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Web Writing That Works: How to Answer Customer Email

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

By Jonathan and Lisa Price

Sure, automate a reply saying you will get to their questions as soon as you can. Good practice: reply within an hour. Best: reply within a second.

But what do you say when you actually get around to responding to the person’s question, complaint, or garbled statement of confusion?

In this article, we walk you through a pattern that will help you solve your customer’s problems, while ensuring that your customers come back and buy again.

Invite Them to Email YOU

First off, invite personal contact. Make it easy for people to call, e-mail, or write you a letter. You, personally.

Put up real names and pictures with e-mail addresses, snail mail addresses, and (most daring of all) phone numbers.

Showing your face and real contact info, you can persuade people that they actually have a chance of communicating with a human being, not some robotic autoresponder.

Plus, if your organization can stand it, you can carve up responsibility for answering customer e-mails, and suggest that if the question deals with printers, this person is the one to write to, but if people are having a problem with a scanner, they should try this other person. Avoid the one-size-fits-all INFO at your web site, a dumping ground that most savvy consumers avoid, sensing they will only get a stupid form letter back.

You can filter a lot of questions right on the Web site, rather than depending on expensive software to analyze incoming traffic.

And if you don’t dare admit who you are on the site, then spend the money to route the e-mail to the right respondent, within seconds, so e-mails don’t end up in the hands of idiots, or, worse, people who could care less about the issue.

Set Up Detailed Guidelines For Responses

Sure, set up an auto-responder to reply within a few seconds, saying, "Thanks for your message, I’ll get back to you within 24 hours."

Why? People suspect their e-mail will go wrong. So getting an immediate response is reassuring, even if the text is boilerplate. (Of course, you ought to put your full name, address, and phone in there, too, as evidence of your good faith).

Then beat their expectations by responding within 6 hours.

Don’t let a day go by without a response. You must set some kind of deadline for replies.

The sign of a mature site is absolute determination to reply within a few hours. Beginning sites often neglect this little touch, making thousands of customers mad enough to vow never to return.

Guidelines On Content

Set some limits on what respondents can say, too. They must not:

  • Preannounce products or services
  • Promise repairs that may not materialize
  • Swear that everything will be just fine--if the reader just follows the advice everything will work like a well-oiled machine.

Develop A Style Guide Just For E-mail

A style guide lays down the law for your customer service reps. In the style guide, you should:

  • Define the exact capitalization, spelling, and punctuation of product names, departments, and technical terms, so you are consistent within your message, and if anyone else writes to the same customer, the text looks as if it comes from the same company.
  • Ban e-mail abbreviations like BTW (’by the way"), and THX ("Thanks") because some people imagine those are airports, or car models.
  • Keep it clean. No swearing. No snide comments about stupid users.
  • Keep it legal. No attacks on a gender, age group, religion, ethnic group, nationality, area of the country...you know the drill.
  • Offer standard patterns for responses, so reps know how to organize a reply.

Provide a database of boilerplate answers.

You need standard troubleshooting guides, and regular procedures. Your customer service reps must have some advice they can take off the shelf, and plug into their responses.

Keep filling up the database as your reps track new questions. Make sure you have someone writing new content and editing the reps' scrambled notes, full time.

And make it easy for reps to find the content by thinking carefully, and filling in the fields for symptoms, or problems.

Make The Subject Line Mean Something

You don’t want the customer deleting your message, thinking it is just another pitch for working at home.

Use at least one word from the customer’s description of the problem. If the customer wrote a particular subject line, repeat it. Don’t go generic.

If your customer never wrote a subject line, or if the subject line is something generic from your web server, like "Customer service," then you should make up a better subject line.

Mention items that can ring a bell, reminding the customers what they were writing about. If you don’t get recognition, they will delete you unread.

So good things to put in the subject line include:

  • Your company name
  • The order number
  • The product name
  • The problem, in the customer’s terms, if possible. (No need to reproduce all those cusswords.)

Move The Key Terms To The Front

Most folks read the subject line in a list of emails. The column may not be very wide. So whatever you say may get truncated.

Skip filler up front.

Shorten your company name.

Move the problem, product, or any other identifying information toward the beginning.

Postpone order numbers, and other trivia. Your customers can read that when they actually open the email.

Avoid Trouble

Every month, another term enters the thesaurus of spam filters. Make sure you are not inadvertently using one of those terms--words that will get you banished to a spam folder, or rejected by a server.

Never use words like free, now, money, sex, xxx, porn, spam, deal, stock, invest...anything you know could look like spam.

Recently, spammers have taken to putting a string of random characters between the letters of banned words, like porn. So filters have begun to seize on any email that comes in with a string of six or eight characters in a row, forming no known word. Make sure that your order and transaction codes are mostly numbers, if you put them into subject lines.

You can see that in the war against spam, you could be an innocent victim. So stay in touch with your marketing group, who wrestle with these issues every day. Designate someone as the official Spamster, to make sure that you are not accidentally getting filtered right out of your customer’s mailbox.

Start Off By Recognizing What They Said

Your consumer is still a bit suspicious, even after deciding to open your email. You have gotten past the danger zone, the subject line. Now what are you going to say?

To capture attention right away, begin your message by writing a sentence that includes some of the language the customer used.

Go Beyond Quote-Back

Don’t just quote back: that’s too mechanical.

Acknowledge what they have said. How? By echoing.

Echo whatever they have said. Carl Rogers, the psychologist, insisted that a shrink repeat to the patient what the patient just said, without criticizing. Be a Rogerian.

Think about what they said, and apologize for the difficulty, taking care to show that you have actually listened to their representation of the problem.

If the customers have sent nasty, snotty, vicious, or stupid messages, make the effort to put yourself in their position. Try to understand how your site could have provoked such a reaction.

Of course, some folks are just jerks, and no amount of empathy will make you respect them.

And if you come up with a hilarious response--you know, some smart-aleck comment--tell your neighbor, but resist typing it into your response. Snappy put-downs have a way of turning an irritated customer into a militant adversary.

Deliberately Express Sympathy And Interest

Your job is to help, not poke the customer with a stick.

So, within the constraints of your job, dare to say that you are sorry, that you are concerned, that you care.

Even if you are talking about a technical subject, indulge in a little enthusiasm, too, if you can manage it. But don’t just throw in a few exclamation points.

Real interest shows in nouns and verbs--not smarmy adjectives, and oily adverbs.

And never, never go ALL CAPS. That’s shouting in your reader’s ear.

Alas, most businesses discourage the use of emoticons, that wonderful iconic language indicating the tone of voice.

Your task, then, is to show some human emotion. If you can’t be sympatico, most of the time, you have no business answering customer emails.

Encourage Your Feminine Side

Gender differences show up in those virtual conversations we hold via e-mail, according to some recent research.

If the subject is technical, the tradition is male.

"Men come online to give information or give an answer, and in essence, stop the conversation."

--David Silver, Resource Center for Cyber Culture Studies

"Men tend to make strong assertions."

--Susan Herring, Indiana University at Bloomington, Information Sciences and Linguistics

Male-pattern e-mail seems to be abrupt, informational, and aggressive. Men tend to start or contribute eagerly to flame wars, but otherwise aim to limit the amount of interaction.

Useful, practical, to the point--that’s the masculine style.

But it’s a bit off-putting in an e-mail to a puzzled, upset, angry, or anxious consumer.

The feminine approach to e-mail is to soften most assertions, raise questions, make offers, offer suggestions, and throw in a lot of polite comments, to support the other person.

In all these ways, women encourage others to engage, according to professors Herring and Silver.

For guys, this style can mean slowing down, indulging in a little thought about the other person, making an effort to be agreeable, weakening any assertions about what the customer may have done or thought.

And gals, if you have been trying to be tough, direct, to the point, and technical...relax a bit. Imagine you are writing to a friend.

Drop In Boilerplate Answers To Common Questions

You don’t have time to answer the same question a hundred different ways. So get your team together, and draft a standard response.

In the old days, boilers were made out of gigantic sheets of lead, all about the same size, bolted together. You need boilerplate, to make sure you are giving the same answer to the same problem, over and over...without forgetting a key step, or garbling a key term.

So make up these standard responses, and store them in your customer support database, where each rep can easily grab them, and paste them into the email response.

In this way, once you have written your opening, you can pick the best boilerplate response, and drop that into the e-mail.

The boilerplate answer should be a very simple, very plain description of the symptoms, echoing what the customer has said, then a brief analysis of the cause (a diagnosis), followed by a solution, with clear steps to remedy the problem

Just make sure your boilerplate doesn’t give you away. If the standard chunk sounds completely unlike your opening, or refers to an illustration "above," your cover will be blown.

Best bet: re-read the material in context and make a few edits, to keep the tone and content relevant.

Sign Off, Personally

Add your own signature block, with a real email address that comes to you.

Let customers get hold of you--you personally.

Put as much of a street address as you can stand.

Put a favorite quote, if your firm allows it. Anything that gives a sense of your taste, your values--again, something personal, not a slogan from the marketing team, or a platitude from the boss.

Sign your name. What a simple way to personalize a message!

Recognize that sometimes, despite your best efforts, your email will not solve the problem.

Perhaps you misunderstood what the problem was. Perhaps the customer misstated the symptoms, so your solution is completely irrelevant.

Allow the customer to come back for another try.

You are giving someone a chance to follow up, to ask the next question, to move forward. Without a personal signature block, you are forcing them to explain the whole thing all over again, and that makes people get even angrier than they were before. Let the customer respond to you, just as you have responded: move the conversation forward.

And if your answer has solved the problem, heck, no sweat off your nose. You have responded as if you were a person, not a corporation, and the customer may feel a bit warmer toward you, and the company you work for. Who knows? They might even come back to buy again.