The secret to dealing with ISPs


What is the secret to dealing with ISPs?
The short answer is: Don’t do it if at all possible. Talking to ISP reps generally isn’t going to magically improve your reptuation.  There is no place in the reputation systems where delivery can be modified because the delivery specialist knows or is liked by the postmaster at an ISP.
With my clients, I work through delivery issues and can solve 80 – 90% of the issues without ever having to contact anyone at the ISPs. 90% of the remaining issues can be handled using the publicly available contacts and websites provided by the ISPs.
In the remaining cases, the “secret” to getting useful and prompt replies is to:

  1. *Briefly* describe the issue. The folks handling senders on the ISP side are dealing with queues that have tens or hundreds of emails in them. The easier you make your ticket to handle the better.
  2. Provide all the information they need. At the bare minimum include the sending IPs, any domains in the rejected email and full copies of the rejection message. Pull this information out in a way that someone skimming the message can easily pick out.
  3. Ask clear questions. Don’t ramble on for 4 paragraphs talking about your business and meandering around the issue. Say: I don’t know why we’re getting this, what are you seeing? or I have made these changes and would like my reputation reset so we can create a new one. Or my mail is being bulk foldered and I can’t fix it, what are you seeing causing our reputation scores to be so low?
  4. Don’t waste time providing all the details of your business model. Really. Everyone tries to do it, and your business model isn’t usually relevant to your reputation. “Let me tell you about my business model…” is a complete cliche and causes massive amounts of eye rolling among ISP reps. If you feel there is something relevant (this is confirmation email, we’re only mailing registered users, or similar) then feel free to include that. But the full details of your business model aren’t going to help, and may hurt. The ISPs care about are what your stats and numbers look like.
  5. Do (briefly!) describe what steps you have taken (and how long you have tried them) to resolve the issue yourself. The bigger ISPs are getting very good at providing feedback to senders through FBLs, block messages and postmaster websites. Show them that you respect their time and have attempted to solve your problem without contacting them.
  6. Give them time (at least 24 hours) before following up. One of my good friends handles the postmaster desk at a major ISP and one of her biggest annoyances is someone who opens a ticket, sends her a personal email and then IMs her all within 20 minutes. It does not make her deal with your issue any faster, I can promise you that.
  7. Provide IP addresses, domains, any bounce messages you’re getting from the ISP. This is critical. Provide all the information the ISP needs. I know I mentioned this above, but it seems to need repeating as there are a lot of emails to the ISPs that never provide the IP addresses or any relevant information, which wastes time.
  8. Go to the appropriate person. Calling your best friend the VP of whatever actually slows down handling of issues more often than not. It also results in overhead that no one really wants to deal with (placating managers outside your management chain is a pain and takes a lot of time). Finally, it will not endear you to the folks handling the day-to-day filtering decisions which will make future issues more difficult to deal with.
  9. When you get an answer, take the information provided and make changes. Spending 3 days arguing back and forth about how they’re wrong while doing nothing to actually change your mail practices doesn’t fix anything. If you have proof that their data is wrong, provide it and why you think it is wrong. Sometimes you may be right but you’ll need to explain it clearly and provide the data you have. Sometimes you won’t and you’ll need to accept that, too.
  10. SAY THANK YOU! You asked for help or answers, you got the time and attention of an ISP rep, say thank you for that. Even if it’s not what you wanted to hear, the person on the other end still took time to answer you.

The biggest secret can be summed up as: act as if you value the time of the person on the other end of the ticket / email / IM more than you value your own. Spend an extra 20 minutes to collect the information they’re going to need. Edit that email to make it short and sweet, paragraph upon paragraph of text explaining your business model will not make the ISP person sit up and take notice. List what you’ve done and changed and ask for what they are seeing that is causing your delivery problems. Often if you’ve made changes and they see recent improvements they will make adjustments for you, but this is because it’s clear you’ve taken steps to mitigate things all on your own.

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  • Actually, briefly telling what kind of mail you’re sending can be helpful (eg, “bulk mail”, “my internal employee email server”, “shared web hosting server”, etc.). I know that several ISPs request it now, and I have my suspicions why.

  • This is a great guide. If you are talking to ISPs, these are definitely the right steps to take.
    In Return Path’s experience, there are really only two types of good conversations when there is a deliverability problem:
    1) “I think I’ve got a [complaint|spam trap|whatever] problem. Can you confirm?” This requires having a pretty good feel for IP/domain reputation and where the ISP generally starts blocking or filtering. Once you’ve fixed the problem, let them know what you’ve done and the results you’re seeing. This tends to speed up resolution (if the problem doesn’t resolve itself because of your improved reputation).
    2) Less common is the “We’ve looked at every reputation metric for this mailer and: (1)They look good relative to all other mailers; (2) They are at reputation levels where you rarely block; (3) BTW, no one else is blocking them” conversation. Requires a lot of data as well, but tends to drive better results as well. From time to time the answer is – “yep, this doesn’t make sense.”
    In the end, your first point is the best – fix your reputation problems and you don’t need to talk to the ISP.

  • Your reputation problem is that you’re SPAMMERS.
    This cannot be reapired.
    Welcome to my blocklist.
    [Editor’s note: I normally wouldn’t approve a comment like this because of the obviously forged email address and lack of useful content. But I can’t figure out who this guy thinks is a spammer with an un-reapirable reputation. Me? Return Path? The irony of such a poorly written comment on a post about how to communicate more clearly is not lost on me, though.]

  • Great list. I would just add: Do not assume there is a problem on the ISP’s side and do not assume that there are no problems on your own side. Going in with the attitude that you “need” the ISP to fix something is never a good idea.

  • Remember that many ISPs leave the abuse desk emails/tickets to tier 1 support, who may not have the required training to fully understand your problem and why it’s impacting you.
    Please, have patience with us (Receivers). And, if you do navigate the gauntlet to contact abuse people higher up the escalation chain, I’m sure that they’re aware of their own problems withing their organization, but helpful criticism is always helpful — just don’t be a jerk about it.
    Thanks for the great blog entry! I’ll be passing it around $WORK ( )

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