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Ask GH: Is it ethical to automate emails that look and feel personal?
This is a topic near and dear to my heart as my "Customer Success bot" method has been instrumental in driving up engagement with new users and customers for many SaaS companies.
More on that in this GH thread:
To me, it would be unethical not to use that method of interaction with users and customers given the success it's had.
Which brings me to my main point: if you think about it, all automation is - or should be - is what we’d do manually if we had unlimited time and resources. I’d love to sit there on my iPhone and respond to every sign-up if I could... but I can’t, so I automate the process.
If I have a segment of customers that are so low-revenue that it doesn't make financial sense to manually reach out to them so I automate that process in a way that looks like I did, how is that unethical? If they reply, I reply and we have a conversation.
They feel like someone cares (because we do), and I get to provide that level of care at scale. Win-Win.
Seems to me the unethical thing would be to ignore them and let them fend for themselves or to eliminate the pricing tier they subscribe at because it's not economically feasible for me to interact with them at scale. But because of technology, I can... so I do.
On the flip side I often hear from companies that have a high-touch Customer Success model where they CAN afford to manually reach out to customers and they're deathly afraid of using automated emails in those situations because it seems "wrong."
My response to that is simple; missing an outreach moment around a success milestone or "customer health" issue because you didn't want to automate the process is much more unethical and disruptive to the customer.
I'd rather have an email sent to my customer - as if I did it - at the right time that moves them in the right direction or gets them to setup a time for us to talk, than miss that opportunity to help my customer be successful.
Ultimately, I'm not sure where this *ethical* dillema came from.... especially if you're a software or SaaS company; you're in the business of taking repetitive tasks and making it more efficient for your customers to complete those tasks. You're in the automation business!
That all said, over- and misuse of automation can hurt the customer experience (if you try to automate the entire conversation, including your replies, for instance), which will definitely that would hurt your relationship with the customer so that's bad. Unethical? I don't know... that's a pretty hefty charge.
I'm interested in what others will say on this, for sure.
From the way the question is phrased, I'm inferring that the "unethical" part is the idea of trying to "trick" the user into thinking that an email is personal and unique when it's not.
But similar to what @lincolnmurphy wrote, I don't think that's the issue for the majority of emails that are automated. I think you have to look at what it is you're automating, and if it needs a personal touch, chances are that it's something that's beyond what should be automated anyway (like a reply to a complaint).
You could also look at it from a consumer/customer POV - what do you expect to be automated vs. personalized? What would be offensive to you if it were automated, or does automating a particular email make it feel like SPAM?
The vast majority of people are used to automated emails already and bad experiences are usually defined by how useful the information in the email is rather than if it's automated or not.
Agree with @rickkuwahara here. I don't think the question is whether automation is unethical but rather whether misleading the recipient into thinking the email is NOT automated is ethical or not.
I'm also assuming this is about customer acquisition emails, rather than customer success emails.
An example - adding "sent from my iPhone" to the footer of an automated email to make it appear personal and immediate.
It's an interesting question and I would also like to hear people's thoughts on this.
My opinion is that if you think it is necessary to "trick" your subscribers, you probably have bigger issues.
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