by E-WRITE's Leslie O'Flahavan

October 6, 2014

Pet Peeves Of Written Customer Service: Google Hangout with CommBetterBlog

Check it out! Jenny Dempsey and Jeremy Watkin of Communicate Better Blog invited me to hang out with them and talk about our pet peeves of written customer service. We had plenty of peeves -- customers who write in ALL CAPS, agents who write long emails without answering the customer's question -- and plenty of faves, too. Watch our hangout and share what drives you crazy in customer service email, chat, text, or social.

(Programming note: Please forgive the audio awkwardness from 1:00 to about 1:32. It's all my fault.)

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September 16, 2014

Six Strategies for Writing Great Text Messages to Customers

Text messaging isn’t just for pushing parking meter reminders or announcing severe weather. Ahead-of-the-curve companies are using text for two-way communication with customers. At a Denver coffee shop, customers can place their orders and pay by text. A large Midwestern university uses text messaging to solicit data from people participating in a long-term study on smoking. A technology company enables customers to troubleshoot software problems via text message. Members of a trade association can text their questions about membership levels, how to reset their passwords, and more.

While it may be true that almost anyone can write a text – Just left work. I’ll B home by 6:30 – companies that exchange texts with customers must write great texts: clear, readable, and worthwhile.

Follow these text writing tips, and your company will be able to deliver a great customer experience in under 160 characters.

1. Give clear instructions about what the customer should text to you. Texting should be more than just easy; it should be efficient. To make a short, rapid exchange with a customer work, your texts should tell the customer exactly what to do next, what kind of information to supply, and how to supply it.

Here’s an example of a text exchange that tells the customer exactly what to do to book a tee time at a local golf course:


Here’s why these text instructions work:

  • Consistent terminology. The texts use the word reply each time. There’s no switching back and forth between reply, respond, or send, etc. The consistent wording makes the experience predictable for the customer.
  • Limited options. The texts ask the customer to do one of two things, such as reply Y or N. Sometimes the texts ask the customer to do just one thing – simpler yet.


2. Use a polite, friendly, upbeat tone. The tone of the texts we exchange with friends and family can be silly, sarcastic, angry, even sexy. But the texts companies write to customers should have a business-appropriate tone as well as a text-appropriate tone. Finding this tone balance isn’t always easy. A business-appropriate tone may sound too stuffy in a text. For example, no one would text a customer “As per our recent conversation…” And a text-appropriate tone may sound unprofessional. No business would text a customer “Whazzup? Sry yr order is late…

So how should companies find the right tone balance? Their texts should be polite and upbeat. Energetic texts that have a let’s-get-things-done tone connect well with customers. For example, here's a company’s text request for customers to complete a satisfaction survey, plus two follow-up texts.

  • Please reply 1-10 to show how likely you would be to recommend our business to someone you know.
  • [for low scores] Sorry to hear that we haven’t provided the level of support you deserve. Please tell us how we can improve to serve you better in the future.
  • [for high scores] Thanks for the great rating! We’d love to have you rate us on


What’s polite and upbeat about the tone of these texts?

  • They use courteous language without sounding stiff: “Sorry to hear…” and “Please tell us…
  • The writing conveys energy: “Thanks for the great rating! We’d love to have you…
  • The personal pronouns help the company connect. The texts use our, you, we, us, which helps the writing sound friendly.


3. Use correct spelling and punctuation. This might seem like a no-brainer, but some people do think text is casual enough to be beyond spellcheck or correct commas. It’s not. When you’re texting for business, your texts should be spelled and punctuated correctly. Full sentences end with a period; possessives have an apostrophe.

Using correct spelling and punctuation is just the right thing to do. To prove the point, here’s how unprofessional it looks when texts have errors:

  • Thanks for your participation - you've got a chance to win some great prizes! To begin please reply with you’re first and last name now.
  • K, thanks! Please reply with the number assigned to the company you's lie to vote for. A list of company numbers can be found at


4. Establish a statement/question pattern. Patterns help busy readers, so they’re essential when you’re sending a series of texts. In this series, the company presents the statement first and the question second. The pattern makes the text series easier to read.



5. Strictly limit textese (or don’t use it at all). If you’re sending customers transactional texts (ones that help them get things done) or customer service texts (ones that answer their questions, fix their problems or acknowledge their opinions), you should avoid textese. That’s right. No GR8, no LOL, no ATM, no TY. The only time textese might work in a text between customers and companies is when the company’s marketing has used it already. So, if your product’s tag line is “Being GR8 4 U,” you will be using textese. But if your advertising doesn’t include textese, you should probably skip it.


6. Split long texts into two parts. Respect the 160-character limit for each text. Don’t try to squeeze in more information than the text will hold or load your text with abbreviations so it will fit the character limit. If you have more to say, split a long text into two smaller ones. Make sure each text makes sense on its own. Here’s one crowded text that should be split into two:

  • SchoolVIEW site licenses,15-30 users, 6mo license=$399, 12mo=$999. License opts Click Cust Licenses at top of pg & we’ll send quote.


Here’s the two-text version:

  • We offer SchoolVIEW site licenses for up to 15 or 30 users. You can choose a 6-month license for $399 or a 12-month for $999.
  • Compare our SchoolVIEW site license options at Or click “Custom Licenses” at the top of the page and we’ll prepare a quote for you.


The risks with text are low, and the rewards are high. If you’re writing high-quality, professional, easy-to-read text to customers, you’re doing text right!

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July 19, 2014

Want to be a better proofreader? Read these books and build your skills

Need to brush up on your proofreading skills? Here's a list of books that will help you catch errors before they embarrass you or your company. These books were recently recommended by members of the Stet Professional Copy Editors LinkedIn group, and I have included their comments on each title.


Do you have a book to suggest? List it in the comments, below. Thanks!


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June 5, 2014

Customer Service Chat by Vizio: Some Answers, But No Help

Chat_Bubble_Huh?Customer service chat is the bright new thing -- popular with companies and customers alike. It's easy, it's quick, and it works well on mobile devices. But easy and popular doesn't always equal good. Read this chat with customer service agent "Jack" at Vizio. It is a set of customer service blunders, large and small.

Here's the chat transcript

Visitor: Hi I just bought a 50" M501d-A2R tv. i am trying to set it up. I can't put in the password to my wifi because my password is longer than the number of characters allowed. I don't want to reset my password on my Cisco cable router. Can you help?

Jack: Here at VIZIO we pride ourselves in providing best in class U.S. based support. I’m happy to assist you today. How many digits is your wireless password?

Visitor: 26 digits

Jack: The TV will support up to 22 digits. Unfortunately the password would need to be shortened to work with our TVs.

Visitor: Hmm i am not glad to hear that

Jack: I apologize for the inconvenience.

Visitor: Ok. Please email me a transcript of this chat. Thank you.

Jack: You're welcome! You will receive a copy of this chat transcript as soon as the chat window has closed. Thank you for chatting with VIZIO today. If you have any questions feel free to contact our support team at 1-877-878-4946, online at, or email us at! We would also like you to join VIZIO Fandemonium today to earn points and win prizes only at Thanks again, and have a great day!


Here's how this chat needs to be improved:

  • Stop the chest-thumping about being US-based. This should NOT be the first thing Jack says to the customer. In fact, Jack shouldn't say this at all. It doesn't matter whether Vizio's support is based in the US. The customer wants a high-quality chat. He wants a quick, correct, complete answer. Jack's first statement really causes problems because the support he provides isn't worth the company's pride and it isn't best-in-class. The cultural elitism of this statement is really unattractive, especially given the poor quality of the chat.
  • Use the customer's name. The impersonal use of "Visitor" rather than the customer's name clashes with the parts of the chat that are quite good. Some of Jack's replies are specific and personal. For example, when he asks, "How many digits is your wireless password?", it is clear he's read what Visitor has written. The chat system should be configured to use the customer's name. Why would any customer service organization want to refer to a customer by an anonymous term?
  • Be sincere. I was really sad when Jack laid down the classic customer service trope:  "I apologize for the inconvenience." In this case, this statement is insincere and unnecessary. There's no need for an apology because neither Jack nor Vizio has done anything wrong. And it's a true service failure to simply apologize when the customer needs help solving the problem.
  • Help the customer. Don't merely answer the customer's question. Visitor got an answer to his question about the length of his password. His is four digits too long. But Jack never helped him. Even if Jack can't actually help Visitor reset the password on the Cisco router, he should have written something like, "Refer to the user guide that came with your Cisco router to find instructions on how to reset and shorten your password..."
  • Omit the marketing.  Vizio clearly thinks, "We've got Visitor's attention, so let's pitch him Fandemonium." But this pitch doesn't belong in this chat, especially given the poor service Vizio has provided. And it's not good marketing copy, either. Points? For what? Prizes? What kind? What's In It For Me?


Check out these resources for writing great chat to customers



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May 20, 2014

Formatting business emails? Less is always more

Back away from the caps lock. Hands off the background colors. When it comes to formatting emails, minimalism works best. 

Have you ever received an email like this one to Josephine? It's proof that too much formatting makes your email unreadable.


Don't pretty-up your emails

If you are tempted to add lots of color, use many different fonts, or drop in some super-cute clip art, please reconsider. Using too much formatting is confusing and unprofessional. Write your emails clearly and concisely, then stick to the formatting basics: crisp black text on a clean white background. Use white space to show how ideas are grouped.

How often should you use these formatting options in your emails?


Four things to remember about formatting emails:

  1. A little formatting goes a long way. If you use bold or color to make certain words stand out in an email, use only a little. After all, the special words need to look different to stand out. When you use too much formatting, everything looks the same.
  2. Readers can usually understand two font effects, not more. Let's say you are writing an email that contains instructions on how to submit an online application. You might bold the first word in each step: " (1) Create account; (2) Review personal information; (3) Upload resume..." You might use italics for an explanatory note: "Note: You cannot revise your application after you have submitted it." In this example, you have used two font effects: bold and italics. In most cases, the reader will understand that the bolded words indicate steps in a sequence and the italicized words indicate an explanation. But if you use a third effect--red font, for example--you'll probably just confuse your reader.
  3. White space does the most work. Because white space shows how ideas are grouped and the number of ideas in your email, it's the formatting tool that helps readers most. Use white space carefully and purposefully. Your readers will be grateful.
  4. Work email is different from personal email. In your personal emails, you just go ahead and add as much formatting as you'd like. Use a yellow font on an orange background. Insert row upon row of emoticons. Add pithy quotations and Bible verses to your signature, each in a different font. Your friends and family will let you know if they've stopped reading your email because, well, they can't read your email!

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