Customer service is everything to a business. Just look at big, successful retail chains: They let you return perfectly good merchandise just because you changed your mind. Is that insane? Yes, pretty much, but it's also good customer service, and it's a good investment, and the "secret" of success, for a lot of big companies.
Let's turn to the Internet. I find that the vast majority of companies selling things on the Net can't be contacted at all. Not presale, postsale, or anywhere in between. The only time they talk to you is if you get really angry and start complaining. Everyone else is apparently seen by customer service, but ignored.
Even if you're using an autoresponder to handle 99% of your customers automatically, the least you can do is try to personalize the messages based on whatever meager information they've given you. While I'm at it, what's wrong with allowing people to contact you on the phone if they're getting frustrated? Does this increase or decrease the chances that a person will develop a vendetta against you and your company? I think the answer is obvious.
Most Internet companies simply do not offer personalized service. It might sound like a contradiction, but I believe in both automation and service. Some people want to call someone on the phone before they sign up for anything online. Customers beware: The biggest, most respectable companies on the Internet are even harder to talk to than your phone company. Small scam-based companies are extremely likely to have a toll-free number.
Sole proprietors like me don't want to get phone calls all the time, so I don't show you my phone number. Of course I have a phone number that you can call, but you have to commit a little bit of effort to get it. First, send me an email with your question or complaint, and explain why it would be easier to talk to me on the phone about it. Give me your number and I'll call you. If you're afraid to give me your number, ask me for mine and I'll probably give it to you, if you don't sound like a crazy person. You can also talk to me on AOL Instant Messenger, which is a free download with only a little bit of adware/spyware. (I hate AOL in general, but AIM is less of a spam magnet than ICQ.) Just get my contact info from the little "contact" link on this page.
I mentioned that you can make autoresponder messages personal; In fact, personal enough that some people think you're sitting there typing them in and hitting the "send" button. This can only be done by acquiring extra information from the customer. The type of information depends on what your mailing list is about. In the case of my mailing list, this information mainly involves Internet, business, and general computer experience.
If you're currently on my mailing list and don't remember giving me this information, perhaps I obtained it subtly or just haven't asked you for it yet. I know it might sound scammy, but this truly is the best way to take care of the needs of the customer with the limited amount of time available to a small Internet business.
Let's think about it from another angle. My phone company is making tons of money from me, and It takes me an hour to get on the phone with them. They have a nice Web site to take care of most of my concerns, so they don't have to hire as many customer service reps. This is a win/win for everyone, except that this same phone company fires so many reps that my phone experience returns to normal, i.e. unacceptable.
Compare this to someone like me. I work alone, and I don't have a long queue of phone calls at any given moment. I get a lot of emails, most of which are spam, but I know how to handle that. When I get an email from someone who is actually interested in Online Honesty, I'm pretty excited, and I make it my #1 priority to solve whatever problem this person has, even if they're not remotely interested in buying anything from me. I might be on vacation or something, so I might not be reachable by phone for a week. I can, however, read my email several times a day no matter where I am.
It's a matter of respect. I try to respect people, no matter who they are (sometimes unsuccessfully, but I try). If they just want advice, I'll do it for free. Give people respect, and they respect you in return. You don't have to buy anything from me. Just tell your friends, if they're looking to do business online, that I seem like an honest person and I know certain things about business and the Internet. That's all I ask.
I recently heard the term "karmic marketing". I guess that's what I've been trying to do: Make people happy first, then worry about money later. This is possibly the safest kind of marketing in terms of legality, though probably not the best way to make fast money. This is the kind of tradeoff we all have to make.
Mike Jolley is a longtime programmer and writer who recently turned to Internet marketing and publishing full time. Find lots of related articles at OnlineHonesty.com.