Selling with E-Mail: The Dos and Don'ts

Used correctly, it's a potent tool that can build customer loyalty, enhance your reputation, and see sales soar. Abuse e-mail, risk ruin

By Janine Popick

Salesmanship -- attracting and retaining valued customers -- lies at the heart of any business endeavor. For entrepreneurial shops, it's always been tough, since they lack the resources to hire sales forces or mount major advertising campaigns. Throw in difficult economic times, and the ante has been upped. As an entrepreneur, you win by offering a product or service that solves a problem for a customer. However, you can't win if you don't reach that customer, and that brings us to sales and marketing.

In the old days, selling was all about personal contact: the door-to-door salesman, the Tupperware hostess, the eager young rep angling for an introduction, Willy Loman. Cut to the era of direct marketing, and you eliminate the person in favor of printed materials, such as catalogs, newsletters, and brochures, sent through the mail to prospects.


  Now cut again, as I did in the late 1990s, to the rise of electronic salesmanship. In the two jobs I held prior to co-founding VerticalResponse, Inc. in 2001 -- vice-presidencies at the now-defunct NBCi Direct, which was the direct marketing arm of NBC Internet, and, which was the eighth most trafficked Web site at the time -- I helped build the infrastructure for what has become a revolution in the way sales are generated.

In fact, I became such a believer that I decided to launch my own company, VerticalResponse, whose iBuilder tool enables users to self-design and transmit materials via e-mail with a click of the mouse. (A complementary iBuilder postcard allows electronically generated material to be reformatted in print and sent through regular mail.)

Selling electronically is dramatically faster, cheaper, and more effective than mailing printed materials. As such, it offers a tremendous advantage to small businesses whose sales initiatives have always been constrained by lean budgets and miniscule staffs. In fact, fully 90% of our company's more than 40,000 registered users are businesses with 15 or fewer employees. More than two thirds sell to retail customers, the balance to other businesses.


  The allure of Web-based selling is easy to comprehend if you consider the typical VerticalResponse user, who you might say is the typical electronic "salesman." He or she is likely no sales person per se, but rather the owner of, for example, a small gift-and-candle shop or boutique winery.

The gift shop wants in-store customers during the critical holiday selling season. The winery aims to entice new buyers by staging an "event," such as a festive dinner. These days, the catalog necessary for generating holiday traffic or the announcement of the winery's gala doesn't take weeks or even months to plan. Instead, the owner/salesman can sit down at the computer and generate the material within hours. It will cost no more than a cent and a half per recipient to transmit, vs. as much as 100 times that amount for printed material. What's more, the necessity of retaining a costly graphic design firm is eliminated.

And it gets even better. Using electronic tools, the gift shop or winery can get information back about who opened its e-mail, which items within the communications enticed recipients to click, and who asked to be removed from the list. By contrast, with printed materials, unless an order is placed, the sender doesn't even know whether the catalog or brochure reached the right address.


  Too good to be true? Well, partially. Electronically generated sales materials, of course, can be deleted, filtered out, or ignored. Amid the clutter in a recipient's inbox, they might not even be spotted.

That is reason enough to do what we at VerticalResponse recommend when selling electronically: that is, first build rapport with your customer. In short, there's a right and a wrong way to use this powerful new sales technique. What follows is a look at some dos and don'ts. First, the Do pointers:

• Build rapport by making sure the customer wants to receive your sales materials. At VerticalResponse, we recommend that customers "double opt-in," meaning that they confirm acceptance after signing up.

• Work with a legitimate e-mail service provider (ESP), which are companies such as our own. Such vendors have typically built the systems and relationships necessary to deliver your e-mail properly. They also know how to properly report back to you.

• Remind recipients how you received their e-mail addresses. You might begin your correspondence, for example, by saying, "Dear Mr./Ms., you may recall that we met at the XYZ trade show and you asked that my company contact you."

• Provide an easy way for recipients to unsubscribe. It doesn't make any sense to keep someone on your list who doesn't want to be there.

• Personalize your e-mail communications. You might, for example, address each recipient by name.

Now, the Don't-Under-Any-Circumstances pointers:

• Never allow vendors to give you a list. Chances are the addresses are invalid or extinct. Reputable vendors will retain control of distribution and send messages for you.

• Shun sending e-mail with attachments. Recipients who use Web-based e-mail pay for space and might be turned off if you take too much of it. In addition, many Internet service providers (ISP) won't distribute e-mails with attachments. Instead, send the e-mail with a link to the page where the additional information is hosted. The recipient can download it from there.

• Spurn cluttering your customers' inboxes. An e-mail from you once every two weeks is great, and once a week is OK. Anything more than that is pushing your luck.

•Reject the temptation to use trickery in your "From" and "Subject" lines, a practice that will actually be illegal under a proposed new law. Subject lines that read, "You have an appointment tonight" don't provoke anything but annoyance -- and you don't want your customers to be annoyed with you.

Back in the days of face-to-face salesmanship, even Willy Loman understood that it helped for a salesman to be "liked." The best of the direct-mail print marketers knew that the personal touch oiled customer relationships.

In the brave new world of electronic selling, that fundamental principle hasn't changed. The dos and don'ts of making effective use of the new technology makes it easier for entrepreneurs to build those relationships -- and to use this powerful technique to their company's best advantage.

Janine Popick, 36, co-founded VerticalResponse, a San Francisco-based provider of self-service Internet direct marketing tools, and currently serves as president and chief executive officer.

Entrepreneur's Byline comes to BusinessWeek Online readers courtesy of, a resource for entrepreneurs that is sponsored by the nonprofit Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.