By Doug Lindsey
We enclose a monthly newsletter to our customers with our billing. It gets printed out on letterhead then photocopied on a different color paper each month, which is simple and cheap. I do all the writing, and it typically takes me between two and eight hours to get a final draft I’m happy with. I enjoy writing and we’ve received many compliments over the years on my writing style. But the main reason is not for ego gratification, it’s to create “customer bonding” and promote customer relations and account loyalty.
Four years ago we had obsolete equipment and our customer churn rate was horrible. That’s when we shopped for new equipment and bought Earth-net. But even before that, we knew we had to get our account loss rate down or we’d be out of business in a year, and we knew that new equipment, etc., would take more time than we had. It turned out to be over six months on the fastest track we could manage.
In October 1996, the building next door burnt to a crisp in a five alarm fire. Sherry and I stayed on duty while the cops evacuated everybody else in our building including the rest of our staff. For a few minutes it looked like our building was doomed too, but the entire Albany Fire Department (about 20 vehicles) arrived in the nick of time. We weren’t out of service whatsoever, and things were back to normal in a couple more hours. At midnight that night, Sherry woke up and said “what are you writing?” I said: “Our first newsletter–this story is too good not to share with our customers.”
Next month, our newsletter was born, and during the following six months, our account loss rate was 1/4 of the rate for the previous six months. There were other reasons for the turnaround, but Sherry and I are both convinced that the newsletter was a really important part. We’ve only missed writing about three monthly issues since. I have many jobs here, but keeping our equipment at maximum performance and writing the monthly newsletter are my two most important jobs. We specifically wanted to avoid the “Look and Feel” of all those stupid inserts and boring “newsletters” you get with the telephone and credit card bills. Hence, my attempt to establish a dialogue and “back home” atmosphere in each issue.
Our philosophy on “Look and Feel”: I write on whatever topic I’m in the mood for and it’s MY writing style in MY words. When it comes to writing ability, I’m better than some and worse than others, but my customers always know at a glance that it’s ME that wrote the newsletter. There are newsletter services you can subscribe to where somebody else does all the writing and slaps your masthead on it, but the problem is that such a newsletter will not look or sound like you to your customers. Our financial planner does this and it’s fine; I mean how many times can you rewrite the same basic financial advice? But I think an answering service is selling personalized service and should grab every opportunity to present its personality to its customers.
General guidelines I would suggest are: be sincere, be genuine, be relevant, be yourself and be interesting. If you miss on any of these, in my honest opinion, nobody will read it anyway. What this means is that you can “borrow” material from other people (including me), but it will look phony unless the end product looks and sounds like your operation.
After about a year’s worth of writing newsletter issues, I felt like they were all starting to look and sound alike (boring), so we started varying the writing style to include a diary-entry style, and also started writing some very short (but relevant) fiction stories when we ran out of other ideas. Everybody loves a good story, and you don’t have to look any further than Connections Magazine for some excellent examples on how to do it.
“What if I don’t have a lot of writing experience/skills?” is the question many of you are thinking right now. Even if you’re not a great writer there’s ways around this. Clip out other people’s stuff, paste it onto your newsletter, and pass it along (sort of like forwarding an email). Shatz and Associates just faxed us a newsletter with “Top 10 Good Things About Owning An Answering Service”. It was very funny and with a bit of customization here, we’ll paste it into a future newsletter for our customer’s entertainment. You can also pass along jokes, humor and stories you pick up on the Web. Steve Michaels at TAS Marketing is a master at turning small incidents in his daily life into compelling stories, and his Op-Ed pieces in Connections are some of my favorite reading. Look at a few of his stories and say to yourself: “I have things like this happening to me all the time that would make a good story if I wrote it down and shared it.”
About two years ago one of our customers got mad at us and was shopping around for a new service. We found out when they called us on one of our DBA phone numbers and I took the quote call. After both of us figuring this out and some mutual embarrassment, we found out what they were unhappy about (we did nothing wrong) and fixed it, they’ve been happy with us ever since. I told the story in the next newsletter issue for three reasons. First, it was an entertaining story. Second, it established our credibility and sincerity, because the story was way outside the box of the usual propaganda that people put in their own newsletters. Third, the moral of the story was: “If you have a complaint, please tell us right away so we can fix it.”
That brings up another point: BEG for complaints. Several studies have been done where the basic conclusion was that FIXING a genuine customer complaint results in a happier and more loyal customer than if they never complained at all. So every couple of issues we beg for complaints. It helps us identify and fix problems, it helps us establish sincerity and credibility, and it promotes customer loyalty.
Other newsletter topics have included updates on new equipment and other equipment issues, updates on phone service from the telco, frank discussions of our recent problems and what we’re doing to fix things (established credibility and honesty), recent news about our staff, how our live operator system works, how to interpret the morning fax report, etc., etc. Go ahead and keep it short if you don’t have a lot to say; ours are usually one page single spaced in 12 point type.
I just thought up a new newsletter topic while I’ve been writing this: “How to Write a Newsletter for Your Customers”–a newsletter about writing newsletters–cool idea, huh?
We often fax copies of recent newsletters to prospective customers–it helps them “get to know us” before they even start and helps us to sell the account.
Every business needs to make sure it’s gaining new customers at a faster rate than it’s losing old customers. We feel a regular newsletter is an important tool that helps. In my honest opinion, the newsletter should be personal, interesting, truthful, and different enough from the run-of-the-mill to stand out.