Dec. 29 2006 10:50 AM

Most of us use e-mail as a form of communications with co-workers, customers and yes, even family on a regular basis. Many, if not all of us, are lost without it. Additionally, we are all appropriately annoyed by spam; increasingly proficient at sending and viewing JPEG images; and producing and printing PDF documents. Along the way, we have remained relatively unsophisticated and naïve when it comes to understanding the full impact a virus can have on our company's computer systems. The majority of us, unless we are an owner, are admittedly immune to the damage and the dollars.


The surge in "E" communication usage has caused businesses large and small to make an investment in some kind of a hardware or software tool that facilitates and secures the exchange of these electronic messages for their customers and employees. Firewalls, anti-virus, anti-spyware and anti-spam are some of the most widely recognized names for these computer tools. The billions of dollars that are spent by companies indicate their intentions to keep viruses at bay, information flowing and secure and spam to a minimum. In the past couple of years, the expense associated with this effort has joined the ranks of other business "necessities" like payroll taxes and phone bills.


Coming to the rescue and eager to meet the need and provide "E" communication solutions are the manufacturers of these hardware/software tools. This segment of the high tech industry has also invested large dollars. They invested in the development and marketing of features/capabilities included in their core products with performance-focused enhancements regularly added that are most attractive to today's buyer. Marketing buzz lines are now seen extensively in all media promoting ultimate functionality with a minimum of effort. "Plug and play." "Can your security software spot threats before they occur? Ours Can!" "Guaranteed to stop all SPAM."


The efforts of both industry segments appear to be reasonable, responsible and in line with recognized supply and demand economic concepts. Where this supply and demand concept moves from being an intuitive friend to an insidious foe lies in the assumptions made by both the vendors and the users.


Assumptions Are Not Facts

In order to develop a computer software product, the developers must first make a long series of decisions on what features/capabilities to include in their hardware/software product; what functions their products will perform; which functions are flexible (can be toggled ON/OFF); which features are fixed, etc. Most of these decisions are based, in some part, on assumptions and are made in order to provide the best solutions to the buyer's problems. Meet the consumers' needs and they will buy. Typically, the degree a developer allows a user to customize a program for themselves has a direct correlation to the cost of the product. There may be thousands of places in their products where they have made decisions. It is very important for the user to be aware of what features are fixed and which are flexible and then to use those features to the company's best advantage. The "intuition" built into these products (preferences set by default) can work for your company. But they can just as easily work behind the scenes to damage your company's credibility, hamper marketing efforts, increase the cost of communications and actually cause the loss of customers.


Firewall Rules Preset for Your Protection

Firewall software programs are filters (walls) that block or allow data transmissions on the Internet. Software users are enabled to build a wall, or multiple walls, of protection around their computer systems which house electronic information. Typically, this protection involves both inbound and outbound communications with a multitude of "rules" that the filters can be set to follow. By defining these rules, the user can construct walls by identifying which communications are going to pass straight through and which are going to be stopped; at which point they are going to be stopped; and what will happen to the messages once they are halted... automatically deleted or left to sit in "quarantine" for a period of time.


Recently, I sent the same e-mail to seven individuals at one company who were going to be working with me at an upcoming business event. Subject Line: Mary Ann's Itinerary. The e-mail requested information be exchanged; coordinating of schedules occur, etc. and that tight deadlines existed. After not getting a response from anyone for several hours, I checked my Sent Messages file to make sure that I had indeed sent it and to see if I had received any "Failure of Delivery" notices. It was in my Sent folder and there were no Failure notices. I placed a phone call to one of the individuals who had not received the e-mail. In checking with the company's IT department, the e-mail had been "caught" and "auto-deleted" by one of their inbound filters. The e-mail was recovered and released to the intended recipients. I re-contacted the IT department and inquired about what steps I needed to take in the future to avoid a repeat incident, as well as what characteristic of the e-mail caused it to be denied delivery. Initially, they were unable to provide an answer. After much research, they discovered that a recent install of their firewall software update had a "rule" set by default in the "ON" position to Auto-Delete any e-mail with a first name included in the subject line.


Custom Word Lists... One Size Does Not Fit All

In early 2002, I was a member of a business coalition and responsible for disseminating information among the other 18 member companies. Essentially, my role was to act as a clearinghouse or facilitator for the other members' e-mails, faxes, etc. One member's e-mail of lengthy input was received by me, quickly reviewed and forwarded onto all other members after receiving permission to share the information from the sender. Imagine my chagrin and deep embarrassment when I received "Failure of Delivery Due To Pornographic Content" notices from two member companies. After very carefully, but frantically, re-reading the e-mail word for word, the offending word was discovered in the phrase, "time to stop pussy-footing around." Obviously, the companies in my coalition were not associated with animal rights, manufacturers of cat food or working in the field of veterinary medicine.


Custom word lists should be reviewed and built with particular care and caution. At the very least, be aware that a word list does exist in your firewall software and carefully look at the word listing that is set by default. The truly dangerous aspect of this issue is the fact that, when this incident occurred two years ago, I received a "Failure of Delivery" notice because that was a feature of the firewall software at that time. Today's software would have most likely "Auto-Deleted" the e-mail and not sent a message of any kind. I would have made assumptions of delivery and been none the wiser of the failures.


SPAM Volume Is Increasing But So Is Your Ability to Stop it

According to the June 2004 issue of PC World, "junk messages now account for more than 75% of all e-mail." The volume of e-mails that floods company servers and inboxes grows daily, however, the software products that enable you to block spam seem to be evolving just as quickly. Some programs now boast that they can block more than 98% of all junk mail. However, that does not happen by magic. Companies must carefully seek out the right product with the right features and make hands-on decisions as to which rules need to be turned on or off to block or allow messages.


The following numbers are actual figures indicating the amount of messages that flowed through the e-mail system of a small business over an 18-day timeframe. 54,413 messages total with 37,512 spam messages caught/rejected. 16,901 messages were allowed through with some possible spam included. Also, legitimate messages could have been rejected.


Accepting: 16,901

Quarantine: 25,085

Rejecting: 12,427

Total Events: 54,413


Company Credibility Comes into Question

Last month, I received a call from a Customer Service Rep from one of the country's largest office supply companies. My company was listed with them as one of their "preferred customers" and they wanted to ask my permission before sending me valuable coupons and inquired about my preference for receiving the offer via e-mail or fax. The caller verified my contact information as well as confirming that she was speaking with a person from my company with the authority to accept or decline the offer. She continued that her company was carefully following the FTC guidelines concerning unsolicited e-mails, fax broadcasts, etc. and would definitely only be sending information that was requested and desired by my company. Up to that point, the conversation had all of the markings of a very well thought out and planned "E" marketing campaign.


My preference was to receive the coupons via USPS mail; however, I was told that the dates of the offer were too close and did not allow a timeframe for printing/mailing. OK, fax was my choice. I asked the caller how they could confirm that I had received the offer if I had selected e-mail. She was unable to provide a firm answer and was unsure what delivery protections had been put in place, if any. Admittedly, the circumstances could have been coupon offer sent; passing successfully through outbound filters to a confirmed e-mail address and subsequently caught and possibly "auto-deleted" by the recipient's inbound filters. Some of the end results marketing response rates rendered completely unusable, an unhappy customer who didn't receive the promised coupons; wasted time and money for the office supply company and its conscientious representative.


In building or maintaining a relationship with a customer, this is not a hurdle with which any company should have to deal with. The most insidious aspect is that this hurdle is not clearly visible and that stumbling or not clearing the hurdle at all can cause unseen damage to a company's reputation.


Make the Exchange of Information As Efficient, Inexpensive and Secure As Possible

Get the messages in, send the messages out and protect against viruses or any other of a sundry of "intruders" like SPAM flooding servers and over-filling In-boxes. These issues need to settle out and find a balance. Business owners need to increase their levels of awareness of the computer tools that empower them to achieve their objectives. That new-found knowledge needs to be expanded upon, customized and then communicated with their internal and external customers. In the meantime, a company who relies solely on "E" communications for the transmission or exchange of business critical information is at risk... the level of risk is in the eye of the beholder. But, the risk can be determined only if the beholder has his eyes open!


Mary Ann Bennett is the president and CEO of The Bennett Group, Inc., a select team of mailing industry experts.She has 28 years of experience and education centered on production and marketing of the mail industry. Contact her at