Six Things that Won’t Change About Writing to Customers

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.

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