Direct Mail Strategy: The Wonders of White Mail
When I’m teaching a workshop and use the term white mail, I get blank looks from about half the group. They are unfamiliar with the term. White mail is unsolicited correspondence from your customers. While I don’t know this for a fact, I assume white mail got its name from the plain “white” envelope it arrives in—rather than a printed reply envelope provided by you, the marketer.
I once was an official reader of white mail for the personalized Christmas card program at Walter Drake, a multichannel marketer of household merchandise and gift items. So, I know from experience the enclosed message can be anything from a change of address or catalog request to an order, complaint, compliment, or an update from a customer who feels he or she has a personal relationship with your company and wants to keep you informed. I’ve read white mail written by everyone from sweet, little old ladies to convicted felons writing from their penitentiary cells. All were Walter Drake customers.
Whatever their reason for writing, you should treat these customers and the contents of their white mail as though they were solid gold. White mail isn’t triggered by an offer you’ve made—a money-saving discount, free gift or free shipping. Instead, a customer voluntarily chooses to write you. This simple act requires motivation to (a) look for an envelope, (b) compose a message, as well as (3) locate, apply and pay for postage. Anyone who goes to this effort to contact you normally has something of value to share. Treat it appropriately.
Sure, there are crackpots who send you junk. But for the most part, your white mail contains information you can use to improve your service, expand your product line, praise your employees, strengthen your advertising and solidify customer relationships.
How to Handle Your Company’s White Mail
Whether your white mail arrives in the hands of your postal carrier or electronically via e-mail, there are two key steps to maximize the value of what you receive.
Step 1: Read it. All of it, not just every nth piece. This is an easy, effective and often entertaining way to stay attuned to your customers’ wants and needs.
In the June issue of Southwest Airline’s Spirit magazine, an article titled “Dear Customer” recounts how for the last 35 years this customer-focused airline has read every piece of white mail it’s received—whether from a customer or employee.
According to the article, while current President Colleen Barrett originally read all the white mail, today the airline has four teams of about 175 people who do nothing but read and respond to its white mail. But here’s what’s really interesting: Barrett still handles more than her fair share, even with her busy schedule as an executive.
Why does this company invest a significant amount of time and money in its white mail? In the article, Executive Chairman Herb Kelleher is quoted as saying, “If you pay close attention to what your customers are telling you, you don’t need formal surveys. Your own customers are your surveys.”
At one time, apparel cataloger Lands’ End encouraged all employees in the company to participate in reading and responding to white mail. Employees would sign up for shifts, then show up in a designated area to read and respond to the company’s mail. Lands’ End wanted everyone from its pick-and-pack crews to its product managers, financial analysts and creative directors to know what customers were saying and thinking.
Step 2: Answer your white mail with an individually composed reply. If you’re going to receive maximum benefit from your efforts, answer every piece you receive. And, not with a form letter.
In the Spirit article, Jim Ruppel, vice president of Southwest customer relations, says, “When a customer gets one of our responses, they’re going to know that it’s not a form letter.” How so? “We’re going to give specifics.”
For example, if you write Southwest with a specific problem, such as a flight that was late due to a mechanical problem, the letter you receive back is going to tell you why the flight was delayed, including pertinent details. To get the specifics, Southwest’s readers investigate the issue, interview employees who were involved, then provide a detailed explanation to the customer about what happened. Why go to all this effort? Kelleher explains in the article that it reinforces to the customer, “Hey, these people are really paying attention.”
Here are five additional tips you can employ to further maximize the value of your white mail.
• Answer “in kind.” Lands’ End had (and may still have) this policy. If the letter received was two pages long, the response was two pages. If the first paragraph was devoted to talking about how cute the customer’s grandchildren looked in their Lands’ End parkas, the first paragraph of the Lands’ End response was also devoted to talking about the customer’s grandchildren. Why? It builds rapport.
Lands’ End also applied this same principle in how it composed responses. If the original letter was handwritten, the response was, too. If the original was typed, so was the response. Again, it shows that the company is paying attention to little details that ultimately can mean a good deal to the individual customer as well as the customer’s lifetime value to you.
• Respond promptly. Don’t let correspondence sit for 60 days. Set a standard and adhere to it. According to the Spirit article, Southwest’s replies go out within 30 days. The more prompt your reply, the more impressed your customer will be.
• Share letters of praise. Distribute these messages company-wide to encourage all employees to emulate behavior that generates favorable customer comments.
• Don’t bury complaints. Research their validity, then share them with the appropriate people who can work to correct the problem and implement necessarily measures to prevent it from reoccurring.
• Welcome customer suggestions and share them with your new product development team. Both customer complaints and suggestions can be good sources of new product breakthroughs.
• Never ignore your white mail! It truly is solid gold input from someone with a strong, vested interest in your future: your customer.