Voicemail messages: What is it that tells you within milliseconds that you're not speaking to a live person?

Perhaps because we're conscious that our voicemail message may be the first point of contact with a prospect. Perhaps because we know all the rules: don't waste the caller's time by rambling on, exude a professional and businesslike image, encourage the caller to leave contact details and so forth.

Whatever the reasons, voicemail messages typically have all the charm and immediacy of an airport announcement. In our determination to get it right, gone is the natural intonation, the false starts and hesitations, the easy feel of a one-on-one conversation. Gone is our personality.

The same thing can and frequently does happen with email autoresponders.

Living Up to the Promise of the Autoresponders (or Not)

Here's an example. I'm currently looking for an email management solution. A couple of weeks ago I signed up for a free trial period with a company with a Web site that looked promising: written well, inviting, reassuring.

When I signed up, I received the autoresponder confirmation: polite, enthusiastic and from a named person. “Call or email me any time if you have questions!” So far, so good.

Two days later came the follow-up. Again, nicely written, encouraging—without being too pushy. I started playing with the software, and as it happened I did have questions.

I checked the FAQs to make sure I hadn't missed anything, but I couldn't see the answers I needed. So I emailed the guy and ask for clarification on a few issues. I didn't get a response until two days later—not even a “thanks for your inquiry, we'll get back to you shortly.”

For a company clearly savvy about autoresponders, this was a surprise. But the real disappointment came when the actual reply arrived.

Gone was the friendly, encouraging tone. No use of my first name, just “Hi.” He answered my questions one by one, by quoting my original email back to me and inserting his answers. (I just hate that—it smacks to me of mimicry and gets my back up right away!)

His answers were succinct and had an air of finality about them that did not invite further correspondence. The curtness, lack of warmth and lateness of the response put me off the product completely. Why? For purely subjective reasons: I felt let down, and I was annoyed at myself for feeling that way. I took it personally.

Keeping It Real: The Sincerity Gap

After I had thought about it, what really jarred was the difference between the autoresponder emails and the live one from an individual. Why go to such lengths, crafting email and Web copy to project a certain image, when your real-live email contact bears no resemblance to that image?

There's a way to describe this phenomenon: the sincerity gap. And addressing the sincerity gap is critical for business.

Consistency seems to me to be the key factor here. If I were the CEO of the email company that I just mentioned, I might be thinking, “That's it—employee training tomorrow!”

But I might also look at my autoresponder copy. Does it smell fake? Maybe this is just my British cynicism, but if there's one thing that puts people on their guard, it's the suspicion that a glossy “front” may be concealing a less-than-wonderful reality.

As a recipient of Debbie Weill's excellent WordBiz Report, when she started using audio messages on her Web site I was struck by how natural and unrehearsed her recordings sounded. Hesitations and the odd mistake were left in. Far from harming her image, the effect was that of listening to a real human being putting forward a genuine message. It made a real connection with the listener, without compromising the projection of professionalism. It was like listening to a friend talking.

Think about it: when you write an everyday email, do you pause over every word? Do several rewrites before sending? Use words you wouldn't normally use in speech? Ensure your grammar, spelling, punctuation and style are as immaculate as if you were crafting a speech for the president? Format it in beautiful, branded HTML?

OK, so you would certainly take this amount of care over an email marketing campaign or a sales approach, and everyone has personal standards when it comes to things like spelling. But would you do this for every email you send in a day? To your friends, coworkers, family? No? Why not?

Trust Me: Nobody's Perfect

Most of us adopt an unconsciously informal style for everyday emails, often not unlike our style on the phone. Our personality shines through, and it's the consistency of how we express ourselves that puts recipients at ease. It encourages an easy correspondence and builds trust.

Nothing is better for nurturing confidence than knowing where you are with someone and being able to read their mood and attitude.

For remote forms of communication, this is especially important. While the phone is one step removed from a face-to-face encounter, it's worth remembering that email is two steps removed. When we have neither visual nor aural clues as to the intended meaning, reading between the lines takes on an inflated significance.

Personal, Not Personalized

Voicemail message and autoresponders suffer additionally from the fact that they are broadcasts, and when composing them we often fall into broadcast mode, which is notoriously impersonal. Don't rely on the fact that you can insert the recipient's name into an autoresponder—auto-personalization alone does not replicate the feel of a personal message.

Autoresponders are potentially a powerful tool, and just using them (like just “having a Web site”) used to be considered clever. But that's no longer the case—recipients recognize them, and their expectations are high.

Bridging the sincerity gap means ensuring that autoresponders sit seamlessly with live email from the same source. By aiming to reproduce the genuine, human personality of the organization, as expressed by its individual members, we achieve the kind of reassuring confidence that wins and keeps customers.

Is that too much to ask?

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Robin Houghton advises small businesses and nonprofits on how to make the most of their marketing budgets (especially online) at https://www.robinhoughton.com. Reach her at robin@robinhoughton.com.