Answering Customer Service E-mail: Five Errors to Avoid

    February 25, 2003

We’re turning our focus this new year to customer service e-mail messages, those “answers” we receive in our inboxes when we write to customer service representatives (CSRs) for help. Our research method: Send hundreds of customer service questions and requests via e-mail. We’ve e-mailed everyone — from Fortune 500s to ma-and-pa companies, from public corporations to nonprofits and government agencies. We’ve solicited customer service e-mail from clients and colleagues. What we’ve learned so far: (1) Lots of customer service representatives lack the basic writing skills they need to communicate with customers. (2) Lots of companies are sending out embarrassing, inaccurate, business-damaging e-mail disguised as “help.”

As we analyze the e-mail responses in our huge collection, we discovered that the unsatisfactory e-mails shared one of several traits. We present these to you now: Five E-mail Errors to Avoid.

Error #1: Don’t Write Us, We Won’t Write You
The Mayor’s website urged us to send an e-mail. (“Let me know how you think our city is doing…”) The website assured a “timely response.” So, we sent an e-mail complaining about a garbage pickup. That was three months ago, and we haven’t gotten a reply – an untimely response by any measure.

The mayor was not alone in ignoring our e-mail. A surprisingly high number of our e-mails got no response. Our inquiries were about products we wanted to buy, places we wanted to visit, organizations we wanted to join and problems we had with existing products or government services. The no-response not only annoyed us, it puzzled us. Didn’t this company want our business, the politician our vote? They won’t get it. We exercised our consumer options and went elsewhere. The no-responders lost our business and, if we had been their customers in the past, our loyalty. We’ll be doing business with the competition from now on.

Error #2: Sending The Wrong Canned Response We acknowledge the practicality of auto responders and canned (or knowledge database) responses. We appreciate a machine-generated response that acknowledges our e-mail and gives a timeframe for a “human” response. However, we were quite irked when the response didn’t meet the promised timeframe, or didn’t come at all.

Canned responses are a practical solution to customers’ frequently asked (and frequently answered) questions. But often the canned response didn’t answer our question. Or, if we asked several questions, one or more went unanswered. That meant we had to contact the company again.

Sometimes we got a one-size-fits-all response that probably fits no one. For example, we sent the following question to a financial aid information service: “I have a daughter, age 8. I would like information about saving for her college costs. ” We received a 1200-word answer that told us everything we DIDN’T want to know about the necessary forms and the filing deadlines for scholarships. The message even included this useless information: “Once your daughter makes 24 on-time payments and meets the minimum co-borrower release credit requirements, she may apply to release her co-borrower.” The e-mail said nothing about SAVING for college.

Three months later we e-mailed the same organization a new question: “I would like information about scholarship assistance for the grandchildren of veterans.” We got the EXACT SAME 1200-word off-topic response we had received the first time.

Error #3: Giving Customers The No-Answer Run-Around
A particularly annoying type of response not only failed to answer our question, it sent us to the company’s website where, most likely, we hadn’t found the information in the first place! For example, we sent an online travel service this e-mail: “I’d like to rent a Chrysler PT Cruiser on my next trip. How do I find out which company rents them and how do I reserve one? I don’t want to end up getting a Ford Explorer!” Instead of answering our question, the e-mail response explained how to make reservations online and referred us back to the website’s unhelpful FAQs.

In another query, we asked a senior citizen’s organization “Do you have summer camps that grandchildren and grandparents can attend together?” We were sent back to the website for a keyword search. The customer service representative wrote “With our enhanced on-line services, you can now search our catalogs by topic or other key word via our Web site.” Is it too much to expect that customer service do the search to find the information or know their products well enough to answer the question?

A variation on the “run around” was a response from a large catalog store to our question about whether a particular hand-held computer could be used for PowerPoint presentations. The response: “Contact our mail order department, or visit our website.”

Error #4: Giving Customers No Satisfaction
Sometimes the company did an adequate job of answering our question, but the response did not acknowledge our pain and suffering or our value as a customer. For example, we sent this e-mail about a bill we’d received for a magazine subscription: “You have sent me three bills for your magazine since I made my payment. There must be a MAJOR problem in the way you process payments. Would you please make sure that I don’t receive another bill?”

The subscription company finally solved the problem with the bill, but the e-mail response it sent us did not satisfy. The company wrote: “We have your payment. You do not expire until November 2001.” Not only did the response sound ominous (you do not expire!), it didn’t acknowledge or apologize for our pain and inconvenience. Each customer service e-mail is an opportunity to build a relationship with a customer. Each response should make the customer feel valued.

Error #5: Sending A Sloppy Response
Some companies that sent us e-mail had clearly adopted the “it’s only e-mail” attitude. They decided somewhere along the line that e-mail was so casual that spelling and grammar don’t matter. But spelling and grammar do matter, and not only to aging English teachers. Here’s the e-mail response we received to our question about a product guarantee. “Our product quarantee is Gauranteed Period.” This response made us wonder. Is the company as sloppy about shipping as it is about spelling? Would the package arrive by Christmas, as promised?

What do these five e-mail errors tell us? Many companies need an attitude adjustment when it comes to customer service e-mail. Perhaps the benchmark of a successful customer service e-mail effort should be the quality of the response, not how many are answered per hour. Did your response serve your customer? If not, you risk alienating your customer and hurting your bottom line.

What are companies doing right? Our next article will look at good examples. We’ll discuss the traits of excellent e-mail, and tell you how to elevate your customer service e-mails from adequate to excellent.

Well, that’s the end of this article. This time we’ll close by quoting the motto of retail chain Macy’s: “Be everywhere, do everything, and never fail to astonish the customer.” What does this motto have to do with customer service e-mail? Well, it’s never a good idea to astonish your customer by writing badly.

Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O’Flahavan are partners in E-WRITE —, a training and consulting company in the Washington, D.C. area that specializes in online writing. Rudick and O’Flahavan are authors of the book Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents.

Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O’Flahavan Answer Online Writing Questions: Click Here For Free Answers