Why your company should have a single email address

This guest-post is from Joannes Vermorel, founder of Lokad which produces sales forecasts for off-line companies. He has a personal blog about cloud computing.

Despite experts routinely claiming Email 1.0 will soon be replaced by their own Email 2.0; Email 1.0 is here to stay. Yet, when it comes to email management, most companies seems to adopt a somewhat broken posture: either they don’t advertise any public email or they advertise too many of them.

The right number of emails to be advertized by your company is ONE.

Being the founder of Lokad.com, a B2B SaaS startup, I was eager to do the “Right Thing,” and immediately set up a CRM for sales, a ticketing system for complaints, web forums for whatever, and a handful of email addresses such as billing@lokad.com that would flow to distinct mailboxes, nice and organized. This was, I believe, one of my biggest early mistakes, and it took us about one year to understand the problem: premature partitioning was crippling our interactions with prospects, press, clients, and influencers.

Fragmented communication issues were numerous and yet subtle. Here’s some anecdotal evidence:

  • Sales team pitched a prospect with the usual 3min introductive verbatim, later to discover that the prospect was already very familiar with our technology, as the prospect was already one week into integrating with Lokad. As a result, the pitch was less than useful, and the sales team appeared clueless. (They were clueless.)
  • Support team, not aware of the importance of a prospect, replied with a short email pointing toward our online documentation to a VIP (Very Important Prospect) who was basically asking for a direct call. Not only we missed a big opportunity to engage with a VIP, but we appeared somewhat carefree too (VIPs expect to be treated as such).
  • A client with a technical question our billing, unsure of the proper contact, decided to separately email sales@, support@ and billing@. He got 3 distinct answers, triple effort for us, and one of them, poorly phrased, seemed to bring a different answer. We spend hours undoing the confusion afterward.

Issues usually proved not to be deal-breakers, but as they were happening on a daily basis, they were causing lots of ongoing friction and a huge waste of time.

At the same time, I personally observed at the startup incubator of Telecom ParisTech the impact of one co-founder leaving his company after 18 months. CRM and support tickets were already in place. Nevertheless, about 1/3rd of all company contacts were damaged because no full email records were available for those contacts. The details of many commercial proposals were lost, and the leaving cofounder wasn’t much inclined in giving support.

Those observations, plus many others, lead me to following conclusion: whenever an email crosses your company boundary, it has to go through a company-wide unified setup. Then, once the unfied setup is in place, a single email address is just the most logical way to go. From a practical viewpoint, a single shared webmail is good enough for a small team. However, we did end up with Relenta.com an email-based CRM which is worth your attention if you’ve never heard of them (Disclaimer: I have no stakes in Relenta).

While transitioning toward unified email setup about two years ago, we uncovered what I believe to be two common antipatterns:

  • Not advertising a public email was bad. We were denying our prospects the possibility to contact us in a highly cost-efficient manner. I did consider offering a web form, but thinking again, web form is a rather hellish alternative to email: why would anybody prefer my half-baked web UI they never used before over the email client they use daily? Nowadays, a small percentage of our leads come through direct mails instead of webapp registrations, yet, those are frequently our most interesting prospects: super-large companies!
  • Then, as we did start exposing multiple email addresses like sales@, support@, billing@, partners@ we also started to inflict headaches to our prospects, clients, partners … Why should those people, who know less than us about Lokad, be responsible for decoding our emerging corporate layers to figure out the right mailbox? After the transition, we realized that internal mail routing made everything simpler.

Then, some unobvious benefits appeared over time:

  • We improved responsiveness: Instead of having a “personal” auto-replier begging my prospect not to turn to the competition before I had a chance to return from my leave, a fellow team member is now capable of taking over the case, frequently ghost-writing on my behalf if the answer is simple enough.
  • We started delivering smarter replies: By letting support folks having a look at the initial pre-sales discussion, support is frequently able to deliver better suggestions that really fit the prospect context, instead of forcing the prospect into a tedious rewrite of what has just been explained to sales.
  • We created room for peer reviews: Through unified email setup, Lokad found itself with the opportunity to put egos aside and start having reviews concerning email interactions with prospects or clients. It’s great way to train people too: let them read a few dozens threads so they learn how everything works (hint: most startups don’t have the resources to produce training manuals).
  • We boosted morale and teamwork: facing a disgruntled prospect is bad enough, facing him/her alone is worse. With collective email ownership, there is no easy blame to be put on anyone. The team is here to diagnose what went wrong and how to do a better job when the same situation happens again.
  • We improved resilience against turnover: So far Lokad has been lucky, but we are no exception — someday, somebody will quit us for good or bad reasons. Yet, I am confident that unlike the startup I observed at the incubator, the damage — beside the unavoidable loss of talent and experience — will be minimal.

Naturally, I had doubts while transitioning toward such a setup, but most initial concerns proved to be non-issues. First, we did keep personal mailboxes and the combination personal+shared is working just fine. The collective email setup only concerns messages that cross company boundaries, not internal communications. Spam is a non-issue. We have been prominently exposing a public email address on Lokad.com for years now and modern dead-cheap spam filters are simply doing an excellent job. Public perception is a non-issue as we personalize replies so that they originate from "Joannes Vermorel" <contact@lokad.com> or "Matthias Steinberg" <contact@lokad.com>, or from any other team member. Only geeks pay attention to the actual email address. Security concerns have not increased either. Someday, somebody will end-up sending stuff to the Wrong Bob: email cannot be made ultra-secure. Unified email setup is only making the issue more obvious, not worse.

Finally, I believe that the single email approach remains valid no matter if you happen to be two guys in a garage or MegaCorp Inc, but I digress. Are you still exposing a number of emails not equal to one? What are you waiting for?

Let’s continue the discussion in the comments.

,

  • http://twitter.com/brianpiercy brian piercy

    My company (well beyond the startup stage; in that 100-150 employee gray zone of “bigness”) is facing a similar question.

    We have sales@, apps@, and so on, plus a limited number of one-offs for specific new product inquiries. Our marketing team does a reasonably good job of parsing a few notes per day to the right owners.

    Today these notes are parsed by, at most, 2-3 people. Should the company stumble into a hot niche, the inquiries could take off like a rocket. (In our company’s case, not likely. But I digress.) I would worry about recipients becoming unhappy in a BIG hurry. Our products are purchased by big iron networking box builders, so answering mail from newbies & crackpots is not a great use of time. How should we transition from low volume to high volume?

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Perhaps a middle ground is to have the different email addresses externally but (for now) aim them all to a single processing center.  Then if you “take off” you already have the means to slice them up, but until that point you don’t waste time.

  • Geoff

    My company just transitioned from a single e-mail address to several. The problems were:

    1) the volume of email was simply too cumbersome, and it was becoming hard for people to keep track of those that only concerned them (even though we had dozens of filters and labels to organize the flow of information as automatically as possible);

    2) there was sensitive financial information being passed around, like bank statements and contracts, that I wasn’t comfortable with employees knowing about, and also seemed to be causing some dissatisfaction for a couple employees of the nature “what, the company is charging X for this, while they pay me X/100!?” (rest assured I reward my team handsomely.)

    So far it has worked out better.

  • Eric

    It seems like you misdiagnosed the problem. It’s not that you had too many emails, it’s that all your emails went to different places. Have the emails routed to seperate queues, but keep all email communication on a client in *one* place that any support representative can see, close or respond to.

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  • Anonymous

    This is a fantastic discussion. Thank you!

    The moral I get out of this is simply “stay lean!” — here’s this simple solution that can work great; change only once you know it’s flaws. Wish I could help with the scaling questions. (I like: “find ways to empower members of your community to help each other”, but that’s not simple.)

  • Anonymous

    This is a fantastic discussion. Thank you!

    The moral I get out of this is simply “stay lean!” — here’s this simple solution that can work great; change only once you know it’s flaws. Wish I could help with the scaling questions. (I like: “find ways to empower members of your community to help each other”, but that’s not simple.)

  • Anonymous

    I can’t agree with you more.  I’ve been anti-CRM for a long time because none of them have properly integrated with email, which I realized to be the main CRM for our organization over and over again, irregardless which CRM I tried internally.  I do think it’s a good idea to have separate email addresses, however, I would still route them all to directly to the CRM and let it manage the mapping and routing internally.  Relenta looks like a good tool (I wish it was cheaper!)  Overall, good article!  Thanks!

    • J-So

      Have you looked at Noosbox (http://www.noosbox.com). In private beta right now but looks like it solves the problem well.

  • Dave Newton

    The bullet-point issues seem more like company-wide contact management failure. Centralize client-centric information, including contact history, stats (including nebulous things like “importance”, etc. 

    • John Baxendale

      That was how I interpreted the article too, this isn’t so much a failure in the way they’re using email as a failure in how they’re communicating internally and handling their accounts.

      I think I’d be looking at my account management strategy, rather than forcing all emailed communication via one email box.
      This solves the root problem, rather than patching over it – it also means you can continue to take enquiries via channels other than email and still keep the same level of service.

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  • http://twitter.com/sebastianhoitz Sebastian Hoitz

    Awesome post! But it also gets even worse with Twitter + Facebook. That’s why we are working on a solution that allows you to have a social crm for every outbound communication within your company.

  • http://twitter.com/Snaggy Snaggy

    A big problem for us was our domain name was and is added to several email black lists, because spammers are feigning it to send spam. Grrrr.

    So in order to reach customers and clients, I need different emails with different  domains. (gmail usually gets through, but not always)

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      I know someone who might be able to help with that actually.  Email me and I’ll connect you. jason (at) asmartbear (dot) com

  • http://twitter.com/nickfrancis Nick Francis

    Awesome article … the precise reason we built an app called Help Scout- helpscout.net. Thanks!

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  • http://twitter.com/nickfrancis Nick Francis

    Awesome article! it’s exactly why we built an app called Help Scout to manage these kinds of email accounts- helpscout.net. Thanks!

  • https://vermorel.myopenid.com/ Joannes Vermorel

    Just posted a follow-up on the multiple questions / concerned raised here and on Hacker News. http://vermorel.com/journal/2011/7/4/why-your-company-should-have-a-single-email-address-guest-po.html

  • http://blog.relenta.com Dmitri Eroshenko @Relenta

    Hi Joannes, thanks for the great post. We’ve been using a single email address from day one (helpdesk@relenta.com) not really knowing that there are so many good reasons for it :)

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  • Anonymous

    Good post. Another benefit of “advertising” one public facing email address is developing connections and consolidation in the social space. An email address is usually the one key identifier for social identity. Multiple email addresses associated with multiple accounts fragments visibility across the social web. On the other hand, using one email address for all inbound and outbound email communication increases the probability that your customers, prospects, partners and vendors can find you and your organization.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hungsu Hung-Su Nguyen

    Just thought I should comment on the use of web forms – they aren’t a hellish alternative to the customer’s own email client. A customer can use a web form right there without having to look away from your web page. This comment form is certainly an example of a simple form that is not my email client.

  • http://www.zippymeetings.com Marcin

    Thanks Joannes – that’s great food for thought and makes a lot of sense. Also appreciate the link to Relenta – I’ve been evaluating several (affordable) CRMs and this looks very interesting.

  • http://jvdveen.blogspot.com Jonathan van de Veen

    After reading the post and the comments below, I think the conclusion should be that you shouldn’t try to look bigger then you actually are. If one email box is enough to deal with external communications, then do that. If having only one email box is getting a real problem, then maybe you have become to big for that particular solution and you should start splitting things up, or maybe you need to hire someone to deal with the routing of email.

  • http://twitter.com/wfjackson3 Willis F Jackson III

    The key point here is that it is not the customer’s responsibility to know your org chart, internal business processes, or vacation schedule. I vastly prefer this sort of method and implemented something like it in my day job. It is like the email version of a receptionist. Email us and we will get you to the right person.

    Sidenote: Jason, long time reader, love the blog. Your perspective is different and that is very useful for me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000161533612 Todd Phillips Sr.

    I agree one email address is the best resource especially in start-up mode because you are not always going to remember to check all the email addresses as well as simply forgetting passwords and user id’s. Sounds idiotic but the simple truth is that it actually does happen just like this because I too, believed that I would control better communication if I had manually partitioned the email addresses.

    However hotmail will partition them for you but as I mentioned traffic to the primary email address will not always allow you to remember to check the other email address and when you it could be a missed opportunity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joris-Snoek/100002587653029 Joris Snoek

    First of all, great article.
    I predict: e-mail 2.0 =  notifications

    I own a Web development company that builds Drupal websystems. And  we also dealt with this ‘e-mail handling’ issue. We wanted to make sure every piece of information and documentation (including e-mail), is handled in a consistent workflow intelligence system. So we build our social CRM case tracker.

    Together with a bunch of helpful features, like time tracking and showing role based info; There also is a due date to each case, and a commenting system. We work together with our customers in one and the same case tracker.E-mail is only used as a notifier-tool, when someone posted a comment or updated a piece of info. Hmmm, what enormous social web tool handles it the same..? Ow yes: Facebook. (That much users can’t be wrong).

    Because each case has a due date, we instantly see in our calendar if a case is overdue.And all cases are clocked, so we can see realtime what someone is doing; and this builds detailled statistics for steering the company.

    After a year of tuning this system, efficiency went pretty sky high. Because remember: “efficiency before expanding”.

    Greets, Joris Snoek

    • Ben

      Joris, the Drupal based websystem you describe sounds interesting. How can I get more info or see a demo?

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  • http://blog.asmartbear.com/rand-take-money.html nicole

    I think it’s odd when a business has more than one e-mail. I can understand if each employee has his/her own e-mail, but I can’t understand when some businesses have more than 1 or 2 e-mails. 

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