Steps to Writing Effective, Explicit E-Mails

A contact center manager recently sent me several e-mails that her associates had sent to customers. The manager, Michelle, was dumbfounded at the writing skills of her customer-care associates — all of whom had college degrees.

“It’s like when they get on the Internet, they lose all sense of etiquette, professionalism and courtesy,” Michelle said. “And they ramble on for paragraph after paragraph until the customer is so confused that he finally calls in to me to ask what is actually being done about his particular issue.”

Michelle estimated that she spent 12 hours per week just trying to decipher, rewrite and resend unintelligible e-mails sent by her associates.

But that’s not Michelle’s main concern: “If I’m spending this much time, imagine how much time our customers are spending trying to read our e-mails. What worries me more than that is the customers who will just give up and move on to another company. These e-mails just really present a bad image for our company.”

In a study by Xerox, managers said they spent up to half of their working time reading and trying to understand written communications by their employees.

Another survey by VK Seminars & Training asked contact center managers how many customers they estimated were lost per month due to miscommunications in live chats or e-mails. Even we were surprised by the results: Of the 650 surveyed, 432 (or 66 percent) said that they lost at least two customers per month that they could verify were the result of mishandled e-mails. And one respondent said his average customer was worth $20,000 per year!

We all know how important it is to speak clearly in face-to-face and telephone interactions. But how do you “speak” clearly in an electronic format? Below are some basic tips to ensure your e-mails are customer friendly and to the point:

• Write a subject line that has an action statement. Let’s say a customer e-mails you with a request for additional information about your products or services. You plan to send her information on the specific products and services she has requested. The usual subject line in this case usually reads: The information you requested or Service Information. Neither is exciting. And for customers who receive dozens of e-mails per day, it may not be the first e-mail they attend to.

Writing a subject line that speaks to some action the customer must take generally gets a better response. Examples in our hypothetical situation include: Please respond by Friday or Please let me know your choice by this Wednesday. If you use an action statement combined with a time deadline in your subject line, it’s more likely that your e-mail will get noticed.

• Use a headline format in your writing. Most of your customers are busy people. The general rule for writing e-mails is that the customer should be able to get the gist of your message just by reading the headlines. To give you an example of how this may look, here’s a customer complaint letter to an office supply company, ABC Office Supply, that sells products over the Internet:

I recently purchased a copy machine from your office supply Web site. The qualities of the copies produced are disappointing. The letters are very fuzzy.

What options do I have? What are your return policies?

Please let me know. Thanks.

The following example could be a possible response:

Subject line: Please let us know when we can pick up the copy machine you ordered.

Dear (customer name):

We will be happy to refund your purchase price or exchange the copier for a more suitable model.

We never want a customer to keep a product he is not 100 percent satisfied with.

If you would like to consider another copier, some models that we have found to have better copy quality than the machine you purchased are:

• Model 123, priced at $X.

• Model 456, priced at $Y.

• Model 789, price at $Z.

Please let us know by this Friday which of the following options you would prefer:

Please let us know if you would:

• Like to order one of the models suggested.

• Like more information on one of the models suggested.

• Like a straight refund, with no exchange.

The next steps for ABC Office Supply would be as follows:

• As soon as we hear from you, we will make arrangements to pick up the copier you currently have and either exchange it or refund your purchase price.

Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience.

We will make every effort to get you the best copier for your needs.

The customer can get the basic gist of this message just by reading the bolded headlines. If he wants more detail, he can read the bullet points under each headline.

Using bullet points also makes it easier (and quicker) for the reader to comprehend the message and identify important information that he must act on.

• Put the most important piece of information at the top. Just as a newspaper story generally has the bottom line in the first sentence or the first paragraph, so, too, should your customer e-mail communications have the bottom line at the top of your message.

Many clients say that they only read the subject line of e-mails. That’s how they weed out which e-mails are urgent, important or just a waste of time.

Therefore, your subject line should include the most important piece of information for the customer. Get to the point right away.

• Close with Next Steps for you and Action Items for the customer. Identifying what the customer has to do next keeps him involved in the process. And letting the customer know what action you will take ensures him that you are accountable and will take care of the concern.

Reader friendly e-mails get positive customer responses. One of our contact center clients recently adopted this e-mail format as the standard for its entire company.

After the first week using the new format, one of the contact center customer care associates received the following e-mail back from a customer who had written for an update on the status of a technical repair to a product:

Thanks for the update! Love the format — quick and to the point! I look forward to future updates on the status of our repairs.

• Vicki Kunkel is president of customer service training firm VK Seminars & Training, Aurora, IL. Reach her at [email protected]

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