Practical Ecommerce

The PeC Review: Using Gmail For Your Business

For many online retailers, customer service is managed via email or chat. When a customer has questions or concerns, that customer often replies to a transactional email or submits a contact form, launching an engagement experience that is completely managed online, without face-to-face or even voice-to-voice contact.

With so much of an ecommerce business’s customer service (and therefore reputation) invested in email, it is important to have good email and chat tools in place. Google’s Gmail, which is, perhaps, the best known hosted email solution, is a surprisingly full-featured email client that offers plenty of storage, the ability to chat or email from the same interface, and thread structure that makes it easier to follow conversations. There are even free or business versions that make the service effective for small or midsized ecommerce enterprises. For all of these reasons, I am awarding Gmail three and a half out of a possible five stars in this, “The PeC Review.”

The PeC Review” is my weekly column created to introduce you to the products or services that I believe can improve your ecommerce operation.

Video: Gmail As An Ecommerce Tool

Gmail and Google Apps for Business

There are two versions of Gmail available, and both could be attractive to online merchants.

The free version exposes users to a seemingly never-ending stream of text ads—similar to what you would find on a Google results page—but this version does include all of the features that most small ecommerce businesses will need, including the ability to use your own domain so that emails come from you@yourstore.com rather than you@gmail.com. (The free version is what I used for this review.)

The business version of Gmail is included in a business subscription to Google Apps. At a cost of $50 per user per year, you’ll get a beefier version of Gmail that includes a great feature, enabling you to tag incoming messages with a brightly colored bar—something users of enterprise email clients will be familiar with.

Google Apps for business also provides access to the more robust versions of Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Groups, Google Sites, and Google Video. And it is hard to complain about the price since $50 per year works out to be just $4.16 per month.

Massive Amounts of Storage

The free version includes an astounding 7 gigabytes (GB) of storage. The typical corporate inbox at a large company in the U.S. will have about 250 megabytes (MB) of available storage, meaning that even the free Gmail solution has 28 times more digital storage space than an average corporate email client user is accustomed to.

The $50-per-user-per-year version of Gmail includes 25GB of available storage or approximately 100 times to capacity of the aforementioned average U.S. corporate inbox.

More Uptime

Nearly every email client will occasionally fail. For example, Fortune Brainstorm Tech reported in September that email systems in midsized and large organizations had a mean of 53 minutes of unplanned downtime a month or about ten and a half hours of unexpected email downtime each year.

By contrast the business version of Gmail guarantees 99.9 percent uptime via its service level agreement. And the free version is reported to be up 99 percent of the time or more.

Google-powered Search

Both versions of Gmail include a wonderful Google-powered search. Use one single search box to locate emails from your folders, archives, chats, or inbox. Compared to the search features I have used in other email clients, Gmail is hard to beat. And you can use search filters like “From: Bob sales figures” to get just what you want.

Chat and Email in One Interface

Gmail integrates Google Talk directly into its inbox interface so that you can both chat and send emails using the same tools. And since you are using one solution for both email and instant messaging, your IMs behave like archived emails, meaning that you have a record of what was written.

Threaded Structure

Perhaps my favorite Gmail feature is the way it threads emails.

Imagine that you are having an email exchange with a customer. The customer completes a contact form asking about a shipment. You reply with the tracking number. The customer replies that he or she is not sure what to do with the tracking number. You send back links and instructions. The customer says, “Thanks.” You reply, “You’re welcome and thank you for your business.”

All told, you exchanged six emails with your customer. In other email clients, these six messages might be spread out with dozens of messages mixed in between. But Gmail actually keeps the exchange together, tread-style, so that you never have to look through dozens of emails to find the conversation you want.

Support Multiple Stores and Domains

Gmail will also allow you to support several domains from one inbox. For example, I configured Gmail to get emails for the sales and customers service addresses at one online store and the administration email address from a second store that has a completely different domain. Gmail automatically places the appropriate return email address in my outbound emails and labels inbound emails for me, so that I know what address each email was sent to.

And Now The Ugly

Gmail did exhibit three traits that I did not like.

First, it is not possible to create an HTML or graphic based email signature in Gmail. I found lots of sites that suggested hacks, but Gmail just fails to meet the standard in this case.

Three and a half stars

Second, it mangled emails. Incoming HTML-based emails, which are very common, were often not rendered as expected.

Third, it was slower when using a POP3 email address. As I mentioned above, I set up Gmail to get emails from two of my stores. When I was reviewing the service, I also set up two other email solutions to get the same emails from the same server. When I sent test emails both of the other services received the email instantly. Gmail took an average of 15 minutes to fetch the new email.

Summing Up

Gmail is a flexible and useful email solution that will work very well for many small and midsized ecommerce businesses. In fact, I believe that Gmail is better than a lot of hosted and licensed email clients. I especially like the storage capacity, thread-like structure, and ability to chat, which is why I awarded Gmail three and a half stars in this, “The PeC Review.”

Armando Roggio

Armando Roggio

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Comments ( 2 )

  1. Bjørn Børresen December 30, 2009 Reply

    Agreed on most accounts; we’ve been using gmail for support for a while over at silverthemes.com (the labeling feature does wonders), however I find the search a bit lacking. It might be "Google powered" but it still can’t handle partial searches, so if you’re trying to find an email from "GreatDomains" and search for "from:great" or just "great" you won’t find anything…

    So yeah, 3.5 it is ;-)

  2. Elizabeth Ball January 3, 2010 Reply

    This is so obvious – yet an excellent solution to the need for chat on websites, especially to convert interested prospects! I would love to know more about this – is there a Gmail widget you can put on your website to publicise the chat function?