Or: how not to use canned email responses.

I like Wesabe, the free online service for tracking personal expenses, but it doesn’t have direct integration with my credit union. This is not surprising: it’s a not-huge regional credit union, and I would have been really impressed to have found it on the list for a relatively young web app.

To get my financial data into Wesabe, though, that means I have to go to the credit union’s poorly designed website, export a file, and then import it into Wesabe.

Mint.com, a Wesabe competitor, won last year’s TechCrunch startup contest and has gotten a lot of good press, so I gave it a try recently. Unfortunately, Mint can’t interact with my credit union either, and unlike Wesabe, it appears not to support manual data transfers. We small credit union customers may just be SOL.

That answer surprised me a little — there must be a lot of us, right? — so I tried to follow up with the company. The communication thread that ensued is a good cautionary tale about the use and abuse of canned email responses. Here’s the blow by blow:

  • I sign up for Mint and log in. So far, so good.
  • I try to add my credit union and discover it is not on the list.
  • Mint sends me an email all about how great Mint is, citing the Wall Street Journal so I’ll be sure to believe them.
  • I reply to the message, saying that my credit union is not on the list and asking if that means I can’t use the service. If that is the case, I ask to be removed from the email list. (As an iPhone-less Verizon customer, I can’t take any more news about the greatness of other people’s toys.) My message goes to a generic inbox: feedback@mint.com.
  • Mint sends me an auto response, generically thanking me for my email. “We love hearing from you, whether you’re sharing a great testimonial or something we’d better fix.”
  • Three days later, a Mint tech sends me a message. “Hi, Josh. Please use the directions below to cancel your account…” (Have I just been fired as a customer?) The message signs off, “Thank you for trying out Mint!”
  • I reply, pointing out that I didn’t ask to cancel my account. I just asked whether I could still use the service.
  • Finally, at this point, an actual human being (hey, Damon) responds with a custom-written-just-for-me message that explains my specific situation in a way that is unambiguous and actually answers my question. It’s not the answer I hoped for — alas, I can’t try Mint without switching banks — but at least I know where I stand now.

I don’t mean to bash Mint here, just to point out that sadly this is a common customer experience. It reminds me of chatting with Eliza, the old CP/M-era app that tried to impersonate a psychologist using reiterated text and boilerplate replies.

Undoubtedly, email templates are a great tool. We were happy to build them into our email management solution, Email Center Pro. Message templates make it easy for teams to deliver consistent messages to common questions, and they reduce the amount of time it takes to send those replies.

But like every other sort of automation, they need to be deployed sensibly, and with a clear understanding of the customer experience, lest they unintentionally mistreat your customers and tarnish your brand.

Josh Cochrane
Director of Online Marketing
Palo Alto Software

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Josh Cochrane
Josh Cochrane

Josh Cochrane is Vice President of Product Development at Palo Alto Software, where he manages development of the business planning tool LivePlan.