No Replies Will Be Accepted to This Blog Post, or A Lesson on Customer Variability

A friend’s startup recently sent me a marketing email that was sent from a “noreply@” email address. I chastized him in an email about this, and he asked to justify why it’s a big deal. I responded with an email he probably was hoping was a lot shorter. I figured I’d adapt it to a blog post if it helps others.

No replies are not a good idea for big companies and especially startups because you want to leave open any opportunity for a user to provide you feedback or ask questions. Giving your users a no reply tells them you don’t want to hear from them and don’t think their opinions/issues are important. They are also a little more likely to end up in spam folders. CampaignMonitor has a great write-up on this, so I won’t belabor the point.

What I want to do is go deeper and talk about customer service and variability. There are five types of customer variability in services:
Arrival: when someone wants a service
Request: what someone wants from the service
Capability: someone’s ability to perform a task required of the service (particularly in self-service)
Effort: how much effort someone is willing to put in for a service
Subjective Preference: someone’s opinion about how a service should be delivered

In service, there are two strategies for dealing with customer variability: accommodation and reduction. Accommodation is accepting customer feedback/interaction wherever the user tries to initiate it (email replies, chat, phone, twitter, etc.) and adapting to it. This leads to the best experience for customers, but also costs more and is more complex to do as you have to monitor/staff multiple channels. Reduction is the opposite: defining one way customers can do things (prix-fixe menus, noreply, hours of operation, iPhone only). This is very cheap and simple to manage, but leads to a worse experience for customers.

A restaurant is a type of service that can either reduce or accommodate variability in many ways.

How they reduce variability:
Maintain and publish hours of operation
Manage inventory through reservations
Special prices at off-hours
Prix fixe menus to eliminate choices for customers

How they accommodate variability:
Self-service salad bars and buffets
Train workers to host, wait, tend bar, and bus tables depending on which type of work is needed
Allow guests to stay as long as they want
Allow customers to set tips based on service

Both are totally viable strategies, but for customer feedback, I find that reduction strategies just don’t work because you eliminate feedback from certain types of customers i.e. those that don’t fit your preferred method for communicating with you. Those are probably the customers you need to learn more about. Also, for a reduction strategy to be successful, it pretty much requires great training of your customers. This is really hard to do unless frequency of interaction is high or the penalty for breaking the rules is very severe. In an app or website’s case, it is easy to train someone how to use the app because hopefully they are a weekly active user, but much harder to train them how to deal with a problem with an order, as that (should) happen very infrequently.

So, not only should you think twice before setting a no reply, but also you should think about your strategy and whether you’re attempting to reduce or accommodate variability or your customers and why.

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