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Grading e-mail responses

June 5, 2001

WHEN IT COMES TO e-mail, around here it mostly ends up as A-mail or F-mail. Which comes as no surprise.

E-mail is handy stuff because you can fire it off quickly and because it politely waits its turn. But it's so unintrusive that whole bunches of businesses encourage e-mail and then completely ignore it.

I first came upon this strange fact years ago, when my inquiries to all sorts of companies met with no response, even though they dealt with the prospect of buying some of the company's stock or making major purchases, such as a cruise or a car. Waiting for an answer got to be very frustrating, so much so that I admired Southwest Airlines for posting a note on its Web site that it wouldn't take e-mail from customers because it hadn't yet learned how to handle it right. (It since has learned.)

Last week, I ran a test to see if local companies and governments have learned how to deal with e-mail. It turned out the profit motive isn't always the key to efficiency or customer courtesy--public and private entities scored about the same.

To make the starting point equal for all, I e-mailed on Memorial Day, on the theory no one would respond on a holiday. The theory was correct.

To make sure the power of the press wasn't involved, I used my home computer and e-mail address. Where names were required on forms, I became my daughter.

In each case, I asked a simple but appropriate question. For publicly held corporations that don't deal directly with consumers, I asked for minor investment information. For companies that deal with ordinary customers, I made a consumer inquiry, if possible. For public entities, I used a question about garbage day or school hours or something similar.

Two companies got Incompletes and no credit because their Web sites were messed up Memorial Day. National City Bank's site was fine when I tried it again later in the week; Huffy Corp.'s was still refusing to take e-mails sent via its own link to customer service.

For the others, each day meant a drop of a letter grade:

A-mail—In order of response the day after the holiday: Bob Evans, Riverside Cemetery in Troy, the Montgomery County Planning Office, Amcast, NCR, Dayton Superior, Elder-Beerman, Beavercreek's Ferguson Junior High (one of few possible school connections), and the city of Springboro.

B-minus-mail, Wednesday—DP&L. The minus is for saying on its site that customer service is available by phone 24 hours a day, which is no longer true for non-emergencies, and for having no customer e-mail possibility, just one for investors.

C-minus-mail, Thursday—The city of Dayton, the minus for not actually answering my question on garbage pick-up, just telling me who might, with no e-mail address or phone number provided.

D-plus-mail. Friday—Kroger, the plus because the question required checking around to see where they're getting peaches these days.

F-plus-mail. Monday—RTA saved itself from an F-mail with an explanation Monday that the correspondent had been on vacation, and AK Steel responded Monday on a Web site job listing.

F-mail—No response came all week to questions about investment at Reynolds & Reynolds and Mead Corp., both of which had forms for questions and comments on their Web sites, and possible attendance at Colonel White High School, a rare link from the Dayton schools' main site.

Maybe e-mail means "eventual."

Contact Leigh Allan at 225-7317 or

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