Most every modern website has at least one built-in form that visitors can complete and submit and I highly recommend these for a number of reasons. If nothing else, having an online form provides an obvious vehicle for visitors to use for enquiries and initiating communication with your firm or organization.
I’ll use the terms “form” and “contact form” somewhat generically and interchangeably in this post. In all cases, I’m not necessarily just referring to a simple online form that prompts for a name, email address, and comments. That’s because online forms can be and do so much more for you and your enterprise – in addition to simply getting the basic information.
It’s common to ask, ‘If I provide my business’ primary email address on my website, why would I need a contact form?’ While it’s always my advice to have that email address both obvious and clickable (i.e. when clicked automatically initiates a “send an email” event on the visitor’s computer), having a contact form provides a visitor with an obvious point-of-contact with you. It also allows you to receive that information in a standardized way, which allows for other processes to easily take place further along.
Fortunately, my first real career job was the design and sale of business forms. The company I worked for for over six years prided itself in training their people to understand that the majority of the costs of forms wasn’t in the cost of the actual forms, but in the processing costs associated with them. Therefore, I got a pretty good lesson in good and efficient forms design, which actually translates over pretty well into the online forms realm!
Generally speaking, an online form takes the user through the fields in a logical and well-ordered manner. Appropriate space is provided for short and long text responses and sensible field types are used for the data they are recording. For example, we don’t want to ask the user to have to type the words “yes” or “no” when clickable radio buttons serve the same purpose and are much easier to use.
Other than the obvious, these are the other most common field types in an online form:
- radio buttons that restrict the user to one in an array of two or more possible responses
- checkboxes that allow the user to click any or all responses in a single array
- drop-downs that allow the user to choose one (or sometimes more) item(s) from vertically-expanding list
- conditional fields. That is, if the user answers ‘yes’ to a specific question, three other related questions automatically appear.
- required fields that, if not filled out, will prevent the form from being submitted
- file upload fields that allow the user to upload computer files to you
All forms end with a ‘submit’ or ‘send’ button. Once clicked, I can have your website simply issue a “Thanks for submitting our contact form.” message, or take the visitor automatically to a specified page on your website. It can then do a whole bunch more, as you’ll read further along.
Add Some Fields to the Form
One thing I always ask my clients to consider is collecting one or more bits of further information from an enquirer on their contact form. Of course we don’t want to overwhelm a potential customer with a hundred questions! But a bit of added information that’s quick and easy for the submitter to add to their submission might be of great benefit to you.
- I have an accounting client that asks her form submitters to indicate what services, from a list of the four main ones she provides, they are interested in. Now, when she phones or emails them, she’s immediately got something to address.
- My window coverings client asks her potential customers to indicate which part of Edmonton or the surrounding area they’re located in so that she can more efficiently plan her in-home consultations.
- My arborist (tree-cutter) client can get photos from his potential customers of the bushes that need trimming or the dead tree that needs to be removed. Thsi often saves him a visit and allows him to come with the proper equipment.
- My machine shop client can receive CAD (computer-aided drafting) documents from clients prior to even talking to them, providing them immediately with details and scope of a potential project.
Think to yourself, ‘Is there any piece of information I might initially ask from my potential customer that would increase my service level to them and/or make responding to their enquiry easier or more informed?’ If so, let’s pop it into the form, make it not required, and see if the majority of people make use of it.
As a rule, all submitted enquiry forms end up as an email, sent out by your website to one or more designated email addresses. Later on you’ll learn more about how it’s important to understand that it’s the website that’s actually sending out the email(s). The subject line of these emails can be configured by me (e.g. “Contact form submitted on Acme Widgets’ website) and typically the body of the email simply contains the field names on the form (e.g. name, email address) and whatever the submitter has filled in. It is common for the receiving email account to be one that is regularly monitored and that the person responsible for monitoring it prudently responds to inbound emails or forwards them to the person responsible for responding.
If one of the fields in the form records the sender’s email address, it is relatively easy for me to automatically send a boilerplate response email to the sender. The subject line can be whatever you want and included in the body of this email we might indicate what the sender had indicated on the submitted form. (If nothing else, this may prove later on that they accidentally mistyped their phone number into the form!)
I can also set the form up to possibly execute any of the following other processes:
- send the form data into a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software program
- send the form data into a Google Sheets spreadsheet
- send the form data to MailChimp, MailerLite, or a host of other mailing list/newsletter software programs
- automatically send a follow-up email to the submitter X hours or Y days after they initially sent off their enquiry
- send a coupon or special offer to the sender, immediately or after a set amount of time
- send the form data, in an email, to a specific recipient, based on what the sender might have indicated on the form (e.g. email sent directly to customer service or technical support department)
- automatically make an appointment in an automated booking system
- literally dozens of other automated processes
The Website’s Email Account
As I mentioned earlier, your website actually needs an email account. It doesn’t necessarily need an exclusive account, but it must have one associated with it. That’s because whenever your website sends out an email – and this could be in processing a submitted contact form or sending an operational warning message to the website’s admin account – it needs to use the credentials and authority of a bona fide email account.
Many businesses and organizations use free personal email accounts (e.g. Gmail and Hotmail) and I really think this is exceptionally bad practice for many reasons. (I go into detail about these in two other blog posts I’ve written: Why Freebie Email Accounts Are Not A Good Thing – Especially if They’re Associated With Your Website and Branding and Your Email Address) One of the biggest reasons is that it is very technically difficult to have your new website send its emails through one of these not-very-private accounts which are really intended for personal use.
One other important aspect of using a corporate email account (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org) is email deliverability. Because routing the sending of emails through one of these accounts is more configurable, I can ensure a much higher probability of emails coming from your website not ending up in people’s spam filters. If you’ve told a form submitter that your website will immediately respond with an email containing the details of their submission, that benefit loses a fair bit of its lustre when it apparently is never received but is found the next day in their spam folder.
A contact form is an opportunity to initially collect some important information about the person submitting it. It’s also potentially a way to get further automate processes that you manually handle today. If nothing else, a well-designed and -executed contact form indicates to your potential customers that some thought has gone into it, which reflects well on you and your reputation.