Timing Matters: When to Send Transactional Emails

Figuring out the right time to send transactional emails seems like a no-brainer: after the user’s transactional action.

But the further you get away from the transaction itself, the more unclear the right timing is for sending a transactional email.

Today, we’ll cover four examples of when to send transactional emails:

  • order confirmation emails
  • password reset emails
  • dunning emails
  • abandoned cart emails

Let’s dig in.

Transactional Timing Cases: ASAP

You know you don’t want to leave someone waiting for more than a few minutes to get a password reset email — or wondering where their order confirmation is. The timing for sending these transactional emails is very straightforward — triggered upon your customer’s purchase or request.

Timing suggestion: Immediately upon trigger

Order confirmation email timing

After completing a purchase, the customer needs an order confirmation email ASAP. Most people expect this email to come through within minutes.

Here’s an example from outdoor gear outlet Huckberry:

Huckberry transactional email marketing examples - order confirmation

Starting out with a prominent “Thanks”, this email confirms all the basic information about the order. Extra details, like a delivery window, and setting up expectations for the shipping confirmation to follow, are a nice touch to the whole Huckberry purchase experience.

The confirmation email is your opportunity to provide your customer with personal confidence about the transaction that just occurred — and build a nugget of trust in your brand. That all relies on the email coming through, right after purchase.

Password reset email timing

Your password reset email also needs to go out immediately. Otherwise, your customers can’t log in right when they want to.

Forgetting a password is already annoying and disruptive, and any delay in getting back on track will increase a customer’s frustration. For the business, this event is make-or-break in terms of losing meaningful engagement and trust in your product. Plus, forgetting passwords happens often (the average customer has 37 password reset emails in their inbox at any time, according to research from Dashlane).

It’s one of the most important transactional emails people receive as well as the most straightforward. Send immediately with a simple, clear call to action. Here’s a great password reset email example from Slack — it’s branded and arrives immediately upon requesting a reset:

Slack transactional email marketing examples - password reset

You can send these emails in Customer.io by setting up an Event Triggered Campaign to send out a single message that’s triggered upon a reset request by the user.

Transactional Timing Cases: It Depends

Dunning email timing

Dunning emails ensure you’ll be paid for the products or services that you provided and also significantly reduce customer churn. These emails are especially relevant to recurring revenue businesses.

The most basic dunning email you can send is a simple notification and request to update billing information, triggered by a failed credit card charge.

Beyond this, the timing of pre-dunning and dunning messages can depend on many factors, including:

  • whether your payment platforms already automatically updates expiration dates on card
  • how your payments platform retries a card
  • how many messages you want to send
  • the cost to your business of a delinquent customer
  • your billing cycles

First, let’s talk about payment platforms. According to Churnbuster, many payments providers have automatic card updates, which are “already effective for over 70% of cards that look like they’re going to expire.” Also the timing of automatic retries can vary depending on your setup — you might specify the rules or use features like Stripe’s Smart Retries.

Why does all that matter? These details can determine whether you should send pre-dunning emails at all, or what the timing of your follow-up messages should be after an unsuccessful charge. (Consider all your possibilities before you send transactional emails.)

Here at Customer.io, we use Stripe as our payment platform and it’s connected with our Customer.io account. Since Stripe automatically updates outdated cards, we don’t send pre-dunning emails. And the timing of post-dunning emails can vary depending on Stripe’s smart retry schedule. We created a workflow in which a customer may get up to 4 messages about their failed payment, with the last message providing a warning about account cancellation if the customer doesn’t take action.

Dunning email timing example

Dunning timing sequence for Person A

Dunning email differet timing example

Dunning timing sequence for Person B

Timing suggestion:
Create several emails, giving customers multiple chances to solve credit card issues. But keep those payment platform capabilities in mind so you’re not sending more emails than necessary. Here’s a basic schedule you can use as a starting point:

  • Pre-dunning 1: Customer enters the delinquency segment with one month until expiry and triggers email.
  • Pre-dunning 2: The next email is triggered a week before expiry.
  • Dunning: The third email will arrive on the day of expiry or charge failure.
  • Post-dunning: A final email is sent a few days after expiry or charge failure (with a warning that the customer’s account will be deactivated due to credit card failure).

Here’s a real-world example from my inbox. The credit card filed with my internet provider for automatic billing was going to expire at the end of February, and here’s when I received the dunning messages:

  • Pre-dunning email 1: Feb. 2
  • Pre-dunning email 2: Feb. 23
  • Dunning email: Mar. 7

Here’s that last dunning email, which urges me to update the expiration date on my card so I keep getting internet service.

Dunning email example

If nonpayment means that you’re going to delete or block access to an account, it’s helpful to provide a window for when that will happen. Take this example from Help Scout, which is sent seven days before an account is deleted for nonpayment, with directions on how to keep the account open.

Helpscout dunning transactional email marketing example

Cart abandonment email timing

When a customer puts something in their cart, it’s a strong behavioral signal that they are interested in buying that product. It could be that they need more time to think about it, forgot about the cart, or stopped for some other reason.

Timing for a single cart abandonment message can depend on what you’re selling. For instance, this email from Grubhub, a food delivery service, came in a few minutes after I’d left their site without ordering:

Grubhub cart abandonment email example

What you’re going to order for delivery is a decision that takes minutes, not hours or days. Buying eyeglasses, on the other hand, is a bigger, longer-term decision than what to eat in an hour — you have to live with these on your face! So it makes sense that Warby Parker sends this transactional email one day after cart abandonment.

For larger-ticket items or other purchases that may take a bit longer to consider (such as subscription products), you may want to consider a drip sequence triggered off the initial abandonment event, staggered throughout a few days.

Here’s a sample schedule:

  • 1st email: Sent within a few hours of the customer abandoning an item in their cart. This message reminds the customer of your product while they’re still potentially in the buying mood.
  • 2nd email: Sent within 24 hours of cart abandonment, giving customers a night to sleep on the decision.
  • 3rd email: Sent within seven days of cart abandonment. This is your last ditch effort to entice the customer back to their shopping cart and can be an opportunity for offering a discount as an incentive.

When sending more than one cart abandonment email, Carl Sednaoui, Director of Marketing at Mailcharts recommends offering discounts later in your flow to incentivize those potential customers who are still thinking about the purchase.

For example, this was the timeline for Barkbox’s week-long abandoned cart sequence:

  • cart is abandoned
  • after 20 minutes, 1st email
  • after 1 more day, 2nd email (incentive: get a free month with signup)
  • after 2 more days, 3rd email (incentive: get a free month with signup)
  • after 3 more days, 4th email (incentive: try one month free, no subscription)

In the 3rd email, Barkbox addresses doubts that may be keeping you on the fence (like free shipping, and 100% Happiness Guaranteed):

Dunning email example

click to view whole email

In Customer.io, you can add delays in a campaign workflow to create a cart abandonment series that stops sending once the purchase has been made. Like this:

delays in Customer.io transactional abandoned cart campaign workflow

When Do You Send Transactional Emails?

Your transactional email timing works best when you know the purpose of each message and how your emails get triggered from what data. Let us know what works for you in the comments!