Customer Communications: Is Outlook Fit For Purpose?

Outlook

As we continue to progress into the digital age, the way businesses communicate with their customers is evolving from the physical posting of documents, to faxing, using emails and social media. As a result, businesses today face the challenge of coping with multiple communication methods and are constantly looking for efficient ways of servicing all channels.

When doing this, many companies go for the easiest option and rely solely on basic applications they already use, such as those in Microsoft Office, for critical business communications. With time, money and compliance in mind, what businesses – in particular small and medium businesses – would benefit from is a centralised process that manages these channels for them. There are so many competitors available for a customer to choose from; therefore knowing how to communicate with them efficiently and effectively can provide a company with a distinct competitive advantage.

Traditional Tools

Basic email applications, such as Outlook, are often included as part of a one-size-fits-all package, which means businesses use them as the primary tool to communicate with customers. Often praised for their ease of combining mail, their calendar and contacts, their ability to run multiple email addresses from one account, and their strong integrated spam filters, these tools are ideal for day-to-day comms, such as status updates or queries.

However, it’s when communication involves the sending of important business documents, like invoices and statements, that these applications fall short, both in terms of efficiency and compliance. One element traditional email tools don’t have is the option to automate processes, which means human interaction is always necessary. As such, important documents can end up sitting in the inbox of the intended recipient until the required action has been performed.

As email accounts are often associated with one individual, if that person does not check their emails for any length of time, huge delays can be created in the process. Multiple document exchanges happen between a company and its customers during any common business process – such as invoicing – which can result in the whole procedure becoming incredibly slow and drawn out.

Human error is another challenge businesses face when managing incoming and outgoing communications via multiple channels. For example, most email programs suggest saved email addresses when entering recipients, making it easy for the user to choose an incorrect recipient. At worst, this can result in a security breach if confidential information is sent to the wrong person. At best, it looks unprofessional.

For the client, the progression of a business deal, and ultimately getting paid, will be delayed if those in charge send documents incorrectly. Indeed, in a survey carried out by IDC, it was reported that nearly 30 per cent of companies lost major clients due to inefficient document processing.

Another drawback of using a simple email program is a lack of traceability. When important documents are sent, it’s often vital that the program can provide proof that the document has indeed been sent. For example, the Council Directive 2010/45/EU requested that all businesses have a reliable audit trail in place when sending invoices electronically. Whether it’s answering a customer query or for tax calculations, for efficiency and compliance reasons, companies need to have evidence of exactly what has been sent and where it has come from, and this information needs to be instantly retrievable.

Managing Cross-Channel Communications

The examples above highlight a few of the problems when using a simple email program as the sole medium of customer communications. To overcome these, businesses can utilise a more centralised process; one which automates the more important features of a business transaction, thus diminishing the inefficiencies associated with basic tools.

An integrated communication solution can be installed by firms to deal with important business documents. When dealing with invoices, statements and other documents of value which require action, an automated process removes the need for human interaction, thus freeing up staff to spend time on more business-critical tasks.

When a firm receives a document, it is immediately forwarded to the right person electronically for them to perform the required action. It is then sent to the next person in the chain, preventing the need for the mail manager to hand out hard copies and wait for a physical signature. The lack of human interaction also means human errors are kept to a minimum, preventing lengthy delays from documents going AWOL should they be sent to the wrong destination.

Additionally, a centralised process provides electronic documents with a permanent traceable pathway. This means a document can be retrieved immediately with the use of an advanced integrated search engine, and will be electronically stamped with who it was retrieved from, the action it required and who it was then sent to. Indeed, as companies continue to be put under increased scrutiny regarding the way they are audited and run their business, being able to find all documents immediately will allow them to conform to more rigorous compliance rulings which will inevitably come.

Integrating Communications

For businesses managing both physical and digital documents, a one-size-fits-all approach to customer communications very rarely works. It may appear to be the most straightforward route to take at first; however it can create multiple inefficiencies and security risks in the long term, particularly when dealing with sensitive documents. While, it would be much simpler to have all customer correspondence sent using the same method, this is an unlikely scenario.

A centralised process that integrates into their existing communication strategy subsequently enables businesses to contend with whichever method of communication the customer chooses. Some may prefer to have their documents sent to them via post; others may want everything in a digital format, while many may require a mix of both. It’s therefore important for any system to be able to remember these preferences to avoid alienation.

It’s unrealistic to think that all companies will begin to implement an automated, centralised process anytime soon. Many companies are still yet to be convinced of the benefits, or are unwilling to break away from the ease that traditional tools offer. However, the office environment is changing, with businesses becoming more acclimatised to the digital workplace. As such, more and more business processes will slowly become automated – including customer communications – leading to increased efficiency, which will ultimately boost sales, cashflow, and customer satisfaction.

Phil Hutchison

Phil Hutchison is the operational marketing director at Neopost, where he is responsible for driving the company's strategy for its portfolio of physical and digital products in line with evolving SME market needs. He manages marketing programmes from concept development through delivery to assessment and has over 14 years experience in dealing with SME mailing challenges in the UK. He joined Neopost in April 2013 and is a member of The Institute of Sales and Marketing.