E-Crime and Punishment

Every day your e-mailbox probably contains some messages that you could readily live without. I'm not referring to the ones from your boss, but those unsolicited commercial emails known as spam. Some people are so annoyed by these bothersome emails that they seem willing to employ almost any measure to stop them. Now, spam haters have some powerful allies. New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Microsoft CEO Bill Gates are encouraging tough measures to deal with spammers. They're not alone: California has already passed draconian legislation and the U.S. Congress is considering doing the same. Why all the fuss? Well, according to some, spam has the potential to destroy our economic livelihood, render the Internet useless, and cost U.S. businesses $10 billion a year. The accuracy of these predictions and estimates may be questionable, but the annoyance caused by unwanted emails is prompting harsh legislative reactions. Is legislation necessary, and will it do any real good? We'll see. Its most likely result will be to deprive legitimate businesses of the opportunity to communicate in an economical way. And, legislation will do little to reduce spam. Spam and "junk mail" Yes, spam can be annoying. But so are many forms of advertising. Direct mail, more often described as junk mail, is just as irritating as spam. Every day our mailboxes are cluttered with catalogs we never asked for, credit card offers disguised as bills, or sneaky letters that we open because we're told there's a check inside. And yes, we all waste a certain amount of time every day sorting through those solicitations. Interestingly, though, the government hasn't made as big an issue of junk mail--in fact, the U.S. Postal Service gives attractive rates to such mailers. And junk mail is just one way of irritating consumers with unwanted commercial messages. Most of us would rather watch television without the constant interruption of ads. We would prefer to drive down a highway without seeing billboards. We might prefer to have only our friends and family be able to call us on the phone. And I can't think of anyone who is absolutely delighted when a door-to-door salesperson shows up on his or her front porch. Should we make all of those annoyances illegal? Businesses, too, feel the brunt of unsolicited commercial messages. Companies' purchasing agents and executives receive countless calls every day. Their mailboxes are stuffed with unrequested letters and brochures, and in many cases sales reps show up unannounced on their doorsteps, hoping they can slip in to see a key decision maker. Is all this annoying? You bet! Does it waste time and money? Absolutely! A big portion of many assistants' days are spent guarding their bosses' time by screening all those calls, letters, and unannounced sales rep visits. So why aren't companies up in arms about these practices? Because these businesses rely on some or all of these efforts to get their own
products in front of their customers. Must messages be so incessant? The fact is, businesses--and hence our economy--depend on finding the most economical way possible to tell potential customers about their goods and services. But do these commercial messages need to be so incessant? Yes, they do. Repetition is a key element in raising customer awareness and encouraging a buying decision. As an example, I probably received 50 to 100 "unwanted" emails about refinancing my home. But eventually, all those emails prompted me to refinance my house, thus saving me thousands of dollars. I likely would never have bothered had I just received one message. What's more, I have become pretty adept at quickly recognizing those messages that I don't want--and with a click of the delete button, they're gone. Businesses need a way to tell potential customers about their products. For some, television advertising may be the best way. For others newspapers, magazines, or radio advertising prove most effective. But most companies want to target specific kinds of customers, and therefore it's often impractical to use mass media programs to reach them. Those businesses depend on letters, phone calls, and, yes, email as a way to inform customers about their products. The dangers here seem exaggerated. What is dangerous are recent efforts that prevent legitimate companies from using email as a mechanism to advise potential customers about their products. California, for example, has recently passed legislation that makes it a crime to send unsolicited commercial email to anyone who lives in that state. Damages can be up to $1,000 for each message and up to a million dollars per incident. What's more, proposed federal law will send violators to jail for up to one year and repeat offenders to jail for five years. Is it a crime? Do we really want to lock people up, or severely fine them, for sending someone an email? Let's say John loses his job at the factory. Rather than stay out of work, he decides to open a lawn care service. Do we want to make it illegal for him to send emails to prospective customers? If he sends 100 emails, is that a crime deserving a $100,000 fine? Why should it be legal for John to send you junk mail, but not email? It's true that if John knows about the California law, it will probably stop him from using this economical way of communicating his services to potential customers. But industry experts contend that while the California law might stop John, it will fail to curb most spam. The Internet knows no state or national boundaries. Many of those really pesky messages are sent from offshore enterprises and neither California nor or U.S. legislation will be able to touch them. It's far more likely that legislation will keep legitimate businesses from using email as a low-cost way to inform potential customers about their products. In John's case, using email might mean the difference between his new business' survival or failure. Admittedly, some spam messages are more than annoying,they are downright fraudulent. The FTC has estimated that 96 percent of the spam involving investment and business opportunities, and nearly half of the spam advertising health services and products, and travel and leisure, contains false or misleading information. Those companies should be stopped at once. But let's pursue and penalize them because they're committing fraud, not because they're sending unsolicited email. Sadly, what some propose as an effort to counter spam goes too far. The heart of some proposed legislation essentially makes it illegal for a business to communicate through email unless the recipient has already expressed interest in the product or is an existing customer. This approach would completely take email off the table as a way of initially informing potential customers about the existence of your product, service, or company. You'd have to call them up first and get their permission to send an email. Are these lawmakers kidding? Email is a perfect solution for many companies that cannot afford television advertising or mass media campaigns. Failing to allow companies to use this great technology to grow their businesses would be the real crime, and in the end would hamper all our selling efforts. About the Author Benson Smith is a consultant, speaker, and author for The Gallup Organization and an expert in the area of sales force effectiveness. He is a coauthor of Discover Your Sales Strengths.
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