The Inbox Imperative, revisited.

In September of 2003 I wrote the Drift below on the subject of writing effective e-mail. Nearly seven years later the problem of effectively reaching potential customers and opening doors with e-mail has only gotten geometrically worse. So these words may not be evergreen, but they hold up remarkably well.

Over the past years, I've watched hundreds of sales executives waste thousands of hours creating e-mail that flies completely under the radar of their beleaguered customers... or worse yet, actually erodes trust and puts even more distance between seller and potential buyer. Yet little has been done to train sales people on the strategic use of e-mail. When working with sales teams, I offer a few simple rules to improve the e-mail batting average.

  • DABBLE IN VARIOUS MEDIA. Think of the e-mail you send as one communication element in a full multi-media campaign to reach your potential customer. Use it strategically for what it does well, and then compensate with other media elements for the areas where it falls short. Try an e-mail, followed by a voice mail, followed by a mailed copy of a research paper, followed by another e-mail. Use quality voice mail to humanize your approach; let e-mail convey facts... but not too many. Which leads me to my next point...
  • STAY ABOVE THE FOLD. Does your message fit within the friendly confines of the Outlook preview pane? If not, you're sending a message that your e-mail is going to eat into the precious time of the buyer. Tight, focused messages are appreciated. Use an attachment (also edited for brevity) if you need to say more. But recognize that the text of your e-mail is a door opener, rarely more.
  • LEAD WITH NEEDS. ALWAYS. The rule I recommend to sellers is simple. Both your subject line and the very first sentence of your e-mail must directly address a customer need. "Influencing Your Retailers," or "Explaining the benefits of your product to consumers" and the like. The more specific, the better chance of connecting. Don't know much about the customer or can't predict a need that they have? 20 minutes worth of web-based research and you'll have enough client data to make an educated guess about their needs... and open the door.
  • STRUCTURE YOUR MESSAGES. Here's an easy way to structure your message for maximum effect. 1. I've learned from...(a trusted source)... 2. that you're faced with...(the business problem you hope to help them solve)... 3. and I think we can help with...(a sense of the strategy or solution you can offer)... 4. resulting in... (benefits the client will enjoy in working with you).
  • MAKE YOUR E-MAILS ACTIONABLE: Too many sellers don't have a desired set of conclusions or action steps in mind for their e-mails. At the close of your note (that would be near the bottom of the preview pane) recommend a couple of options to the client: "Please forward this to your assistant, Ann, and I'll work with her to line up the appropriate time for us to meet"..."Please share this note internally with the other stakeholders in this kind of decision"..."Reply to this message to let me know which of these proposed dates looks better for you."
  • RARELY SEND BULK MAIL. ALWAYS TELL. It's rarely a great idea to send the same note to dozens of customers. Make it a practice to individually address e-mails and to find something to personalize even a general announcement, if only a line or two. When you do need to send to multiple clients at the same time, remember to use the BCC field and explain in the text of the message that this is going out to multiple clients and why. The cardinal sin is sending the same message to everyone and trying to make it look personal. Don't go there.

With inboxes looking the way they do, we can't assume that a sales message will get even token awareness unless we go to extraordinary lengths. For too long, e-mail has been too easy to write, too easy to send and too easy to ignore. It steals time from the seller and offers only the false promise of sales progress. Overcoming the anti-e-mail bias requires focus, strategic thinking and consistency. This list of steps and rules might be a good start.