The Dos and Don’ts of Messaging Customers
It’s officially 2020. Society is filled with buzzing smartphones and convenience at our fingertips. This convenience is great news for businesses and their customers, but every innovation has its downsides. In this case, it’s privacy and security.
Back in 2011, a class-action lawsuit arose around a Jiffy Lube franchise’s text communication with customers. The company, then known as Heartland Automotive Service, ended up settling for $47 million in services.
Plaintiffs alleged that Heartland sent out unsolicited text messages advertising a one-time offer of 45 percent off of an oil change to its customers. Attorneys said that the company used phone number receipts from previous invoices for sending out the messages. They argued that this violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA), which prohibits companies from using automatic telephone dialing systems to make calls to cell phones unless the owners have consented. The law has been interpreted to include text messages, too.
Many companies nowadays offer a text message update option so a customer can be in the know.
Chris Cloutier, co-owner of Golden Rule Auto Care and founder of texting platform AutoTextMe, says 10-15 years ago, shops just called customers to update them, but it wasn’t super efficient.
“Part of the problem of calling customers is we don’t actually know where the car is because we didn’t have anything to track where it was,” Cloutier says. “If we lose where the car is, I can’t call the customer.”
With platforms like AutoTextMe, quick lubes can effectively communicate with its customers when getting a service.
Even with this convenient technology that helps operators, employees and customers stay in the know, there are still rules that need to be followed. One of the main points is the split between promotional and transactional messages. But how do you know which is which?
Here are some tips for reaching out to customers and how federal laws affect both emails and text messages differently.
Sending Without Approval
Unlike sending a text message to a friend or family member, a business has to actually obtain consent from a consumer in order to even send a message.
With the TCPA of 1991, businesses and organizations must obtain written consent from individuals before sending them any text messages. And yes, even if the business already has the customer’s phone number or has an “established business relationship” with them, written consent is still required.
Let’s say your company recently added text-messaging to your communication with customers. Simply switching over the way you communicate with customers doesn’t give a company the okay to send them messages.
And you can send marketing emails and text messages, but only if you get the customer’s approval. This is where Heartland got into trouble.
According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, it is illegal to send unsolicited commercial email messages to wireless devices, including cell phones and pagers, unless the sender gets permission first. The exceptions to this rule? Cloutier says appointment reminders are okay to send out, as well as updates, payments, etc. As long as the message has to do with a transaction, there shouldn’t be an issue.
And by transaction, he means any updates during the process of servicing a vehicle. The FTC says if a company has a relationship with you, it can send you things like statements or warranty information. This will not only help the customer see where their car is, but will help the technician and service advisor working with the car also know where the car is in the process, too.
“Sending a transactional message doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s okay to text when there is an oil change special,” Cloutier says.
If you do want to be able to send marketing messages with permission, Cloutier says it’s best to have your customers double opt in. That verifies that it’s okay to contact customers, but there’s a clear additional step where the customer can choose to subscribe to marketing messages if they wish.
Rule of thumb? Consent, consent, consent.
The Opt-Out Ability
When a customer agrees to receive text messages from a quick lube, there needs to be an option where the customer can opt out of receiving them. Giving customers the ability to opt out of the messages, it lessens your chances of getting a lawsuit slapped on your business and puts the control in the customer’s hands.
And even if you give the customer a chance to opt out, they eventually expire. According to TextPower, opted-in text message subscriptions automatically expire after a certain period of inactivity. If you have not sent a message to your mobile database in that time frame, the campaign is considered inactive and subscribers can no longer be contacted and ported from one messaging provider to another.
What About Email?
While the TCPA is the law that applies most to text messaging, another act put rules in place for emails. But the two forms of communication have similar rules for transactional messaging.
First enacted in 2003, the CAN-SPAM Act set rules for commercial emails and put penalties in place for deceptive messaging. It says that emails to customers (or potential customers) must clearly identify the business or sales pitch at hand. They have to contain physical postal addresses for the sender as well.
One difference from texting is that the CAN-SPAM Act doesn’t require customers to give permission to receive these kinds of emails. But they do need a clear option to opt out, and the federal government requires those requests to be honored “promptly,” according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Transaction vs. Promotion
Laws for emails also define differences between transactional and promotional communications. The CAN-SPAM Act applies to promotional or commercial emails; not to transactional messages. The differences between the two kinds of emails can also help define those communications for text messaging.
The FTC says that the primary purpose of the email is what makes it one or the other. Commercial content “advertises or promotes a commercial product or service, including content on a website operated for a commercial purpose,” according to the agency.
Transactional content “facilitates an already agreed-upon transaction or updates a customer about an ongoing transaction.”
Transactional emails will often confirm or help move along a business relationship that the customer has already agreed to. One example could be a digital vehicle inspection update that’s sent via email. The FTC says that a transactional email might also give warranty or recall information about a product or service.
Even if an email is transactional, the FTC says that it still can’t contain misleading information. It’s also a best practice to clearly identify yourself as a business and the purpose of the email.
One of the main things to remember about the differences between text and email communications is that the law is more strict about getting permission to text customers. Allowing them clear instructions to opt in and out of messages is the first step to honest and legal communication.
Digital messaging can be a great tool to stay in touch with busy customers. Because the law makes different rules for transactions and promotions, it’s usually best to keep those two kinds of communications separate. Customers will recognize and value your shop’s honesty.