvenience. (If you offer a reward in the form of a discount, make it dollars off with no minimum. This is a payment for a mistake, not a marketing promotion.)

The email from My Coke Rewards was simple, to the point and didn’t offer compensation. The mistake was minor, so an apology after the correction was enough. Bigger mistakes require more. There isn’t a magic formula that determines the ideal response for every problem. Customers are individuals with unique expectations.

The second part of the action plan is determining the specific resolution for each problem. Creating a general list of potential problems and resolutions provides a guide for the customer service team. Anything that satisfies the customer and falls within the guidelines should be resolved immediately.

The best way to determine what needs to be done is to ask the customer with the problem. Lead with an apology and follow with the inquiry. For example: “I’m sorry this happened. What can we do to make it right?” There will occasionally be an outlandish demand, but usually the requested solution is less than you were prepared to do. Asking customers how to right a wrong simultaneously gives them respect and shows that you care. Here are some other best practices when a mistake happens:

  • Minimize customers’ investment in resolving issues. Strive to resolve issues on the first contact without involving other people whenever possible.
  • If you discover the mistake before the customer, reach out immediately. This shows your customers that you are watching their backs.
  • Use the appropriate communication tool. Email works well for most correspondence as long as the messages are not from “do not reply” boxes.
  • When the resolution process is complete, ask customers if they are satisfied with the solution. Every customer cannot be saved, but letting them go without trying is unacceptable.
  • Avoid fake apologies. Apologizing works so well in relationship building that people are making up reasons to do it. Don’t.

Email to Repair Broken Customer Relationships—What J.C. Penney Got Wrong

Email is one of the more personal forms of electronic communication. Notes from friends and family are co-mingled with marketing messages. This makes it an excellent vehicle for repairing broken relationships. When done well, email apology letters drive sales in addition to mending relationships, but can they save a company from a death spiral? The management team at J.C. Penney is hoping that the recent note from CEO Ron Johnson will reverse (or at least slow down) the sales free fall for the last two quarters.

Email is one of the more personal forms of electronic communication. Notes from friends and family are co-mingled with marketing messages. This makes it an excellent vehicle for repairing broken relationships.

When done well, an email apology letter drives sales in addition to mending relationships. A few years ago, a client had a system failure that resulted in delayed shipments of holiday orders. An email was sent to every customer who had placed an order that season (even the ones who had already received their orders.) The message explained what caused the problem, apologized for any inconvenience, promised to expedite shipments of remaining orders, and offered a gift certificate for future orders.

The immediate response was so positive, the President quipped, “We should plan a problem once a quarter so we can apologize!” The revenue from the apology letter more than covered the expedited shipping. Furthermore, the relationship between customer and company became stronger. The people who received the letter consistently outperformed their counterparts who didn’t get one in both sales and lifespan.

Personal letters help salvage relationships but can they save a company from a death spiral? The management team at J.C. Penney is hoping that the recent note from CEO Ron Johnson will reverse (or at least slow down) the sales free fall for the last two quarters. In May, the first quarter results revealed a 20.1 percent drop in revenue because shoppers didn’t like the new pricing and marketing strategy. Second quarter was worse with another revenue drop of almost 23 percent. Traffic was down 12 percent.

When things are going south at this rate, quick action is required. Johnson admitted to pricing and marketing mistakes when speaking with investors, but his letter to customers is more like an introduction than an “Oops! We goofed.” The letter reads:

Dear valued customer,

You’ve probably heard about recent changes at jcpenney. I’m honored to
say that I’m one of them.

I’m Ron Johnson, and I came here because I have a lifelong passion for
retailing—and jcpenney has been one of America’s favorite stores for
over a hundred years. My goal is to make jcpenney your favorite place
to shop.

I’ve asked our team to innovate in many ways—to help you look and live
better—and to make shopping more enjoyable.

While you will see many changes, you can rest assured that we’ll never
lose sight of our founder’s values. When James Cash Penney built his
first retail stores over a century ago, he called them “The Golden
Rule,” because treating customers with respect was his highest
priority.

One of Mr. Penney’s guiding principles was offering low prices every
day—instead of running a series of “special sales.” We’re honoring Mr.
Penney by returning to his pricing policy, so you’ll find great prices
every time you visit.

We’ve also made it easier to return items, we’re bringing in more
great brands, adding excitement to our presentation, offering free
back-to-school haircuts for kids, and much more.

Basically, we’re putting you and your family first, trying to give you
new reasons to smile every time you visit a jcpenney store.

You’ll see many innovations in the coming months, and I’ll keep you
informed in a series of letters like this. I hope you’ll let me know
how we’re doing, and share any ideas that could help us do better.
Just click the link below to send me a note.

On behalf of the jcpenney team, thank you for shopping with us.

Ron

I’d like to hear from you.
View email with images.

*Please be advised that any information disclosed or submitted will
become jcp property and may be used in public communications.”

The timing of this letter is off. It should have been sent prior to the pricing changes. Now is the time for J.C. Penney to be open about the issues and invite people to share thoughts without the threat that they “may be used in public communications.”

Email messages designed to repair relationships are different from marketing emails. They have to be simple and personal. The J.C. Penney email is designed to look like a letter from the CEO, as you can see in the first picture in the media player at right.

Unfortunately, it looks like the second picture in the media player when it lands in the inbox. The letter is an image instead of text. It isn’t very inviting to a loyal customer much less an unhappy one.

Do’s and don’ts for creating personal relationship mending messages:

  • Do personalize the name. “Dear valued customer” says “I don’t know who you are.” The individual who shared this email with me has been a loyal catalog shopper and had a J. C. Penney credit card. They should be on a first name basis.
  • Don’t use a ho-hum subject. You have to catch people’s attention in a flash. “A letter from our CEO” doesn’t do it. Wouldn’t “Our CEO wants your advice” be better?
  • Do identify the problem and take responsibility for it. “Oops! We goofed!” followed with an explanation and sincere apology is the first step to mending the relationship. If the recipient doesn’t feel your sincerity, additional damage is done.
  • Don’t limit responses by qualifying. Mr. Johnson asks for feedback and then states that the information shared may be used in public communications. Some apology emails offer a discount based on a specific order size. Relationship mending emails have to do two things: Take responsibility and offer some form of restitution. A discount is a promotion. Basing it on a dollar amount is adding insult to injury.
  • Do use text-only emails. A picture paints a thousand words and most of them send marketing signals and awaken spaminators. The purpose of relationship building emails is to restore the relationship. This won’t happen if the email goes to spam or looks like a bunch of boxes with red X’s.
  • Don’t ever forget that relationships with customers are a privilege not a right. When you are truly grateful for the opportunity to serve your customers, it resonates in your messages. Make sure that your marketing team (including the copywriter) has the right perspective when creating messages.