Cross the ‘gray line’ from marketing to customer service for emails that sell


There’s a curious gray line between what’s marketing and what’s customer service after an online purchase.

Some might say that there’s no line: EVERYTHING’S MARKETING!

I’m inclined to agree, but the distinction is important in how our messages can be received by the customer.

There’s a potentially beautiful moment after the purchase to affirm the new state of your relationship. This can lay the foundation for repeat purchases. But if your offers keep coming as before, the moment of triumph can become a moment of resistance. Then you’re back on the side of the line that’s marketing as its commonly done.

The curious part for me is what happens when — through tone, content, and context — we cross over that line to the customer service side. Something then changes about people’s responsiveness. It improves! Our follow-on emails can then keep selling in a conversational, helpful mode.

After the order, what emails do you send?

Put yourself in the position of being the customer, the new buyer. You check your inbox and see a message equivalent to EVERYTHING’S MARKETING!

How does it feel to receive this after you just ordered? You may sense an infringement.

As an example, I just purchased, and the very next morning there’s a “20% off!” subject line for a promotional email from that same online merchant. Imagine two people in real life having such an interaction.

Common sense says an infringement like this, be it any act of aggression that’s subtle or overt, is inappropriate. So in response to this infringement, I resist taking the action I feel that you want me to take. An email marketing strategy where EVERYTHING’S MARKETING feels blind to our relationship’s context and status.

Just having purchased, I crossed the line to the customer service mode of interacting with you the seller. But your email marketing software doesn’t acknowledge this. You’re still pitching offers at the same pace. It feels like blindness to the state of our relationship. So I’m now blocked to what your wanting to communicate, effectively blocked to your marketing.

Why we flinch at some emails

Test this for yourself. Did you feel resistance when reading the all capitalized words EVERYTHING’S MARKETING when I first typed it above?

I will concede this important caveat: a couple of you did not resist. This means temperamentally you’re more comfortable with quick action, with active outreach that typically feels infringing to others. But more likely you felt a twinge. Most of us flinch at the tone and timing of those all caps.

(That’s really what people mean when they describe ALL CAPS as shouting. It’s the experience of being infringed upon by another’s lack of awareness to what’s going on at this moment, or their disregard for it. I’m making an analogy to any kind of non-attuned marketing that elicits a similar response.)

So what’s going on here and why is it a problem for marketers?

That twinge or flinch results in a psychological resistance. Next time this happens to you, notice how this shows up in your mind as judgements. A judgement might sound like ‘They ought to know better than to do THAT!”

Importantly, this dynamic changes when we cross over to what feels like the customer service mode.

When we lean in to listen

Resistance drops when we initiate the contact. Then we lean in rather than lean away. This is typical of customer service interactions. Then they’re helping me in response to my request. The context and tone is responsive. I’m more inclined to follow their suggestions then if they initiated contact with me.

Does this describe your experience, too? (Gmail must know this to be true. They prioritize email delivery to the inbox when its from help desk senders over newsletter senders.)

You can learn more about this in an article I wrote with Gabrielle about “Emails to send after they order”. It’s about what you can do after your customer places an online order. You’ve got their email. Now’s the opportunity. At this moment you can cross the line from a marketing side — wherein your message encounters resistance — to a customer service. When it’s coming from that service side of the line, your message may be received openly. Surely your own experience confirms this?

Why? The customer has just taken the initiative and bought. (The dynamic is similar if the person just “signed up,” or “registered,” or has taken some other action less substantive than placing an order. But for the purpose of this article, we’re focused on the post-purchase moment.)

Neither black, nor white; it’s gray

Now it’s your turn. Now is the opportunity to reply. This is the moment when your message may be most welcomed. In this context, the moment can become conversational AND keep selling. It’s marketing and customer service; it’s gray, it’s neither black nor white, it’s both.

An order receipt email becomes the beginning of a new dialogue. You can confirm order details and continue on to send more marketing-in-effect messages. It works with attention to tone and context.

From the ‘Emails to send after they orderarticle, which features the example of a company selling home goods:

“Orient them to what it feels like being your customer, and what they can expect from you. If they need a little education on how to care for their purchase, or how to use it, sharing that information with them in this flow is a simple way to build in proactive customer service.

“Demonstrating your awareness of how your new customer may need help is something they will appreciate. It shows you’ve learned from experience with other customers, so that you’re capable of similarly solving their problems. You anticipate questions, you foreshadow their questions.

“With this pre-emptive communication in place, the question they may have otherwise brought to your customer service team – or worse, complained about in a review or on social media – it’s already taken care of!

“Your customer can relax. They can enjoy their new purchase without reservations. And there’s one less email or phone to answer by your customer service team.”

Read more about this automated customer thank you sequence, or flow, and why it’s the first of four core automations to put into place in your business.

Updated: May 3, 2024
Published: May 21, 2020

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