Digital customers shouldn’t have to navigate an obstacle course before you help them

Help Dept

Last week, a friend of mine, also in marketing, posted this after fighting his way to live chat on Adobe’s website:

“Adobe live chat is immensely helpful—once you get there. First you must prove your worthiness. You must navigate a maze, undergo a colonoscopy, pass a written exam on String Theory, run a gauntlet (blindfolded), sacrifice an unblemished lamb (hard to find this time of year), balance a tree stump on your left index finger, don ceremonial garb, fight off seven angry gorillas (lowland), flawlessly execute 100 consecutive jumping jacks, roll in mud, swear so as to make Quentin Tarantino blush, prove you weren’t born in Kenya, and hold your breath until you expire. Only then will Adobe provide you the chat link.”

Not exactly the sort of PR any company needs. It illustrates a paradox: as more customers demand digital services, the more you’d better be prepared to back them with live, easy-to-reach humans.

Most companies get the part about “live” and “humans.” Some, however, seem to have trouble with the “easy-to-reach” part.

No one knows better than I that ones and zeros have advantages over live bodies. Ones and zeros don’t expect a paycheck, go home at 5, take weekends off, expect overtime, unionize, gossip, call in sick, take vacations, request family leave, whine, stretch 15-minute breaks to 45 minutes, take personal calls when they should be working, crack their knuckles when their neighbor is trying to concentrate, waste time, or show up for work hung over.

So at first blush it might appear cost-efficient to hire fewer live bodies and drive customers to the likes of FAQs and forums.



In reality, if you make it too hard to reach a live body, you will create frustration. If you create enough frustration, you will lose customers. You needn’t lose too many customers before you find that hiring a few extra bodies would have cost you less.

While all companies are well advised to clear away obstacles between customers and live help, I venture to say that it is even more important for financial institutions, where questions and problems tend to be urgent and time-sensitive. 

The best practice is to offer live help, and offer it early. When a customer clicks around the same feature one too many times or pauses for too long, provide a popup that says something like, “Need help? Click here to chat with a live representative.”

DIY resources are all well and good, but customers shouldn’t have to navigate an obstacle course before being given a link to live assistance. It is best to allay frustration before it has a chance to arise, much less escalate.

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Dinosaurs knew a thing or two about email

Email Marketing Lessons from
the Direct Mail Dark Ages

Part 2: The Good


Part 2

From the moment the U.S. Constitution gave Congress the power to establish post offices, marketers went to work learning how to make direct mail pay.

Over time, direct mail marketers began noting techniques that seemed to work most often and on a consistent basis. These became must-know guidelines for anyone in the business. It turns out that many of those guidelines apply just as much in email as they do in direct mail. Here are a few of my favorites. (See last week’s post for direct mail practices not to use.

The envelope, please. In direct mail, an envelope has one job: to get opened. A headline on an envelope can work wonders to that end. The email equivalent is the subject line. But be careful: many phrases that work in direct mail will likely be intercepted by a spam filter if you try them with email. For instance, “FREE” works on envelopes, but in subject lines it signals spam.

Let’s get personal. In mail and email alike, letters have power. The most successful ones are laid out like letters (albeit with liberties taken here and there), display a signature, and use a personal, “me-to-you” tone—not “our company to our customers.”

P.S. Though a stylebook may advise against using “P.S.” on a business letter, direct marketers have demonstrated that that’s where most people start reading. Use a P.S. to tease with information that will pull readers into the body of your email. Provided, that is, your P.S. lands above the fold. Short of that, try a Johnson Box. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to do both.

Headlines. Stylebooks advise against headlines, too. Use them anyway. A good headline increases readership.

Subheads. Short subheads in bold type between groups of paragraphs break things up and help pull readers along. (So do in-line bolds, like the ones I’m using in this post.)

Keep paragraphs short. Big blocks of type are daunting and hard to read.

Include a call to action. Any sales training course will rightly tell you that you must urge customers to take a desired action. Here, email has the advantage. While direct mail relies on coupons, postpaid cards, URLs, and toll-free numbers, email needs only a link, a few encouraging words, and “click here.”

While you’re at it, include lots of easily-noticed calls to action. Ever studied a direct mail letter? Toll-free numbers and addresses show up on the top and/or bottom of every page as well as in body copy. The idea is to make it easy to order at any time. Likewise, email should display easy-to-spot links at the top, in body copy, in side columns, right above the “fold,” and at the bottom.

Incentive offer. Most prospects who do not take immediate action will ultimately not take action at all. The cure? A reward—a freebie—for responding within a limited time. Warning: in every company, there is always someone who objects to incentive offers as “unprofessional.” Nonsense. Properly worded, there is nothing unseemly about thanking customers for prompt action by sending them a gift. But “there is nothing unseemly” understates. It is absolutely vital is more like it. The right incentive offer will increase responses by two, three, four, or more times.

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Conning their way

to success

Email Marketing Lessons from
the Direct Mail Dark Ages

Part 1: The Bad


Part 1

We who do email marketing are heirs of an earlier profession known as “direct mail.” It is still practiced, profitably I might add, by holdouts. Perhaps you know some. Or perhaps you read about direct mail in a marketing history book.

Though the ubiquity of email is relatively new, its successful use grows largely out of techniques that direct mail marketers have been developing ever since Section 8 of the United States Constitution gave Congress the power to establish post offices and made Benjamin Franklin the nation’s first postmaster.

The national postal service was up and running by the early 19th Century. Marketers lost no time figuring out how to profit from it. Mail let them sell over vast distances without having to establish stores in every market. They could communicate with large audiences. When audiences responded, their actions were measurable.

That should sound familiar. It is essentially what we do today, albeit faster, with email.

Early direct mail merchants fast sorted techniques that generated results from those that fell flat. Today, it turns out that many of the resultant do’s and don’ts are as apt in zeros and ones as they were in envelopes.

Not that we should emulate everything early direct mail marketers did.

Here are a few things that you and I had better not do. I’ll save direct mail’s more positive legacy for Part 2.

Though plenty of early direct marketers had scruples, a fair share did not. One early mail-order marketer offered “a genuine, U.S. Government-approved engraving of Abraham Lincoln” for the low, low price of just five cents. For their nickel, dupes received a penny. Another scammer offered a sure-fire roach killer. What arrived in the mail were two blocks of wood with instructions to place the roach on Block A and smash it with Block B. Yet another offered unmarried women (in the days that “spinsterhood” was deemed a cause for concern) a guaranteed method for making “a good impression.” For their money, hopeful brides-to-be received printed instructions to sit on a pan of bread dough.

In time the U.S. Postal Service cracked down.

But since you’re reading this blog, I assume you’re a legit marketer, above lawbreaking. So let’s look at techniques that are perfectly legal by mail, but either illegal or at least inadvisable when it comes to email.

It’s legal for direct marketers to mass-mail “blind envelopes,” that is, with no return address. Since most people have difficulty discarding any envelope unopened, imagine the difficulty they have discarding an unidentifiable one. It’s also legal to make an envelope look like official mail from a government agency or other authority, provided you do not explicitly state that it is. I happen to think that misleading envelopes are underhanded and inappropriate. But they are legal and, unfortunately, effective.

Hiding or falsifying your identity in an email blast can be effective, too. In the U.S., however, it’s not just underhanded: it violates the CAN SPAM Act of 2003. That’s why you don’t see informed, legitimate, domestic companies try it, and you don’t see uninformed, legitimate, domestic companies try it more than once.

Direct mail has always been and still is an effective prospecting tool. A skilled analyst can overlay and process mailing lists to increase the odds of success of a cold mailing. There is nothing illegal, nor, I might add, underhanded about it. Showing up uninvited in a mailbox is not intrusive, whereas showing up uninvited on a smart phone, tablet, or computer is.

There’s nothing illegal about cold prospecting with an email blast, but it’s not advisable. For one thing, as I said, it’s intrusive. For another, email marketing tends not to be a terribly effective prospecting tool. Email works better on a permission basis, that is, when customers authorize you to ping them. That aside, cold email blasts can result in your being intercepted by spam filters, consigned to junk files, and, worst of all, blacklisted by email servers that will thenceforth block all of your emails, permission-based or not.

It’s generally better to use email for customer retention, growth, and cross-selling. For finding new customers, look to the likes of banners, referrals, social media ads, and pop-ups to secure permission to email. And, see above: Direct mail has always been and still is an effective prospecting tool. Many an online ball gets rolling by use of snail mail.

A final don’t. The only limit to how often you should pepper a customer by mail is determined by diminishing returns. You can send mail as often as it continues to pay. When it comes to email, people—and many servers—have a threshold. Ping too often, and you’ll be consigned to spam or junk. That is why services like Constant Contact won’t let you send blast after blast. And they won’t let you blast to the non-opted-in or to prospect lists, period. They like remaining in business.

Next week: The Good.

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My article in Credit Union Journal

A Maslowian Look at Emerging Payments


Who would have thought that a high-tech company started by a hippie-esque guy who knew no better than to rip off the Beatles’ trademark, or a company started by youngsters who couldn’t even spell “googol” right, would, in a few years, present a competitive threat to credit unions and banks?

Not that Apple and Google are the only new threats on the financial services front. They’re just among the most well-known to consumers. Credit union leaders don’t need reminding that the digital revolution has made possible a host of other digital payment types and enabled the launch of dozens of non-traditional providers, from Alipay to Xsolla.

It’s no wonder then that credit unions, banks, billers, and merchants are reevaluating their payments portfolios, infrastructures, rewards programs, and strategies. Those that emerge strong will be the ones that …

Read more in Credit Union Journal by clicking here now.

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A Chip Off the Fraud Block

HighTechTheftThe encouraging, the ouch, and the plus ça change

The payment industry and the payment-fraud industry are locked in a perpetual arms race. Each time our side develops bigger and badder defense weapons, the bad guys set to work inventing bigger and badder assault weapons. And so it goes, back and forth.

One year from this month, Europay, MasterCard, and Visa will up their side of the arms race by making chip-embedded payment cards standard in the United States.

It’s about time. While a number of African nations, China, Japan, Australia, Canada, all of Europe, and others are already onboard, nearly half of the world’s payment card fraud takes place in the United States. The Economist puts worldwide payment-card fraud at $11.3 billion in 2012, up 15 percent from 2011, and puts the United States’ share at 47 percent.

The encouraging news is that EMV (the banal moniker represents the first letter of each triumvirate member’s name) promises to cut dramatically down on fraud. Breaches the likes of those that this year plagued Target, Michael’s, and The Home Depot will, we hope, be a thing of the past. At the very least, they will be far less frequent. We know this from—and this is an advantage of coming late to the game—observing the experience of nations that embraced the technology ahead of us.

The “ouch” news is that merchants will once again have the privilege of ponying up for new point-of-sale devices. They can, of course, elect to stick with the old technology. But if they do, they may risk assuming all responsibility for fraud at their registers, letting E, M, and V off the hook. That could be a lot costlier than new terminals, and not just if you happen to be, say, Target. More and more, payment fraudsters are going after medium-to-small businesses, precisely because these tend to invest less in security.

Then there’s the plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose news. Though EMV represents quite the obstacle for bad guys, it is not insurmountable. Given the dollars involved, the most parsimonious criminals may view upping their side of the arms race less as prohibitive and more as a worthwhile investment. Fortunately, experience shows that lesser-heeled criminals drop out of the game. That alone results in a considerable net gain for our side.

As we engage in the ongoing arms race, we will continue to chip—get it? chip—away at fraud, saving our industry billions, and earning the confidence of cardholders.

Meanwhile, there will always be someone on the other side chipping away right back at us. I suppose that’s job security for programmers specializing in security, regardless of whether they work for the good or bad guys. Of course, anyone working for the bad guys may end up unemployed, living off the state, and wearing an orange jumpsuit. That is not the course that I would recommend.

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