Anne Holland

SherpaBlog: The Perils of Moving Entirely to Electronic Statements & Customer Touches

When your CFO casts about for recessionary cost cutting, replacing human beings with automated recordings and online account centers, replacing paper with email, it seems like an awfully intelligent step. And, it may be … for this quarter. But, you’re risking future profits.

Why? People are not made out of electrons. Not yet, anyway.

Human beings make brand loyalty and additional purchasing decisions based on their impressions of your brand. Those impressions are based on sensory experiences. If the only sense you appeal to is an electronic one, your brand’s grip on their loyalty will be fleeting. Sound, touch, smell and taste beat vision by a landslide; especially, words or numbers on a screen versus relevant images (not stock photos).

In addition, the experience of talking to a human being on the phone, even briefly, resoundingly beats the sensory and emotional impression of an automated audio system giving recorded information (however personalized). A real human being’s live voice touches customers on levels that no recording ever can or will.

When you cut costs by going electronic, you’re cutting those strong sensory impressions. You’re putting a wall of frosted glass between your customer and your brand.

How do you prove the value of real human beings and print materials to your CFO? The answer — try to wring permission for a test cell. Take one segment of customers (making sure it’s a true cross segment with no unusual aspects that could skew results versus your normal demographic) and start doing business the old-fashioned way. Offer them a human being to call via direct dial; send them the occasional printed letter and/or catalog.

How do you reach out via multiple senses while keeping your business “green”? The key is in alternating experiences — mix in a few snail mail letters with your routine email series rather than switching whole hog from one to the other. And, of course, use ride-along opportunities as much as possible. If you have to ship something real-world, such as a fulfillment package, make sure personal letters, etc., are included in the package to share postage and reduce the total amount of mail sent.

Also, don’t waste your print-and-postal splurge on generic marketing that make as much sense in email. Use print for highly personalized offers and/or for highly detailed communications that require so many pages of information that it’s more convenient in print.

On the phone rep front, it may not be possible to have them work virtually from home, but you can encourage carpooling and use of public transportation with cash incentives. One of my old companies even paid for a public bus shelter outside our building so we wouldn’t get soaked or freeze while waiting.

Then, naturally, detail these green-friendly measures on your website and other ‘about us’ communications.

Last, a little story to help you see how moving from electronic to print may help the bottom line:

Years ago, MarketingSherpa used to offer our Benchmark Guide and Handbook customers their choice of print versus PDF. However, I began to wonder if the PDF-only accounts were as brand loyal and likely to buy again as the print-buyers. Our Web team checked PDF download stats. Turned out that as many as 40% of customers who purchased PDFs never got around to downloading them, despite reminder emails! Unless everyone downloaded and reviewed the Guide they’d bought, how could we count them satisfied or expect referrals or future purchases?

So, I bit the bullet and started sending every single customer *both* a PDF and a printed copy. I didn’t raise prices, aside from adding an at-rate postage charge, because I didn’t think it would be fair. However, I did watch carefully to see how renewal, referral and account lifetime sales rose over the next 12 months. Results were outstanding. In fact, overall sales went up nearly 60% the next year.

Are we hurting the environment? I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure that most people printed out their Guides when they got the PDFs anyway. I’m also pretty sure many printed Guide owners tend to share them — letting colleagues borrow their copy. That’s something you can’t do with Sherpa PDFs without breaking copyright and the law.

At about the same time, we also began extending our customer service phone hours to include both US East Coast and West Coast business hours so customers would be more successful at reaching a human being when they called. Again, the effort paid off in terms of more satisfied customers and longer term accounts.

Pretty soon after that, a business publication rated me as “The Most Influential Woman in Online Advertising” for that year. Made me laugh — much of that Internet influence was gained because we strengthened our offline impact.

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