Your customer service emails decide whether people will sing your company’s praises or abandon you for the competition. One positive email interaction can net you dozens of new customers; a bad one can drive away hundreds. This is especially true if you’re selling on eBay or otherwise rely on email for customer support.
What makes customer service emails good or bad? I’ve been writing them for years, and I’ve learned a lot about both—sometimes the hard way. Here are six of the most important truths I’ve discovered:
1. Assume Makes an Ass out of U and Me
"I assumed you'd like it!"
Imagine you wrote to a company to tell them your red widget wasn’t turning on. Now imagine they sent this reply:
It’s probably not working because you haven’t plugged it in.
Red Widget Company Support
Doesn’t that just make your blood boil?
One reason why it’s so bad is that it assumes there’s just one cause to the problem. Here’s how a five-star support rep would answer it:
Thank you for reaching out to us.
I’m very sorry to hear that your red widget isn’t turning on. Let’s run through a quick checklist and see if we can identify the problem:
- Is the widget plugged in? If not, you know what to do. :-)
- If it’s plugged in, does the power button glow red? If not, please let me know—it could be a problem with the phlebotinum.
- If the power button is glowing properly, does it make a sound more like a spaceship or more like a dying car when you push it? If it sounds like a dying car, kick the widget repeatedly and then try again. If it sounds like a spaceship, call the Men in Black right away.
I hope that helps! Please let us know if the problem persists or if the power button doesn’t glow when it’s plugged in. If it turns out your widget is broken, we’ll happily replace it at no cost to you.
Andy Anderson VII
Red Widget Company Support
That feels so much better, doesn’t it? You might have just forgotten to plug in your widget, but Andy didn’t assume that. He presented a small array of possibilities with quick solutions to each one.
Now, if it turns out the problem is something other than it not being plugged in, you have a few things to try. That saves you at least one extra email. You also know he’s waiting to help you again if those steps don’t fix the problem.
2. It’s Easy to Blame the Customer
"Of course our product isn't working. The owner is incompetent!"
Let’s re-examine the line “It’s probably not working because you haven’t plugged it in.”
Ever have someone say something like that to you? It’s humiliating. It says all the following:
- The problem is obvious. You would have seen it if you weren’t a hopeless mess.
- The problem is your fault.
- Answering this question is a waste of my time.
- I have such a low opinion of you that I won’t consider the possibility you already checked whether it was plugged in.
Rephrasing can eliminate all those problems. Remember how much better this felt?
“Is the widget plugged in? If not, you know what to do. :-)”
This sentence, especially with the help of the sentences that followed, said something completely different:
- This is a common cause for this problem and it’s easy to forget to check.
- You might not be at fault for the product not working.
- I know you might have checked already.
- I know the product well enough to understand this might not be the cause of the problem.
It’s no longer an accusation—it’s just a question that will help you find a solution.
But why? What makes it so much better?
Removing the word “you” when talking about the problem ("Is the widget plugged in?" rather than “It’s probably not working because you haven’t plugged it in") keeps the discussion neutral and takes blame out of the picture. And that’s a very good thing—if you don’t blame the customer, they’re much less likely to blame your customer service for the problem.
3. Being Personal Makes a Huge Difference
"I'm so glad you're enjoying Pokémon Go. Now, how can I help you with your jackhammer?"
Andy’s email is also better because it’s personal. It addresses the customer by name and tells them the name of the agent they’re talking to. This makes these emails a conversation between two people—not a formality between a corporation and a wallet.
It also doesn’t hurt that he included a strategically placed emoticon. The occasional smiley face can take the sting out of a sentence that might otherwise seem to question the reader’s intelligence. When used well, it says, “I know you’re smart enough to figure this out on your own, but I have to include this because not all of our customers are.”
4. More Time Reading = Less Time Lost
"I've never been so excited to read complaints!"
Take the time to understand exactly what the customer is asking. It’s easy to get into the habit of skimming customer emails for common problems, slapping in a canned response, and then firing it off without bothering to see if it will solve the problem.
So, you may end up seeing a line like “forgot my password” and then send out your default response, telling the customer to enter their email on a specific page to have it resent it to them. But a few hours later, they might send you a response like this:
Thanks for the fast response, but it seems like you didn’t actually read my email. As I said before, I can’t retrieve my password that way because I don’t get an email from you guys when I enter it on your “forgot your password” page. I think something on your website is broken.
The problem wasn’t that they didn’t know where to go on your website—the problem was that something had gone wrong with your autoresponder. Now you’ve worn your customer’s patience thin and cost yourself the time of two responses where one should’ve done the trick. And thanks to Murphy’s Law, your developer in the Philippines will probably have already signed off for the weekend, meaning two more days of complaints piling up before the problem gets fixed.
Paying careful attention to your customers is just part of what great customer service means. Don’t force them to repeat themselves and spend days waiting for and answering your customer service emails.
5. Canned and Automated Responses Aren’t Evil
"Send her . . . the automated emails."
Thanks to truths 3 and 4, some people believe canned and automated responses are the devil in digital form. However, they can save such an immense amount of time that they are easily worth using. You just have to use them well.
With canned responses, take the time to read the customer’s email and make sure the response completely addresses all their questions. If it doesn’t, simply customize it to fill in the extra details you need. I often cut and paste parts of different canned responses when answering customers who have multiple questions.
You should also always include the customer’s name if you know what it is. A powerful helpdesk can automatically add their name to your canned response, so you can personalize the email without typing a single word.
Automated responses are a bit trickier. By virtue of being automated, they can’t carefully read the customer’s email. All they can do is scan for phrases like “forgot my password” and then send a default reply.
To deal with this, remember truth 1. Phrase carefully so the message doesn’t assume they could only possibly be writing because of the default problem. I also recommend explaining that the email is automated so the customer doesn’t think you’re incompetent.
Here’s my idea of a good automated reply in response to an email including phrases like “forgot my password”:
Thanks for reaching out to Red Widget Company!
We’re sorry to hear your password slipped your mind. Passwords do that sometimes, those jerks. Luckily, we know exactly where to find it.
Please visit redwidgetcompany.com/forgotpassword and enter the email address you used to sign up. We’ll send your password to that address right away.
If the email doesn’t come through, be sure to check your spam folder, plus your social and promotions folders if you’re using Gmail.
If none of that helps or if this email hasn’t answered all of your questions, please write back to us. This was just an automated reply and our robots haven’t quite reached Terminator-level sentience yet. We’ll send your response to a real human and they’ll happily help you out.
All the best,
The Red Widget Company Support Team
Are you wondering how you can send awesome customer service emails like that in response to messages you haven’t even seen? Desk.com and Zendesk are two helpdesks that have those capabilities. I strongly recommend testing their free trials if you don’t have a helpdesk yet—we use Zendesk here at ChannelReply and love it!
6. Most Customers Want to Be Your Friend
"Ma'am, this thingy isn't working, but I don't blame you."
"You have such a wonderful beard."
For every acid-spewing monster who writes to you in a whirlwind of all-caps curses, you should get 99 customers who are patient, understanding, and friendly. Most of them aren’t looking for someone to blame, but for someone knowledgeable who can solve their problem and brighten their day.
Be kind and patient in your customer service emails. Read and write carefully. Treat every customer like a friend. If you can manage that, they’ll canonize you as a saint—and tell all their other friends to buy more from you!
Just don't take this too literally and ask if they want to hang out later. That's just weird.