Thursday, January 12, 2012

Losing Track of Customers Because of Email Changes

Every year I see 10 or 20 of my friends change their email addresses. Some go through this process almost every year. It is one way to stay ahead of spam. Spammers send messages to your old address, but you’re no longer there.

For years I resisted this idea. But after having the same address for 12 years, 98 percent of my inbox was spam. In the middle of December, I bowed to the inevitable, set up a new address, and set about notifying everyone who sends me mail about my new address.

This is much harder than it should me, and I have a new appreciation for what my friends have been going through all this time. Particularly in the music business, it does not seem to have occurred to anyone that people would ever change their email addresses. Sorry, Shakira, sorry, U2, sorry, Pete and Roger, it’s not you, it’s me. I had to cancel my email subscription because I couldn’t stand to see your messages go into the spam pile.

But at least Shakira, U2, and the Who let me subscribe again with my new email address. When I went to look, Electric Light Orchestra and Evanescence had closed their email lists. I could unsubscribe but I could not sign up again.

If that was bad, though, the situation was worse with the big-name companies that spend the most on email marketing. There are some, to be sure, that will let you change your email address almost instantly. Most, though, promise to stop sending to the old email address within 10 business days — and it turns out that “within 10 business days” really means “whenever we damn well please.” At American Express, Guitar Center, and other businesses I would like to follow, I was forced to unsubscribe to everything, at least temporarily, because after a month, I was still getting promotions sent to the old email address. Of course, no serious email marketer wants a customer to unsubscribe temporarily — they may forget to resubscribe. Yet that is what the foot-dragging on email address changes leads to. And remember, it is the most highly motivated and connected customers that businesses are shrugging off this way. The average customer won’t think of putting forward their email address change until the next time they place an order.

At other businesses, including SAS, a company whose products I write about constantly, it was clear that they automatically thought of a new email address as a new prospect. I was no longer a customer, the way they tally things up, because I had not yet placed an order using my new email address. When I eventually purchase something, the business will record a new customer, but they will also record a lost customer when I never again reorder with my previous email address. When they measure customer turnover, or churn, the rates they report could be double what they really are.

We all know in our personal lives, if we communicate by email, we have to keep track of people’s email addresses. Email address changes are a fact of modern life and will probably become more frequent as the email system loses ground to the spammers. Given the low costs of email, along with the reputational risks when email is done badly, it is surprising that businesses in general do so poorly at keeping track of their customer email addresses.