I am a pretty satisfied customer of First Direct bank. Their 24 hour telephone and online service is very convenient for me, since I live a long way from the UK. In my experience, First Direct call center agents are very good communicators and unfailingly helpful. Their online service is usually pretty straightforward too…

But yesterday, First Direct sent me this message:

Faster Payments as mentioned in Section 4.7.5 of our Account Terms is now due to come into effect on 27 May 2008, although this is subject to change.

Please note: After this message has been viewed it will be removed from your inbox and is not retrievable.

Yes. That's the entire message. It was in the "Secure Inbox" on my account page. (If it had been sent as an ordinary email, I would have assumed it was a phishing attempt and instantly deleted it).

Well, I wrote a snarky complaint. First Direct promptly responded with an explanation – The cryptic message that I received was a "reminder" of something that First Direct had announced in October 2007. (And I'm supposed to remember that?). It seems that "Faster Payments" refers to a new system that will enable same day money transfers to accounts at participating banks in the UK. So everything is clear now… My bank and I are friends again.

Some of the things that I liked about First Direct's response to my complaint:

(1) The message began with "Dear Mr. Browne" (Dear Jonathan would be fine too)

(2) The message was "signed" by a real person (I have his name and title)

(3) It mentioned my complaint at the start – So I had no doubt what this was about

(4) It was free of company specific jargon and industry jargon. (There was no mention of "Section 4.7.5")

(5) The explanation of "Faster Payments" was clear, concise and to the point

Email communication is a hugely important channel — both for marketing to customers and for offering support to them. Companies who focus on providing valuable, well presented, trustworthy email communication will see returns on the effort they make. And those that ignore these essential rules will find that consumers simply ignore them.

Last year, my colleague, Moira Dorsey wrote a report: "Best And Worst Of Email Interaction Design, 2007" which outlines 10 criteria for effecive communication via email. Don't forget that email may be just one customer touchpoint out of many — Customers who visit the web site, may also contact the call center or send an email request etc.