Writing to customers doesn’t need to be hard work – and you don’t need to sound like a robot either

It really puzzled me. I was running a training course for a national customer services team and we’d just started looking at some of the emails and letters they sent to customers. Everyone in the group clearly loved their job. They talked about how determined they were to focus on customers and their needs. They told me about how, last year, two of them even came in – voluntarily – on Christmas Day to sort out an urgent problem for an elderly customer. If you were giving awards for commitment, they’d be first in the presentation line.

So when we started to look at their written responses to customers I was expecting the same humanity, care and determination. Instead, there was a lot of reluctance, a lot of shuffling and a lot of “we know these aren’t any good but we don’t know what to do” as they handed stuff over.

What I saw were letters and emails so stiff, formulaic and robotic that I actually asked if this was current material. It – sadly – was.

The issue was confidence. None of the team had ever been taught to write a customer-facing response.

They were scared of running foul of Compliance and Legal and believed that saying ‘sorry’ would get them sued. In fact, they’d collected so many writing myths, constraints and mistaken ‘rules’ they could have set up a shop. They knew what they really wanted to say, just not how to say it.

So, here are the three simple tips we used to beat the myths:

Myth 1: Writing to customers needs to sound “corporate”.

Reality: You’re a human writing to another human, so sound like a human.

Because they weren’t confident in their writing, the team felt happier being remote and a little robotic. They’d not seen it that way, but looking – as customers – at some of their stuff made it clear. Humans don’t say things like “…you’ll be unable to use your Credit Card ending 1234 to make any further purchases. You’re now in possession of a Credit Card ending 4321, this card will now take the place of your previously held Credit Card blah blah blah…

Really? “You’re now in possession of”? Unless you’re in the Drugs Squad, this is not a term you should use.

How about: “Here’s your new credit card. You’ll need to use this one in future instead of your old card…”

Sound human, not like a corporate robot.

Myth 2: We need to sound “professional” when writing to customers.

Reality: Start with the customer in mind, not the business.

For the team, their organisation was their world. They worked there, spent their days there, knew it and its objectives well. To their customers, they were just another business. So we took one customer and looked from her perspective… For her, their communications ranked well below opening a bottle of wine when she got home, feeding the cat and putting on another load of washing. That means, to get through, they needed to be written in a language that got her attention (and that’s not Plain English – that just bores). They needed to be respectful and understand that she hadn’t time to wade through paragraphs of impenetrable prose.

Once we started writing with this individual customer in mind, the whole tone changed. And was loads better for it.

Myth 3. We need to “protect ourselves” when we write to customers.

Reality: Playing it straight is always a better bet if you can.

A huge amount of the team’s problem was around “corporate euphemisms”. They felt they couldn’t say anything in a straightforward way. So, for example, a price rise was a ‘price change’. There was lots of using the passive voice too. Lines like ‘…the penalty charge will be applied,” as if some magical, unseen deity would issue it without the team’s involvement. It was almost as if they used these euphemisms, customers wouldn’t notice it was them upping prices and issuing penalties. We talked about how they felt when they were victims of the same trick and decided that being direct was easier, better and more honest for customers.

It’s pretty clear – from almost every course I’ve run on customer-facing writing – that confidence is a big issue. But all it takes is a change in perspective, the destruction of a few myths and some new knowledge.

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