by E-WRITE's Leslie O'Flahavan

October 21, 2015

What We Can Learn About Customer Service Writing from the Hair in the Starbucks Oatmeal

On October 19, while on a work trip to Las Vegas, I found a long, straight hair in my Starbucks oatmeal. I wasn't happy. With stomach rolling, I put down my spoon and and reached for my phone to tweet Starbucks.


I was impressed with the speed of the response from @StarbucksHelp. They replied to me in less than 30 minutes. And their tweet was polite and sincere. As requested, I was willing to email, though I found it a bit odd to be emailing to an address with the word twitter in it. (Best practice for customer service? No. Better to handle the complaint in the channel it was received.)

After our brief Twitter exchange, Starbucks and I shared an extended email exchange. My emails were brief and kind of cranky. Starbucks' emails were odd and clumsily written. After you've had a chance to read through, I'll offer my comments on some of Starbucks' customer service writing choices.

Notes: (1) I've changed the Starbucks agents' names. I've presented their emails verbatim. (2) Starbucks, if you are reading this, I give you several straightforward compliments at the end of this post.

My first email to Starbucks

From: Leslie O'Flahavan
Received: 2015-10-19 10:43:36
Subject: Follow-up on my tweet about hair in the oatmeal

Starbucks-receiptHi Twitter Customer Service -
Here are the details about my hairy oatmeal situation this morning. Thanks for your quick response.

[I included a JPG of my Starbucks receipt in the body of my email.]



Starbucks' first email to me

From: "Susan W."
Date: Monday, October 19, 2015 at 2:30 PM
To: Leslie O'Flahavan
Subject: RE: Follow-up on my tweet about hair in the oatmeal <<#1234567-12345678#>>

Hello Leslie,
Thank you for contacting Starbucks. I just finished reading your email and appreciate you taking the time to share your concerns with us.
Unfortunately, the nature of your email message is unclear to us because the attachment was received blank. If you would please respond to this email with details on your experience, we would be happy to address this for you. Or if you prefer, you can give us a call. Our contact center can be reached at 877-309-3180 Monday-Friday 5am-8pm, as well as Saturday-Sunday 6am-4pm (PST). Thank you for being a valued part of Starbucks. I hope you have a great day!
If you ever have any questions or concerns in the future, please visit us at

Susan W., customer service

My second email to Starbucks

From: Leslie O'Flahavan
Received: 2015-10-19 14:03:35
To: Susan W.
Subject: RE: Follow-up on my tweet about hair in the oatmeal

Hi, The problem I experienced is that there was a hair in my oatmeal. Disgusting.

Starbucks' second email to me

From: "Karen W."
Date: Monday, October 19, 2015 at 4:57 PM
To: Leslie O'Flahavan
Subject: RE: Follow-up on my tweet about hair in the oatmeal <<#1234567-12345678#>>

Dear Leslie,
Thank you for contacting Starbucks. I just finished reading your email and appreciate you taking the time to share your concerns with us.
I apologize that you had this experience with your oatmeal.
Additionally, I would like to invite you back for a better experience by sending you a  Starbucks Card. I know this is not why you wrote us, but I recognize how frustrating this is.  Please respond to this email with your mailing address and I will send it right out. Also, please include the store location. Thanks for giving us the opportunity to fix something that went wrong.
Karen W., customer service

My third email to Starbucks

From: Leslie O'Flahavan
Received: 2015-10-20 08:03:38
To: Karen W.
Subject: RE: Follow-up on my tweet about hair in the oatmeal

Hello, Karen -

Thanks for your reply. My mailing address is 123 Main Street, Anytown, MD 22222.

The address of the Starbucks that served the hairy oatmeal is Rio Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV 89103. This is the address information on the receipt. The terminal number is 272 and the check number is 2724222.



Starbucks' third email to me

From: "Laura P."
Date: Tuesday, October 20, 2015 at 9:24 AM
To: Leslie O'Flahavan
Subject: RE: Follow-up on my tweet about hair in the oatmeal <<#1234567-12345678#>>

Greetings Leslie!
Thank you for contacting Starbucks. I just finished reading your email and appreciate you taking the time to share your concerns with us.
Happy Tuesday Leslie! I'm sorr again about the recent experience you had with your Oatmeal having hair in it. I completely understand your disappointment Leslie. Please accept our apologies. I want to make this right for you, so I will share your experience with the West Flamingo Road store (and our quality assurance team) to make sure we are consistently offering you the best food every time you visit.
Additionally, I would like to invite you back for a better experience by sending you a $10 Starbucks Card and I have updated your account with the address you sent us. I know this is not why you wrote us, but I recognize how frustrating this is. You should receive this in 10-14 business days. Thanks again for giving us the opportunity to fix something that went wrong. Have a Great day Leslie!
Laura P., customer service

What can we learn about customer service writing from Starbucks' emails?

1. Starbucks' first paragraph template is odd. "Thank you for contacting Starbucks. I just finished reading your email and appreciate you taking the time to share your concerns with us." The first sentence is pretty typical, but the I just finished reading your email wording is quite strange. I know it's meant to be in-the-moment and conversational, but when three different agents use the same template, it just sounds canned and odd. It makes it sound like there's a whole lot of reading being just finished over at Starbucks.

2. Failure to read my first email caused an additional contact. In Starbucks' first email to me, Susan wrote: Unfortunately, the nature of your email message is unclear to us because the attachment was received blank. It seems she was unable to see the photo of my receipt--which was in the body of the email, not attached--but she needn't have been confused about the reason I was writing. The only way to explain her sentence is that Susan didn't read my first email. And failing to read my email is even weirder given the I just finished reading your email template.

3. Starbucks' second email is courteous and practical. Certainly, Karen is using a template, and clearly she's customized it a bit. She handles the compensation issue well. This sentence works: Thanks for giving us the opportunity to fix something that went wrong.

4. Starbucks' third email is clearly freetexted, but not always in a good way. After reusing the I just finished reading your email template, Laura begins freetexting. How do I know? Her freetexting has typos, weird capitalization, and a somewhat insistent repetition of my first name. On one hand, I want to commend Starbucks for allowing, possibly requiring, customer service agents to freetext their replies. This is the only way to create rapport with customers. And I did get a sunny feel from Laura. But good freetexting must be clean writing, free of errors that call out "These are the parts I typed myself!"

5. Wait. What Starbucks account? I didn't know I had an account. I don't want an account. Now I'm worried Starbucks is going to use my postal address for other purposes, which won't make me happy.

6. Can't Starbucks agents read the email chain? Karen should read Susan's email to me, and Laura should read Karen's. If they read each other's writing, the balance of freetexted and templated content will be better. And I won't have to read this sentence in two emails: I know this is not why you wrote us, but I recognize how frustrating this is.

7. So many email addresses! This isn't a big problem, but it is a bit confusing. Starbucks' original tweet asked me to send an email to The "From" email address for Susan, Karen, and Laura is and the template sends me to where I can submit comments in a webform (which is kind of an email address).

What's the take-away about customer service writing?

Starbucks did several things right:

  • They believed me, they apologized, and they compensated me.
  • They responded promptly.
  • They avoided any defensive comments. Thankfully, no one asked me whether it was possible that the hair was mine. (Emphatically, I am stating That Hair Was Not Mine.)
  • They trust their agents to freetext.


That's why I shared this example with you. It teaches us a lot about the harm that kinda-sorta-okay customer service writing does to really good customer service.




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September 20, 2015

Webinar: How to Harness the Power of Chat in Your Contact Center - September 24

ICMI_logo Register now for my September 24 webinar: How to Harness the Power of Chat in Your Contact Center.



I'll be co-presenting with Ross Haskell, Senior Director of Products, BoldChat. The webinar's hosted by ICMI and moderated by Erica Strother Marois, Community Specialist.

Webinar description

Did you know that more customers would prefer to use web chat than any other assisted channel? Yet, according to the latest research from ICMI, just one-third of contact centers today are supporting web chat. This gross misunderstanding of the importance of web chat may be negatively affecting customer satisfaction, limiting revenue opportunities and hindering the success of your organization.

Do not risk causing irreversible harm to your organization; attend this webinar to discover the three awesome outcomes of providing chat customer service.

ICMI and BoldChat by LogMeIn will share new insights that reveal the importance of web chat to customers and their increased likelihood to switch companies when they aren’t satisfied. You’ll receive tips and ideas for delivering exceptional experiences through chat, discover the ROI of chat, and learn how to measure and recognize the success of leveraging chat to provide stellar customer service

During this webinar you will learn:

  • Why customers prefer chat over any other assisted channel
  • The necessary skills for effective customer interactions on chat
  • How to best measure the success of chat
  • When to expect a chat implementation to deliver its return on investment

Join us for this interactive and informative hour—complete with audience polls, case studies, best practices and live Q&A.

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August 31, 2015

How Web Design Trends are Changing the Way We Write Content

Becky_SchoenfeldMany thanks to guest blogger Becky R. Schoenfeld for this great write-up of my session at Association Media & Publishing's 2015 Annual Meeting. Becky is managing editor of QST, the monthly membership journal for ARRL, the national association for amateur radio. And thanks to Association Media & Publishing for permission to reprint this post.

 Attendees at Leslie O’Flahavan’s 2015 Association Media & Publishing Annual Meeting session, "How Web Design Trends are Changing the Way We Write Content,” received ... real-world examples of good and bad online copy, as well as exercises to improve your own web content. Her aim was to help us answer the question, "How has design changed, and how must we change the way we write?”

O’Flahavan, who founded E-WRITE in 1996, pointed out that certain basic principles for writing for the web have not changed over the years; we just implement them differently. As a review, some of these time-honored principles include:

  • Don’t use hypertext links that say "click here.”
  • Write message-oriented headings that give readers an idea of what the article is about.
  • Write "a bite, a snack, and a meal” — a phrase O’Flahavan coined to describe different amounts of content for different readers. A bite would be a catchy headline. A snack could be a deck or an article summary. A meal generally requires the reader to click through or scroll down to read an entire article.
  • Cut the word count.

O’Flahavan also talked about three big shifts in the way people consume content. These included (1) the shift from merely reading content, to sharing content, and finally the necessity of "baking in” ways to share content; (2) the shift from designing an attractive website, to the need for recognizable design that’s fluid across several platforms; and (3) the shift from writing a great webpage, to the need for content that’s fluid across platforms.

O’Flahavan then integrated the writing principles and the current incarnations of these shifts with five current design trends.

1. Sharelines. These are hyperlinks that online publications (such as the LA Times) place at the beginning of an article. When you click on a shareline, a window pops up that allows you to post a summary sentence with a link to the entire article on your Twitter feed. This is an example of baked-in sharing — you don’t have to navigate away from the article to share it on your Twitter account. To cement the concept in our minds, O’Flahavan did an exercise with session attendees in which we read a brief article and wrote sharelines for it.

2. Large typography. O’Flahavan noted that writers sometimes shy away from large type because it takes up precious content space, but reminded us that large typography looks modern and is much more readable on digital platforms, especially mobile devices. We did an exercise in which we wrote a large-typography headline for a text-heavy web page.

3. Infinite scroll. Infinite scroll is being used more and more — social media pages use it, and the trend is spreading. O’Flahavan showed us a sample infinite scroll page that had very little text, but which contained all the essential elements ("About us,” "Products,” "Clients,” etc.). She pointed out that because infinite scroll pages are light on text, they "take some of the supports out from under the reader,” so you have to make sure the page is very navigable.

4. The death of the fold. "People will scroll past the fold,” O’Flahavan asserted, adding that placing everything "above the fold” on a web page gives your site a "content wedgie.”

5. Cards or tiles. Pinterest, Upworthy, Foodgawker, and many other sites use cards/tiles, which encourage visual browsing. A card or tile has three elements: An image (which is the dominant element of any card/tile), text (brief!), and a link. The image is the "bite,” the text is the "snack,” and the information you get when you click the link is the "meal.” Leslie said that cards/tiles are perfect for mobile devices and varying screen sizes.

By the end of this workshop, attendees had arrived at a much better understanding of how to write content that works with today’s design trends and reading habits — and they’d had fun getting there, too.

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May 3, 2015

Interview with Heidi and Betty: Customer Service Email Superstars at Cabela's

Betty-and-Heidi-Cabelas-email-customer-serviceIn this blog, I often comment on the best (and worst) ways to write email to customers. Today, I'm honored to feature two excellent, productive customer service agents who do this important work. Heidi Ossian (on the left) and Betty Nielsen (on the right) work for the hunting, fishing, and camping retailer Cabela's. Heidi's worked for Cabela's for 15 years and has been writing emails to customers for about 10 years. Betty's worked for Cabela's for 28 years and has been writing emails to customers for about 15 years.

With all the experience they've gained, I jumped at the chance to interview them and get their perspective on first contact resolution, the importance of correct grammar, how management can support frontline staff, and more. I'm glad to share the insights of these salt-of-the-earth, customer-loving email-writing pros. At the end of the interview, you can read their managers' kind words about Betty and Heidi. And don't miss the picture of the grizzly bear!

 Were you a good writer when you were in high school or college?

  • Heidi: "Yes, I was a pretty good writer. I’ve got a Journalism degree, with a concentration in Creative Writing. I also write poetry and short stories occasionally."
  • Betty: "No. English was my worst subject and my least favorite. I hated writing, but I took several writing courses in college. After college, through the different companies I worked for, writing just started coming a little more naturally to me."

Do you think a successful customer service agent needs to love to write?

  • Betty: "I’d say no, as long as you can actually connect to your customer. I just try to write the way I sound like I’m talking to you right now."

Do you prefer being an email agent to being a phone agent?

  • Heidi: "Yes. I am more fluent in the written word.  There’s more room for thought. I tend to get a little tongue-tied some days."
  • Betty: "I prefer being an e-mail agent because it allows me time to respond to the customer appropriately and give them all their options."

What do you think is the most important writing skill an email customer service agent must have? 

  • Heidi: "Listening ... or in the written world, reading."
  • Betty: "I want each of my customers to feel they are the most important person at that moment, and I will do everything I can to assist them. It makes customers happy and my job easier."

How important is correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar to the work you do?

  • Heidi: "Extremely. A well-written email is professional, a representation of the company and you.  It is also crucial with international customers.  Incorrect spelling or grammar can make translations difficult." 
  • Betty: "I represent Cabela’s. If the spelling, punctuation or grammar are not correct, it does not give a good impression of Cabela’s. That’s what the customer sees."

Your manager told me that both of you are incredibly productive email writers. What makes you so productive?

  • Betty: "We have a lot of repetition from customers. Several customers are asking the same question, so I can use a prewritten message for them. For each customer I have to tweak it a bit, of course, because I like to make it personal. But if I have the general format written out so I can copy and paste, that’s what makes it easiest for me. Also, I know how to find answers to their questions on our website or in our manual. The longer you’re with the company and know those things, that makes you faster, and I've been with Cabela's for 28 years!"
  • Heidi: "When used correctly, I think templates are great. But I don’t want to be a machine that uses prewritten content constantly. The templates need to be used appropriately."

Is there anything Cabela's management could do that would empower you to write better email?

  • Heidi: "They’ve already done something that has actually helped me do email a lot better. At one time, we had limited web access; many sites were blocked. But sometimes, in their emails, customers would use unfamiliar words or an unusual turn of phrase or ask about an event that I just didn't know about. Now that web access isn't limited like it was, I can Google the event or use an online dictionary to look up a word. That’s been a tremendous help. The company trusts me to go to the sites that I feel I need to go to to help my customers. Another thing management does is retrain me because things are always changing. I’m a firm believer that if something changes, we need to make sure everybody’s trained on it. And share information with me. If there’s a way of writing or a way of thinking, even just a blog that says '10 Successful Tips on Customer Service' just bring it to my attention. That is helpful."
  • Betty: "I have to agree with Heidi about the training. Things change so much with a mail order company especially. Even though I may have been trained five years ago, it’s nice to be retrained so everybody’s on the same page. That’s my biggest thing. Make sure that we’re all together; we’re all working the same way."

Do you work unconventional hours?

  • Betty: "I come in at midnight and go home at 8:30 am. During Christmas or peak season, I come in as early as 10 pm. I like the overnight shift. It's quiet, and I’m a night owl."
  • Heidi: "I work some of the strange hours too. For example, this is my last week of working from 2 am to 10:30 am. Next week I’ll star working from midnight until 8:30 am. I like the night hours. My husband works nights also, so we’ve kind of got our days and nights switched around. Throughout my the years at Cabela's, I’ve probably worked every shift there is! As long as they’ll let me work these hours, I’ll keep working them."

When you write an email to a customer, which is your priority? First contact resolution or building a relationship with the customer?

  • Heidi: "That’s kind of a tough question. I like to do both, especially if it’s a new customer who’s maybe placed one order with us. If they have an issue or a question, we want to get everything resolved in that one contact. But we also try and build a relationship, so if it’s a negative experience we can turn it into a positive resolution, so they’ll keep coming back to us."

What don't other people -- friends, family, colleagues -- understand about your job as an email customer service agent?

  • Betty: "Many of them just don’t understand that you can actually take care of your customer with an email. You don’t have to physically talk to them. If I have a customer that needs to return something, I can take care of him in an email. I don’t have to call him to make it a great customer service experience."
  • Heidi: "I like Betty's answer. Here's what I can add. I’ve worked emails long enough that I know where to find information and put it in my email to prevent having to write back to a customer repeatedly. People need a lot of experience to help the customer at the first point of email contact, if that makes sense. If people don't know the ins and outs of the systems we work with or haven't had enough experience, it's harder to write the emails."

What difference do you see between veteran customer service writers and junior staff?

  • Betty and Heidi: "The new e-mailers are learning to spread their wings. Most have the skills but not the confidence. Confidence comes with more years of service.  They are still trying to figure out what works and doesn’t.  You can tell once they find their voice as their e-mails flow better."

Would you recommend to others that they become email customer service agents?

  • Betty: "I would! I believe it’s a great job. Then again, you have to be a certain type of person to be able to do this too. You have to have the right personality. You need a certain type of mindset. I think it’s great; I think email is a wonderful way to communicate with our customers."
  • Heidi: "I have to agree. I would recommend it too. I agree with Betty that it takes a certain type of mindset. You've got to make sure you’re conversational with the customer in the email and not too brusque or too demanding."


Cabelas_logoManagers trust and rely on Betty and Heidi

Truly, it's a love fest. Here's what Todd Hixson, Cabela's Contact Center Workforce Manager, says: "Why are Betty and Heidi so great?  Heidi embraces omnichannel with a passion, understanding that customers want their channel of choice. She wants to produce a stellar customer experience in each channel. And Betty is not afraid to push the envelope. She's an  ambassador for change, if change helps her customers. On top of that, Betty is an overtime machine who 'slays the queue' even when backlogs pile up."

Kim Madison, Contact Center Supervisor, chimes in: "Betty and Heidi have a combined 43 years of service with Cabela’s and 25 years of experience with emailing customers.  They are passionate about providing the legendary service our customers have experienced since 1961.  They take great pride in researching customer situations thoroughly and responding to their customers with care and empathy.  These two ladies are very reliable; this is one of the reasons we chose them to handle our emails overnight. We knew we could depend on them to not only be here, but to take the initiative to handle the email volumes without supervision." 


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April 17, 2015

Video Interview: How to Improve Email Response Time

Since 2011, my friend and colleague Jeff Toister, of Toister Performance Solutions, has conducted an annual survey on email response time, asking these straightforward questions:

  • How fast do you expect a response to an email you send to a business?
  • How quickly should you respond to an email from a business? A coworker? A friend?


This year's survey revealed that email response time expectations continue to escalate: 16.5% of respondents want a business to reply within an hour, 13% will wait four hours, and 43.4% want a response within one day. Any way you slice the data, one thing is clear: Businesses better hurry up and answer, or customers will walk away. Or even worse -- they will email again!

Knowing that I have many an opinion on how to do email right, Jeff kindly interviewed me on ways customer care organizations, and businesses of all types, can improve email response time without sacrificing email quality.

Please watch our interview and let me know what you think. Do the survey results match your customers' expectations for email response time? How soon do you expect an email response from a business, coworker, or friend?

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