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How to write great emails in the age of social service

There’s no denying that the Internet and social media are changing the way we all communicate. The shift isn’t limited to personal conversations and mass media: Traditional companies are also beginning to adopt the more friendly and personal tone that their customers increasingly expect, even in business dealings. But many companies—and their customer-facing employees—struggle to strike the right balance between conversational and professional.

Enter Leslie O’Flahavan of E-WRITE, who kindly answered a few questions to help demystify the process of writing great emails in the age of social service (because great emails don't write themselves).

You’ve been teaching and advising businesses about writing for almost 20 years. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in communications in that time, and what hasn’t changed?

Yes, a lot has changed in the last 20 years, but the essentials remain. To write well, you have to understand what your readers care about, you have to use concepts they understand, and, in customer service writing, you have to enable them to take action.

Many of the biggest changes I’ve seen in business communication are ones I really like. For example, today’s great workplace writers are committed to using plain language. Our documents and online writing look much better than they did 20 years ago; they’re much prettier! Today, most people use a more personal, direct tone than they did 20 years ago. In general, it’s all good.

One thing is for sure—business writing is changing all the time. Twenty years ago, a workplace writer would have turned to a graphic designer to help prepare an enewsletter or infographic. Today, the writer is expected to produce that content herself. To be a good business writer today, you need an open mind and flexible writing skills, because the forms and types of writing you’ll do just keep changing.

Social media and texting have retrained our brains for a new world of 140-character statements and abbreviations for every word. Is there still a place for proper grammar and correct spelling in day-to-day communications among companies and their customers?

Oh, yes. There absolutely is still a place for proper grammar and correct spelling, especially if you are writing to customers. We use proper grammar and correct spelling to convey professionalism and avoid confusion. If you’re writing to customers on Facebook or Twitter, you still need to come across as professional and clear.

We are, however, writing during a time of tremendous change in what’s considered correct and proper. Some uses of textese are so common that they are becoming correct and proper or becoming words themselves. For example, is it OK to write “Thx” in a tweet to a customer? Yes, and no. Yes, if the customer uses that abbreviation with you, if your brand voice is casual, or if you’re writing about an easy issue that’s going well. But you should write the proper word “Thanks” unless those conditions exist.

It’s almost always a bad idea to omit the capital letter at the beginning of a sentence or the period at the end, as these conventions make everything easier to read.

Are there any “magic” words or phrases that can help defuse customers’ anger?

I wish there were! Sadly, there aren’t any magic words or phrases that can defuse customers’ anger. There are, however, words and phrases that can make them angrier. Using legalese—“Sir, as per Section 3, paragraph A of our policy, we reserve the right to deny requests for extensions to the warranty period…”—is guaranteed to bring a customer’s mood to the boiling point. Words that signal your weariness with the issue can inflame a customer’s anger too, so avoid writing, “Again, while we understand your position, we cannot…” or “As I stated in my previous email, we cannot…

It will come across in your writing—loud and clear. The best way to defuse customers’ anger is to let them know that you do truly understand how they feel.

Many professionals dread—or even fear—writing. What advice do you have for people who want to learn to improve their writing and communicate with greater confidence?

I believe great writers are made, not born, so even if you’re not a natural at writing, you can get better. You can be good. The trick is to do as much writing as you possibly can. Take on writing projects. Ask for writing projects. If you dread or fear writing, the advice I am giving you can be hard to take, but the only way to get better at writing is to do lots of it.

Another thing you must do to become a better writer, and a more easy-going writer, is study other people’s writing. Identify two or three colleagues whose writing you like. Instead of getting stuck in “Why can’t I write like this?” thinking, examine your colleagues’ writing and try to figure out why you like it. How does she start her emails? What does he do in his reports to make a complex topic easy to understand? How did she show empathy in her response to that unhappy customer? Once you start to notice how good writers do what they do, you should imitate them in your own writing. That’s right, you should “rip off” your colleagues’ writing tactics because you’ll be building your writing skills along the way. Once you’ve absorbed the good writing behaviors others use, you’ll be able to develop your own. So here are three steps to becoming a better writer:

Three steps to becoming a better writer: Read critically, imitate freely, develop your own style and skills.

Is there a rule of thumb to determine which channel we should use to reply back to customers? Is it better to respond via the channel that the customer used to reach out to us, or is it time to pick up the phone and give them a call?

I think you do have to reply in the channel the customer chose to contact you, but you may not have to answer the question in that channel. Suppose a customer contacted you via email to ask you a troubleshooting question that is very complex. You might prefer to call the customer on the phone to help him out, but you should still email first. You could write a brief email that says, “Hey - got your question and I’m glad to help…” In the email, you should also ask the customer if you can give him a call, so you can walk him through the process. For a rule of thumb, you should always try to deliver service in the channel that requires the least effort from the customer. Sometimes that’s the channel he used to contact you, and sometimes it isn’t.

When you receive an email about a problem that will take longer to resolve, is sending a quick message about the actions we are taking a good idea or will that contribute to the unnecessary back-and-forth between support and customer?

Sending a “Here’s what we’re doing to solve your problem” email is a great practice, especially for help desks. It does add one layer of back-and-forth, but it’s the good kind—the kind that shows you’re responsive, invested, and taking action.

It is a good idea to keep the customer informed on the progress the support team is making even if that means taking a little extra time because it shows the customers you are thinking about them. But while we are being friendly and keeping them in the loop, it is important to remember not to be overly friendly.

How do we be friendly to customers without coddling them?

In my experience, writing in a friendly tone is different from overpromising or overextending. A friendly tone doesn’t have to become compensation, for example: “We’re friendly, so that means we have to give you 10,000 frequent flyer miles.” Using a friendly tone definitely does not mean coddling the customer. Let’s imagine that a customer asks a company to give a full refund on a product the customer broke in a fit of rage. We would tell this customer no, we’re not giving you a refund, but we’d do it in a direct, calm, friendly reply. We’re not going to violate our return policy for this customer. Friendly can be firm, too.

How should we treat Facebook private messages? Should we see them more as email or social media?

Facebook private messages shouldn’t have a different tone than emails. Some customer care organizations answer Facebook private messages faster, use a more personal tone, and are more “fun” than they are in emails. That’s a problem when about 30% of customer contacts are in email. In any channel, it’s usually safe to take the customer’s tone and attitude into account, so if your Facebook customers are far more casual than your email customers, you might use a more casual tone with them, but it’s not because they’re on Facebook per se. Your communication should be friendly, brand-appropriate, upbeat, and timely in all channels.

What’s the future of email?

I think the future of email is complicated. For personal communication, I believe email is dying a slow death (already dead?). But for business communication and as a customer service channel, I believe email can remain stalwart and useful if—and this is a big if—customer care organizations can improve the quality of what they send, answer faster, and integrate email content with other kinds of online self-service content. As for whether customer service staff should encourage one communication method over another, that’s an interesting question. I think we should prepare to give high-quality service in all the channels we offer, and we should avoid blaming the channel when our service quality is poor: “Our customers don’t like the phone. Of course, when they call us, they have to hold for about 15 minutes or use our 17-option IVR…”

For more best practices for writing high quality, brief, responsive email to customers, check out Leslie’s webinar on the topic: Writing Great Emails to Customers: How Social Media Has Changed the Rules.

Monica Norton is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. A former journalist and reformed advocate of the serial comma, Monica has wanted to be a writer ever since she penned her first (and last) novel in the 6th grade. Find her on Twitter: @monicalnorton.

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