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Posts within the category: Customer service e-mail
January 24, 2013
This article was first published in the Winter 2012 issue of CRM Magazine.
In the last few years, almost everything about writing to customers has changed. The number of channels has gone from three (letters, faxes, and e-mails) to at least seven (letters, faxes, e-mails, texts, live chats, tweets, and wall posts). The way customers receive our written communication has changed from mailbox to desktop computer to mobile device. And customers’ behaviors have changed. Today’s customers won’t wait very long to hear from us, and they won’t read much of what we write.
So how are we to get our bearings in this world of rapid change? How can we provide high-quality written communication to customers? By focusing on the things that haven’t changed. We can write well to customers in these new channels by realizing that at least six things about writing to customers just won’t change.
1. Customers need a correct answer.
This has always been true, and it always will be. It doesn’t matter how the customer receives the answer; the answer must be correct. And in the uber-fast-paced world of social media customer service, correctness is even more important, as it’s easy for customers who receive incorrect answers to share, share, share.
2. Customers need a complete answer.
For customers and contact centers alike, a complete answer is essential. Complete answers are the key to first contact resolution. But it was a lot easier to write a complete answer when we were sending one-page letters or one-screen e-mails. Giving a set of instructions or explaining a company policy was easier to do in the old written channels than it is in the new social media ones.
One strategy for providing a complete answer when you only have 140 characters (Twitter) or 250 characters (Facebook) is to give the answer and link to the explanation. So your tweet in response to a customer’s question about whether she can return an item might be “Yes, you can return the microwave. Here’s how link.”
3. Customers need a prompt answer.
Here’s where we may be in a brave new world. Back when we sent customers letters, they’d wait patiently for a response for five business days or longer. And most customers considered an e-mail response prompt if it arrived within 24 hours. But the pace of social media service has changed the definition of prompt. A prompt response to a customer’s tweet must come in minutes, and a prompt reply during a live chat comes in seconds.
Sure, the pace of written customer service has changed dramatically, and contact centers have to staff service channels so customers receive prompt responses. But the measure of what constitutes promptness is the same as it’s always been: a written response is prompt if it prevents the customer from initiating another contact about the long wait. If customers send a second e-mail to ask when we’ll respond to their first one, our response time is too slow. If they tweet us to ask why we didn’t respond to their first tweet, we’re too slow.
4. Customers want you to use a tone that shows you care, matches your brand, and helps them feel close to your company.
It’s not like this was different in the past. No customer ever liked receiving a “To Whom it May Concern” form letter. But tone is even more important in social media channels because they are, well, social. We use a more casual tone with customers in these channels because doing so builds rapport and makes customers easier to serve. So a live chat agent might write “Let me help walk you through this,” and a Twitter agent might tweet “I’ll look into it. Pls DM me.” We’re friendly and professional when we write to customers in any channel, but in social media we avoid the tuxedo tone and choose a blue jeans tone instead.
5. Customers need access to other kinds of help.
This has always been true about written customer service. In the past, a customer service letter might have included a telephone number customers could call if they continued to have trouble with a product or the street address of a repair shop.
When they have a problem with a product today, most customers (Gen Y’s, Millennials, and Boomers) search for a solution online, so excellent written service must integrate other online forms of help. Your customer service Facebook page should include links to your company’s FAQs; your tweets should include shortened links to online demos or YouTube videos, and your e-mails should link customers directly to online user manuals or downloads.
6. Customers respect correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Is it hip to be square? Do old-school rules about writing correctly apply to social media channels? The answer is yes. While few of us would think less of a friend who misspells a word in a Facebook post, most of us are not impressed if a customer service agent makes the same spelling blunder.
Customers don’t want to see grammar, spelling, or punctuation mistakes in any written channel. Those mistakes make them think less of your company or question whether the answer itself is accurate. But they don’t mind informal writing in most social channels. Informal writing isn’t the same as error-filled writing. For example, the space-saving abbreviation Thx (for Thanks) is fine in a tweet. Using a dash between two short sentences in a fast-paced live chat is an OK substitute for the slow-to-type period, space, and capital letter that ends one sentence and begins the next.
Don’t get me wrong. I realize that writing to customers has changed in many ways. Today’s customers read our e-mails on tiny mobile devices, so they prefer tiny amounts of text. Today’s live chat customers expect real-time answers to really big questions. Today’s Twitter customers wield outsize influence in social media channels: “You better give me what I want or I’m going viral with my beef.”
So how can contact centers cope with these writing challenges? By sticking with the basics. Write to customers in these new channels the way you’ve always written to them. Keep providing correct, complete, prompt, friendly, resourceful, tidy written service, and everything should be OK.
August 27, 2012
In autumn 2012, I was especially interested in customer service e-mails from the the world's airlines. That September, I spoke at the annual conference of the Worldwide Airlines Customer Relations Association's annual conference in Kuala Lumpur.
To get ready, I ran a little customer service e-mail experiment. On Friday, August 3, I sent the same e-mail to six airlines. Here's what I wrote:
I am planning a trip from [City A] to [City B] on [your Airline] in September. I will be bringing a pair of ice skates with me. May I put the skates in my carry-on bag, or do I need to put the skates in my checked luggage? Thank you.
By the way, the ice skates are just an e-mail ruse. I brought lots of important items to Kuala Lumpur, but no ice skates were in my bag!
The quickest response came from Air France.
Within five hours, I received this e-mail:
Dear Ms. O'Flahavan,
You will need to carry them in your check in luggage.
Thank you for using the Air France E-Services
1-800-99 AF WEB (1-800-992-3932)
Seven days a week 8:00 am to 7:30 pm, Eastern Standard Time
The Air France e-mail is a tidy success. The airline responded promptly, and the agent answered my question. My ice skates must go in my checked luggage. Air France got the e-mail job done.
easyJet sent a detailed, personal response.
On August 5, I received this e-mail from easyJet:
Thank you for considering us for your travel plans.
You need to carry pair of ice skate as hold baggage. You are not allowed to carry ice skates in hand baggage as they are classified as dangerous goods. For information on dangerous goods, please click on the link below:
You can add a hold baggage online or via contact centre or at airport. Payment of the hold baggage fee provides you an aggregate weight allowance of 20 kilos per passenger, not per item. Each hold baggage should be within the dimension of 275cm (length+width+height). For more information on hold baggage, please click on the link below:
I look forward to your travelling with us.
easyJet Customer Services
For several reasons, easyJet's e-mail is excellent:
- "Simon" uses a warm tone in the first and last sentence of the e-mail. His writing is friendly, and he uses pronouns such as I and you to make it personal.
- He answers my question right up front, in the second sentence, so if I read no further, I've still gotten my answer.
- He includes links to detailed information at the easyJet website. This is good writing and smart customer service.
- In the second paragraph, he anticipates and answers my next question. He knows that once he's explained I cannot put my ice skates in my hand baggage, I am quite likely to ask how to add hold baggage and how much I'll pay. By answering the question I didn't ask in my first e-mail, he frees me from having to write to easyJet again.
Malaysia Airlines sent a useful response.
On August 7, I received this e-mail from Malaysia Airlines:
Thank you for your email.
In response to your enquiry, you have to check in your ice skate and this will include in your free baggage allowance. For further information regarding baggage allowance, we suggest you to visit our website at
Malaysia Contact Centre| Global Contact Centre| www.malaysiaairlines.com
Malaysia Airlines Contact Centre : 1 300 88 3000 ( within Malaysia ) +603 7843 3000 (outside Malaysia) Please click at this URL for MAS offices and contact details: http://www.malaysiaairlines.com/hq/en/contact.html
Malaysia Airlines did a good job. They answered my question ("check your skates") and used friendly wording, if a bit repetitive at the end. They anticipated and answered my question about whether the checked skates would increase my baggage fee. The e-mail would have been better if they had addressed me by name instead of as "Customer," and if I'd received the reply a bit sooner. Four days is an awfully long time to wait for an answer. In fact, faced with a long wait for an e-mail reply, most customers initiate a costly second contact by phone, social media or, ahem, e-mail.
"But Leslie, you said you sent e-mails to six airlines..."
That's right. I did. I asked six airlines the same question about whether I could carry my ice-skates in my hand baggage. And the other three airlines, who shall remain nameless, provided the worst possible e-mail service. They did not respond at all!
Want more tips on writing high-quality e-mail to customers? Read these posts:
- If I told you to containerize your branches, would you know what to do?
- Which Online Retailer Does E-Mail Best?
- Avis e-mails to an unhappy customer: From flawed to perfect?
- E-mails about the Epsilon security breach: Marriott got it wrong, but Target and Hilton got it right
- A customer service e-mail from Southwest is about to kill the LUV
July 6, 2012
After the destructive derecho storms our region experienced last week, the streets were a mess of downed branches, wrenched limbs, uprooted trunks, and scattered leaves. And residents were eager to jump into clean up activities. But lots of us were wondering what to do with all the tree junk that had fallen. We didn't have to wait long for an answer from Alert Montgomery, our county government's e-mail and text system for sharing urgent messages with residents.
Plain Language, Please!
The person who wrote this e-mail needs to brush up on plain language skills, especially because readers were sweating in the dark and reading it on smartphones with dwindling batteries. Here's the e-mail in its entirety, followed by my comments and rewrite.
From: Alert Montgomery
To: Alert Montgomery Users
Subject: Debris Guidelines (Email only)
Once power has been restored throughout the County and operations are back to normal, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) will provide special storm debris collection. The date the collections will begin and additional details will be provided as soon as the information is available. Residents will be asked to place storm debris in the public right-of-way, ensuring that sidewalks, driveways and roads are not blocked.
Residents may also continue to use County-provided trash and yard trim curbside collection or drop off disposables at the Transfer Station.
Curbside Collection of Yard Trimmings:
Bag, bundle, or containerize branches, limbs and yard trim and place at curb on trash day. Bundles should not exceed 30 inches in diameter and branches should be no larger than four feet in length and four inches in diameter. Total weight must be less than 45 pounds for containers, bags and bundles.
For more information, visit: http://www6.montgomerycountymd.gov/apps/News/press/PR_details.asp?PrID=8652
Why This E-Mail is Written in Un-Plain Language
- The subject line is inexplicable. I guess the folks who wrote this e-mail wanted this content sent by e-mail only, not by text. And can debris really follow guidelines? In my experience, debris doesn't give a darn about guidelines.
- No personal pronouns. Bureaucrats write to "residents." Real people write to "you."
- Unnecessarily technical or made-up words. Can you picture a homeowner whose power has been out for 72 hours measuring the diameter of a branch to see whether it's five inches, not four? And as for "containerize," it's a treasure, but it's not the word this writer is looking for. I looked it up on Wiktionary, and it does not mean "to stuff yard debris into a container."
My Plain Language Rewrite
Here's my easy-to-read version of the Alert Montgomery e-mail. My rewrite goals: to help the county get the yard debris packed correctly and to help stressed out residents clean the junk out of their yards. Oh - and to build rapport between the county government and residents. Rapport smooths communication and customer service.
From: Alert Montgomery
To: Alert Montgomery Users
Subject: How to Package Yard Debris for County Pick-Up
Once power has been restored throughout the County and operations are back to normal, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) will provide special storm debris collection. We'll provide you with collection dates and other details as soon as the information is available. We expect to begin picking up storm debris on July 9 or soon after.
How to Package Yard Debris
You may bag, bundle, or pack your branches, limbs, and yard trim in containers. Your bundles shouldn't be larger than 30 inches in diameter. Individual branches shouldn't be longer than four feet or bigger than four inches around. Each bag, bundle, or container must weigh less than 45 pounds.
How We Will Collect Yard Debris
Place your items at the curb on your trash day, but please be sure to leave sidewalks, driveways, and roads clear. You may also dispose of storm debris on a regularly scheduled curbside collection date or drop off your debris at the Transfer Station.
For more information, read the press release "County Announces Crews Will Collect Storm Debris After Recovery"
There now. I feel better. I may have spent four days without electricity, AC, or cell phone service. My yard may be littered with debris. My air conditioning may be permanently damaged by power surges at the start of the storm, but at least that Alert Montgomery e-mail is readable. I do feel better. Really, I do.
July 2, 2012
Months before the hectic holiday shopping season, we decided to conduct an experiment to find out which online retailer does customer service e-mail best. We sent the same e-mail query to seven big-name retailers that sell a certain toy croquet set we were interested in buying and having shipped to a “nephew” who lives in Switzerland. We wanted to compare how well Amazon.com, Buy.com, Overstock.com. Sears, Toys R Us, Walmart, and Alex Toys answered the same customer question.
- Response time: How long did the customer wait for the e-mail reply?
- Tone: How friendly was the agent? Did the tone of the writing build rapport between the customer and the company
- First contact resolution: Did the agent answer the customer’s question completely?
- Clear writing: Is the writing concise, correct, and complete?
- Other sources of help: Did the answer include a phone number and links to the FAQs or knowledgebase?
Some of the e-mails contained some serious blunders!
- Overstock.com wrote this incomprehensible sentence: "These Answers were automatically selected for your consideration. If your issue is addressed in our public Answers, the solution link should be listed below. If no solutions are listed or the solutions do not match your issue, there were no public Answers matching your issue." I'm so confused! I know I have a question, but until I read Overstock.com's e-mail, I didn't realize I also have an "issue" that requires a "solution" or a "public Answer."
- Amazon.com withheld an answer because I e-mailed them from a different address than the one Amazon has on record for me. Amazon wrote " I'd love to help you, but I wasn't able to find a customer account that matched the e-mail address you wrote from, AABBCC@gmail.com. We can only provide account and order information to the e-mail address associated with the account. " All I wanted was to know whether Amazon could ship a toy to Switzerland. Hmm. I guess my money isn't green unless I'm logged in?
Download this whitepaper and read the retailers’ e-mails and our comments on which companies provided excellent service and which ones disappointed a prospective customer.
November 28, 2011
Well, maybe not perfect, but much better. After my friend Steve's abysmal car rental experience with Avis, he gladly completed an online customer satisfaction survey. He wanted Avis to know he was a most disappointed customer. Little did he know that he was about to become a more disappointed customer.
First e-mail from Avis: Lots of errors!
Here's the e-mail Steve received after he submitted his survey.
From: Smith, Ms. Anne <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Your feedback about your recent rental (Reference: -123456789)
Thank you for taking the recent survey from your past rental. I appreciate your feedback; it helps us serve our customers better. I sincerely apologies for you not being satisfied with your rental car experience, at your convenience if you have need to further discuss any other items or any future rental needs; you may reach me at 860 627 3700 ext 1234 or email email@example.com
Oooh, Anne, you have got to proofread before you send. Your second sentence is OK, but all the others contain errors:
- Write about your past rental not from your past rental.
- Change apologies to apologize.
- Brush up on your punctuation. You're misusing the comma and the semicolon.
- Tighten your wording. You wrote if you have need to further discuss any other items when to discuss any other items would do..
Second e-mail from Avis: Trying harder!
This e-mail is much better:
- Personal. It uses Steve's name twice and the pronoun we several times. It restates exactly where and when he had his unsatisfying experience.
- Positive. Avis assumes it can keep Steve's business and that he will book another Avis car. The e-mail uses phrases like look forward and your next experience.
- Proofread. In contrast to the first e-mail, this writer has spelled and punctuated correctly.
On the you-might-want-to-rethink-that list:
- The banner photo is odd, just odd. I am not sure what Avis is trying to convey by pairing the words We Apologize with a shiny black Chevy, but I am pretty sure Chevy won't be happy.
- We're in the business of treating people like people. As opposed to what?
I'm interested in your thoughts. What do you think would be the effect of the first, flawed e-mail on an unhappy customer? In your opinion, does the second e-mail's offer of an upgrade, $10 coupon, or bonus award miles offset the damage done by the first one?
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