A few months ago, I started the search for a new apartment.
I did my research, found some buildings I was interested in, and began doing some outreach—filling out web-based inquiry forms, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org email addresses, and so on.
From several, I immediately received a polite, friendly auto-response, thanking me for reaching out and saying they’d be in touch, giving me a phone number to contact should I need it, telling me where to find up-to-date unit availability, and more.
With others? Radio silence. No confirmation that my email was received, no useful information, no further point of contact—nothing. My emails just went out into the void.
Unsurprisingly, I went with a property management company that got back to me right away—first with a tailored, helpful auto-response, and then a personalized follow-up email from someone in the office later that day.
Auto responses can be a wonderful way to assure customers that you’ve received their email and that you’ll get back to them shortly. But, if implemented poorly, they can do doing more harm than good.
Here’s why you should set one up, what to avoid, and how to do it well.
Autoresponders assure customers their email was received
The biggest benefit of having an autoresponder set up is that it gives your customers a clear signal that you got their email and will be getting back to them.
It’s not comforting to send out an email and sit there wondering, “Okay, so—did anyone get this, or?” An auto-response that even says as little as, “Hey, thanks for your outreach—we’ve gotten your email and will get back to you ASAP” can help ensure that customers know they’ll be taken care of.
They make it easier to deliver a fast response (with an important caveat)
Some industries and business models are especially tied to fast response times. For example, if you run a reselling business on Amazon or eBay, you’re likely intimately familiar with the need to respond quickly (usually within 24 hours) to maintain a certain status as a seller. So, if this sounds like you, an autoresponder can be a great solution for that reason alone.
It can also cut down on the overall pressure of responding to inquiries as soon as they come in. You’ve sent the first response, reassured your customer that they’re in good hands, and now have a little more breathing room when it comes to the next outreach.
That said, an autoresponder does not take the place of a personalized response from a human on your team—and we’ll talk more about why later on.
They cut down on duplicate emails and overall clutter
If your customer emails you and doesn’t get a response right away, what will they do?
They might email again. They might fill out your web form. They might call. Or, they may reach out to you on social, or leave some kind of review in a public place like Yelp or Google reviews.
At best, this creates clutter and duplicate outreach from the same person, which takes longer to sift through. At worst, you run the risk of negative attention to your business.
An autoresponder says, hey—we hear you, and we’ll reach out soon. So, your customer will be less likely to follow up via other channels.
Should you always, under all circumstances, have an autoresponder?
This isn’t necessarily an easy question to answer.
When done right, an autoresponder is always a good idea. But it’s better to forgo one entirely than have a bad one.
If your autoresponder is cold, robotic, and makes customers feel like one ticket in a sea of hundreds, it can actually do more harm than good. An auto-response that feels too impersonal can make customers feel even less cared for. If that’s what your autoresponder looks like, it would be better to hold off and respond with a personalized email.
On a different note, if your email volume is fairly low and you respond to emails quite quickly (within, say, 30 minutes or less), an autoresponder might be overkill. If you can respond to all emails right away (and good for you, if so!), you may not need an autoresponder. Or, you might want one just for specific types of inquiries that meet certain criteria, like emails received from your website form (more on that later).
Realistically, there’s no final word on the issue. We’d argue that autoresponders are a great tool and a good move for nearly all situations, but that it’s better to not have one at all then have a bad one.
So, here are the things to keep in mind when you set up an autoresponder, to make sure it’s helping you—not hurting you.
If your autoresponder sounds like a robot, shut it down
While an auto-response is a template, the goal should be to not make it feel like it came from a robot. That doesn’t necessarily mean pretending that every response is custom, but be sure to inject some warmth into your set responses.
The heart of a good auto-response is that it makes your customers feel heard and taken care of. If it feels too robotic, it’s potentially worse than no response at all. Sure, you got their email—but they’re just one ticket out of who knows how many others. Great.
So, what should you do to avoid this? Make your autoresponder warm, human, and sincere. This is a good place to pull out your email voice and tone guide (or write one if you haven’t already).
Keeping your auto-responses human is critically important. They should feel like a response from a real person; in the same way that your standard professional out of office message is just you, telling people how long you will be gone, a customer service-based autoresponder should thank customers for their outreach, and leave them feeling reassured that they’ve reached out to the right channel—and a inbox handled by a real person.
When done well, autoresponders are tailored and specific enough to make the person feel like they’re communicating with a member of your team. They let customers know that there are actual people on the other end who are going to take care of their issue or answer their question. Most importantly, they feel heard. So, work in your brand voice, consider signing off with your name, and focus on adding a sense of care and appreciation to your message overall.
Don’t use them as your only response
As mentioned earlier, your auto-response shouldn’t serve the place of a quick response from someone on your team.
One of the biggest missteps you can make with an autoresponder is viewing it as a substitute for a fast, personalized response. It’s a little like a “read” notification—an alert that you’ve gotten your customer’s email and will be following up. Done well, it should give your customers peace of mind that you did get their message, and buy you time to respond in a personalized, detailed way. It’s not an actual response, and shouldn’t be treated as such.
If email is one of your primary means of offering customer support, efficient, personalized, and helpful replies should always be your goal. So, don’t think of your auto-response as taking the place of personalized email customer service—it can only go so far.
Don’t promise what you can’t deliver
Will you respond with a personalized email within the hour? Within the business day?
If so, great! You’ve worked hard to get your email response times down. However, if you aren’t always able to follow up that quickly, don’t say that you will in your auto-response.
It’s fine to keep things general. You’ve gotten your customer’s email, thanked them for reaching out, given them their order number, booking reference number, or other record-keeping information, and stated that you’ll follow up soon. Beyond that, tying yourself to a specific timeline only works as long as it’s actually realistic.
Don’t set yourself up for failure by making promises that you can’t keep. Remember, an auto-response should work for you—not make the process of responding to customer inquiries more stressful and frustrating.
Tailor your messages
What does a tailored auto-response look like?
For example, let’s say you have a fillable outreach form on your website. You may also have your info@ or contact@ email addresses listed on your website, on business cards, or out in the world in other places. And, maybe you also have emails coming in via third-party sites that you work with (like rental platforms or ecommerce reselling sites). Overall, let’s assume there are multiple entry points by which customers can contact you.
In Outpost, you can set up autoresponders depending on how a customer reached out—a different responder for your online form, for general inquiries, for emails via third party platforms, and so on. You can also get even more specific and create auto-responses based on the subject line, recipient, and so on.
The more specific your responses, the easier to tailor them and make them feel warm, genuine, and human. While some email tools, like Outpost, allow you to get specific with your autoresponders, if you use Gmail, Outlook, or another email provider without Outpost added on, you may only be able to turn on one autoresponder at a time. So, to really tailor your auto-responses as much as possible, you might want to consider trying Outpost. With a no-credit-card-required free trial, there’s no reason not to try Outpost for setting up your auto-responses (and a lot more).
Clarify what to do in an emergency
Are there some instances where a customer absolutely has to get in touch with you ASAP? If your email outreach sometimes constitutes an emergency for your customers, be sure that your auto-response clarifies what to do in this situation.
If this is your only contact channel, state this in your auto-response. If you have a phone number or additional email for emergencies, clarify that too.
Why make this clear?
Because in emergency situations, your customers are going to look for a workaround if they don’t feel like they’re being heard. They might not know if they’ve reached out to the right channel, and they’ll be frantically trying to connect with you—and will likely keep reaching out until they’ve gotten a response.
By alerting them of exactly what to do in case of an emergency, you can hopefully cut down on duplicate outreach—like them calling, emailing multiple addresses, and so on.
I touched on this briefly earlier, but as an added note: If you have social channels or can be reviewed on Google or Yelp, customers who don’t get a response to a critical email may be more likely to put your business on blast via one of these public channels. Now you not only have one unhappy customer; you also have some minor public damage control to do.
Using your auto-response to let your customers know exactly what to do in case of an emergency (even if it’s just to wait for an email back from the address they just contacted) can help reduce clutter, as well as insulate you from customer upsets gone public.
Ultimately, autoresponders can be a huge benefit to your business—as long as they’re done well. As long as they are specific enough to be helpful, warm enough to feel human, and not used in place of a personalized response, an auto-response (or set of responses) is a great way to streamline and improve your processes, while providing a better experience for your customers.