Responding to complaints by e-mail

A Reader’s Question:

Using e-mail to write responses to customer complaints gives me more time to think about how to solve the problem. However, I sometimes second-guess the language I use and whether I could inadvertently offend customers. What advice can you give me to write better responses to angry customers?

Response from the Editors:

Don’t think for one minute that you’ve gotten off easy if you receive a complaint by e-mail, rather than by phone or in person. Electronic complaints may be more comfortable to address than verbal ones, but you still must handle them with care.

And consider this: Customers who are complaining to you via e-mail are more likely to be brutally honest—or even rude—because they don’t have to express their frustrations “in person.” Avoid the urge to hit the delete button or dash off an angry reply. Instead, follow these tips to turn that customer complaint into customer satisfaction:

  • Can the canned response. Generic answers that don’t address customers’ questions specifically and adequately will upset them. So take the time to answer every question in a detailed and thorough fashion.
  • Don’t be rude. In an e-mail response, customers can’t judge your demeanor based on your tone of voice or facial expressions. Omit all phrases that could possibly make customers feel like you are talking down or reprimanding them. Examples: “As I said on the phone …” “As previously mentioned …” “As we discussed …” Per my last e-mail…” “If you looked in the manual, you would see …”
  • Let them choose. It’s a big mistake to offer random freebies to make up for errors. First, empathize with customers’ feelings. Then allow them to pick from several solutions you provide. Example: “I fully agree with you, and I hope to make your situation better. We can send someone to your house to repair the broken computer next week. Or you can mail us the computer and we’ll fix it here. We’ll have it back to you in 15 to 20 business days. Or your quickest option would be for you to visit one of our stores to have the computer serviced. Which do you prefer?”
  • Close with positive statements. Never end an e-mail message with an empty sentiment such as “Again, I do apologize for your inconvenience.” Your last words will be what sticks with customers, so focus on the positive. After recapping the decision the two of you made, say: “It was my pleasure to assist you. I hope you’ll contact me if you need further assistance.”

Quote of the Week:

“Customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to fix things when they go wrong.”

—Donald Porter V.P., British Airways

Tip of the Week:

Start conversations with the proper greeting

Do you know how to greet customers? Should you use Mr., Mrs. or Ms.? When is it appropriate to call customers by their first names? And must you always use “ma’am” and “sir” when addressing customers?

Your best bet is to use the language your customers use. Examples: A customer asks “Sir, where can I find batteries to fit this?” Reply with “Ma’am, right this way.” Or if a customer introduces herself as “Sue,” feel free to call her by her first name during your conversation. On the other hand, if the customer refers to herself as Mrs. Sue Smith, call her Mrs. Smith.

—From the editors.

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Each issue of the First-Rate Customer Service Forum offers you tips for improving your customer service skills. Plus, you have the opportunity to request advice on your most vexing customer service problems—and receive feedback from your peers and our panel of editors!

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