Improve Customer Service Using MS Outlook

In today's competitive market, customers expect fast answers when they use e-mail to contact you or your firm. Although you don't have to find an answer to the customer's question, resolve his complaint, or put together a quote within minutes, you do need to acknowledge that you have received the client's message and that you are working on providing the requested information.

This part of customer relations can be easy to do with Microsoft Outlook. You need to create a standard acknowledgement for incoming customer e-mails, and build a rule to automatically send the acknowledgement to the client. Or if you are out of the office, you can create a template to inform your clients whom to contact in your absence.

Create an Automatic Response Message Template

To send an automatic response message, start by creating a message template. Open a new message with File > New > Mail Message. Leave the To: and Cc: fields blank, but type a Subject like "Thank you for contacting XYZ & Co.," or "John Jones is out until 2-1-01," and enter the response text you want the template to display. The text of the message can be as short or as long as necessary. A standard reply might read: "Thank you for contacting me, I have received your e-mail and am working on an answer to your question," or "I am out of the office until 2-1-01, please contact Jenny at jjones@xyz.com or call 888-888-8888 extension 111." Conclude with a "Thank you," followed by your name and the name of your company.

When your message is finished, choose File > Save As, and select "Outlook Template" in the "Save as type" field. Name the template, note where you are saving it, and click the Save button.

Once you have your template prepared, you will need to create the rule that will generate your automatic response. This can be tricky if you use many e-mail addresses and can be simplified if you have a specific e-mail address that customers/clients use for all queries, complaints, or comments. (Note: Outlook 98, 2000, and 2002 come with a Rules Wizard that walks you through this step, but Outlook 97 users must first download and install the Wizard from Microsoft's Web site.)

In Outlook, select Tools > Rules Wizard, and click the New button. Click "Start from a blank rule," click Next, then check the box beside "through the specified account." Choose the appropriate e-mail account used for transmitting client mail (such as cleints@yourcompanynamehere.com) and click Next. Check the "reply using a specific template" in the next screen, pick the template you created earlier, and click Finish.

Another way to separate client e-mail is to apply the same subject line to all mail generated when customers click on a mailto: link on your Web site. HTML editors such as FrontPage and Publisher let you specify default subjects, such as "Question" or "Customer Inquiry" so that you can filter and respond to incoming mail. If you use this technique, you'd choose "with specific words in the subject" from the Rules Wizard, then enter the default subject you've set on your Web site's mailto: link.

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