How to write to happy customers

Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart’,  writes Catie Holdridge.

Business letter writers may not have been his target demographic when he said it, but – if that’s your job – you might find his a good mantra to keep in mind.

Talking the same language means sharing the same values and opinions – surely the first steps to a fruitful relationship. Consider the following ways of speaking to your customers and they might just take you – and your company – to their hearts for life.

Positive feedback

While company letter writers will spend a lot of their time dealing with complaints, fortunately some people will get in touch with more positive motivations. They might be giving praise for a job exceedingly well done, making thoughtful suggestions, or even presenting constructive criticism in a friendly or witty style.

It is just as important to get back to these customers, to keep the good feeling going by taking the opportunity to say you’re happy they’re happy; that they are valued and their opinions matter. Without even realising, your customers will likely see you through rose-tinted glasses, and may well spread the news. And there’s nothing like good word of mouth to reinforce your reputation.

Get the tone right

Supposing a customer wrote a friendly, cheerful letter along the lines of:

Dear Mr Saver

I just wanted to let you know what great staff you’ve got at SafeSavers in Brighton.

I was having a nightmare trying to find exactly the right kind of gluten-free biscuits for my mum (who’s just found out she’s got coeliac disease, poor thing!). I’d been to three different shops already and was beginning to lose hope …

I was obviously looking a bit lost, and one of your lovely sales assistants asked me if they could help. And – thank goodness – she could. She showed me to the ‘special diets’ section, but there weren’t any on the shelves. Just as I was ready to admit defeat, she offered to check the storeroom. Five minutes later – success! So now my mum can enjoy her cuppa and biscuit once again!

I think the girl’s name was Jessie. I do hope you can let her know how much her help meant to me – do you have any kind of reward system for staff?

All the best

Carol Singer

Now imagine this happy customer received a reply that began something like this:

Dear Miss Singer

Further to your recent letter, the SafeSavers area manager in Brighton has been contacted.

A staff reward scheme was introduced as part of the company’s customer care initiative, and as soon as the member of staff in question has been located, this will be actioned …

OK, so we’ve gone a bit OTT here, but as you can see, this kind of overly formal writing sounds like there isn’t a real person behind it at all. Our Miss Singer might well feel vaguely snubbed. And the good feeling of her shopping experience will probably fade behind this cold, standardised language.

Much better to write in a voice that is similar to how you’d speak: being too formal can sound cold and overly official. Be grammatical; spell and punctuate correctly, but try using contractions (such as ‘I’d’ instead of ‘I would’, ‘didn’t’ instead of ‘did not’ and so on) and avoid phrases such as, ‘Further to your recent communication… .’ You wouldn’t use those words if you picked up the phone to them. Use naturalistic, friendly openings; for example, ‘I was delighted to hear…’ or simply, ‘Thanks for your letter…’.

Get personal

Another way to warm up your language is by mentioning people and using personal pronouns, such as ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you’. The company’s reply above uses the passive voice (where the ‘doer’ in the sentence comes after the action – or is cut out completely) far too much – which results in people being almost completely absent (for more on using the active voice, see our feature Policy for the people). The second paragraph could be much friendlier in the active voice and by using pronouns:

We love getting the opportunity to reward our colleagues. Once we find the girl who saved your mum’s tea break, we’ll be sure to pass on your thanks …

Like speaks to like

Our clients Marks & Spencer have experienced the benefits of this approach first-hand. Jo Rook, Executive Customer Service Manager for M&S Retail, says, ‘Talking to customers in the tone of voice they use themselves shows that you’ve listened to them, taken the time to understand them, and want to make sure that your response is easy for them to understand. They will appreciate the effort you’ve taken.’

If the customer has written in a humorous way, or even penned a poem (yes, really, they do), try to match them style for style. (Best check your company’s standpoint or style guidelines before you begin.) Collaborate with a colleague if you find it tricky to begin with: it’ll be worth it. Your reply could well become a talking point and excellent advertising for your customer service.

‘Sometimes customers don’t want a dry response,’ Jo points out. ‘A little bit of humour can buy a lot of good will – when used responsibly.’

Of course, her last point is worth noting. We’re certainly not advocating sending dirty limericks, a transcript of your stand-up act or any poem featuring the word ‘Nantucket’.

Want more advice on communicating with customers? Take a look at our Customer-centred letter writing course.

Sainsbury’s prove good PR is easy, tiger

Have you heard about the tiger that’s turned into a giraffe?

The real story isn’t quite so magical as that sounds. But Sainsbury’s response to a letter from a little girl, which has now led them to change the name of their tiger bread to giraffe bread, was certainly inspired.

For those who missed it, the UK supermarket received a letter last May questioning the name of the pattern-crusted loaf: why call it ‘tiger’ when it was clearly not stripy? ‘It should be called giraffe bread’, the letter went on. ‘Love from Lily Robinson age 3½.’

What’s more, as of 31 January, it is – at least for now. A victory that may be for Lily (who actually ‘hasn’t got much time for’ the story, according to her mother’s blog, where the letters appeared). But it’s Sainsbury’s reputation that’s the real winner, as the story has become an internet sensation. And it’s all thanks to the well-judged and endearing reply that customer-service manager Chris King (age 27?) sent.

‘Thanks so much for your letter,’ he wrote. ‘I think renaming tiger bread giraffe bread is a brilliant idea – it looks much more like the blotches on a giraffe than the stripes on a tiger, doesn’t it?

‘It is called tiger bread because the first baker who made it a looong time ago thought it looked stripey like a tiger. Maybe they were a bit silly.’

You’d also have to be pretty silly not to realise the power of social media now has over public opinion. (More than four thousand people Like the Chris King from Sainsbury’s is a legend Facebook page at the time of writing.)

Customer-service representatives probably spend most of their time appeasing angry and outraged letter-writers. But this is a great reminder that you can generate a lot of good feeling by making time for the sweet and silly correspondence too. That’s how you’ll really earn your stripes.

If you’re in the customer-service field, you might also like our article on how to make the most of positive correspondence: Now you’re talking my language.

Avoid the HMRC backlash

You may recall that six million people have – through no fault of their own – paid the wrong amount of tax over the last few years, thanks to a blunder at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

The story dominated the column inches last month, in part because of the way HMRC so unceremoniously delivered this bombshell to its customers (in the form of a standard tax calculation letter) and in part because of the backlash that followed from taxpayers.

Being customer-centred

Arguably some of the controversy could have been avoided through a large dose of subtlety and a more customer-centred approach from HMRC. And if it had actually taken into account how its customers might receive the news (particularly if you were one of the 1.4 million poor souls who had underpaid).

HMRC was never going to make friends in this situation, but equally it didn’t have to make enemies. The tone of its letter was on the clinical side at best and unapologetic at worst.

Here’s an extract to give you a flavour:

Dear taxpayer [Name]

I have reviewed your income tax liability for the year shown above to see whether you have underpaid or overpaid tax for that year.

My calculation is given on the enclosed sheet. The calculation result is given near the foot of that page.

The ‘See Notes’ column refers to the numbered notes in the guidance leaflet ‘Understanding your tax calculation’ which I also enclose.

A copy of this calculation has been sent to [Agent name].

Part of this underpayment is already being collected through your tax code during [year] and the rest will be collected during [year–year] …

(Source: BBC News)

Keeping letter writing customer-centred is always important, but probably never more so than when giving bad news. The last thing you want is to exacerbate the situation by not only delivering a blow, but by also sounding like a robot as you do so.

To avoid this, try the SCRAP (Situation, Complication, Resolution, Action, Politeness) formula.

Situation

Begin by explaining the situation (or ‘where they [your readers] are’). By doing this, your readers will realise you understand and empathise with them.

In the case of HMRC, this could have involved briefly summing up (and owning up to) mistakes in the PAYE system, and suggesting it was at least aware of the worry this might cause to its customers.

As you may be aware, HMRC has recently found that some taxpayers have paid the wrong amount of tax through the PAYE system over the last two years. We understand that many people will now be concerned about how this may affect them.

Complication

Introduce the idea that there’s a problem readers need to solve or a request they need to fulfil (‘why they can’t stay there’).

Here, of course, this will be the money taxpayers owe (or are due). It would also be wise to reinforce this with an apology.

I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been undercharged by £X for the year X–X, as the enclosed calculation shows.

Resolution

State your resolution to the problem or request. Your readers may well be relieved that you’re offering a ready-made way of fixing things.

(In the case of HMRC, such a sense of relief would unfortunately elude those taxpayers suddenly finding themselves seriously out of pocket.)

We are now in the process of collecting underpayments. For those who have underpaid by less than £2000, like you, we will do this by altering your tax code to reclaim the money in monthly instalments over the next X year[s].

We would also like to assure you that from now on, we will be using a new computer system that will minimise the risk of such a mistake happening again.

Action

Suggest what action the reader can or should take. In some cases, this will be what further action you, the writer, are going to take. Make sure that this follows on logically from the resolution.

HMRC has been criticised for not being entirely open about taxpayers’ possible rights to appeal. If these were made clear at this point, it might avoid being bombarded with letters of appeal sent on the off-chance.

You don’t need to do anything at this point: your new tax code will be applied automatically. The additional tax taken each month will be £X.

If, however, you feel that you provided all the necessary information for us to tax you correctly, you may be entitled to appeal. Please see the enclosed leaflet for details on whether this applies to you and how to contact us.

Politeness

Finally, end with a polite sign-off. And, in this example, a second apology.

I hope you understand why we need to take this corrective action. Once again, I’m sorry for the effect that our mistake may have on your financial situation.

Yours sincerely

[name]

Apologise like a human

No-one likes to admit they’ve made a mistake, but owning up when it’s justified will always have a better reception from your reader than trying to wriggle out of it. And, while ‘I apologise’ is better than nothing, ‘I’m sorry’ is much better: it sounds more sincere – and more personal.

The language of ‘we apologise for any inconvenience caused’ has been dubbed ‘professionalese’ by Daniel H Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink advises avoiding the phrase entirely, because it makes the author seem like they’re distancing themselves from the mistake. ‘We speak human at home and “professionalese” at work,’ he explains.   ‘And that might be hurting our businesses more than we realise.’

In childhood we’re often told to say we’re sorry and mean it. And it seems that remains the best advice at every level. In his book The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely found that a simple ‘I’m sorry’, uttered following a mistake, stopped the other person from getting annoyed and retaliating in some way. Say, for example, refusing to pay back tax.

Want to improve your team’s customer-letter writing? See our in-house customer-letter writing course.

Should you ever use the passive voice?

A Write Now reader wrote to us to ask: is it ever acceptable to use the passive voice in ‘good writing’?

It’s a good question. You may be surprised to hear that the answer’s yes.

While it’s best to use the active voice in most cases, the passive voice can – on occasion – be useful. For example, if you had to reply to a customer or client who had made a mistake. You probably wouldn’t want to highlight this fact by pointing the finger, which writing in the active voice would do. For example:

You filled in the form incorrectly.

If you re-wrote this into the passive voice, it’s possible to be much more diplomatic, as you can take out the ‘doer’ (them) altogether:

The form was filled in incorrectly.

And sometimes the ‘who’ isn’t actually relevant. For example, if you were describing a property for sale, you might say:

The conservatory was added to the house in 1998.

That would be fine. The prospective buyers don’t really need to know that

Bob’s Conservatories of Hull added the conservatory to the house in 1998.

So there is a place for the passive voice. Just consider (as always) the needs of the reader before you choose.

And if you have any writing-related queries, why not pose them here in the blog? We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

Advertising for accuracy

Cadbury’s Dairy Milk wrappers will no longer bear the long-standing slogan, ‘a glass and a half of full-cream milk’. Instead the less-than-lyrical – but doubtless much more scientifically accurate – ‘the equivalent of 426ml of fresh liquid milk in every 227g of milk chocolate’ will appear in its place.

The makers have clearly picked up on the growing tide of bafflement and rage among the British public at the sheer incongruity of the statement. After all, how the heck did they get a whole glass and a half of milk into one of those little fun-size bars?   ‘The phrase didn’t make sense if the pack stated the bar weighs 49g or 230g,’ a spokesman rightly pointed out.

As yet, Cadbury’s bid for swear-on-a-Bible type honesty won’t actually affect their advertising campaigns. But could those be next?

And what could this mean for other well-known slogans?…

Thank Crunchie it’s Friday, though neither Crunchie nor Cadbury’s can take credit or responsibility for the natural passage of time.

Mr Kipling doesn’t technically make exceedingly good cakes because he is a fictitious, never-seen character created for marketing purposes.

In all honesty, there are times when I wouldn’t rather have a bowl of Coco Pops.

Utterly accurate or not, you can’t help but hope advertisers decide to stick to using a little bit of artistic licence. Because they’re worth it.

The business of goodwill

It’s that magical time of year again. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose and – quite possibly – being thrown together with people you have nothing more in common with than blood.

And, as anyone who has grin-and-borne-it through a stressful or tedious family gathering can verify, if Christmas is actually going to be a time of peace on Earth, it won’t be without a bit of effort (and a fair bit of eggnog). Which is why we’re about to suggest something a little radical: writer-focused reading.

Now, we still stand firmly by the idea of reader-centred writing: by concentrating on the recipient’s needs and situation, you’re guaranteed to produce the best response in them with your document.

Yet what about when it’s too late for that? The deed is done, and now you’re the reader stuck with the stressful and tedious task of untangling what the author actually meant to say. Well, before you escalate the situation and potentially sever a business relationship for good, here’s one for the season of goodwill: focus on the writer.

Although of course not a business matter, the accidentally offensive letter Gordon Brown sent to the mother of Jamie Janes, the young soldier killed in Afghanistan earlier this year, is one such example. While a tragic and delicate subject like this should naturally be handled with the utmost care, in the reading it might also be considered in context: that the blind in one eye, half-blind in the other leader of the country took the time personally to hand-write a letter of condolence, most likely with the best of intentions.

So, if you are the poor reader and you have the seeds of a scornful comeback sprouting in your head – hold on. First, consider your answers to our writer-profile questionnaire:

1.      Think about the document you’ve received. What is its subject?

2.      Who wrote it?

3.      How much did they know about the subject?

4.      What was their likely attitude towards it?

5.      How involved in the subject are they?

6.      How important is the subject to them?

7.      How interested in the subject are they?

8.      Do you have any other relevant knowledge about their situation (work-related or otherwise)?

9.      What is your relationship like with the author?

10.      How important is maintaining a good relationship with the writer of the document to you and your company?

After you’ve answered these questions, you may have a better understanding of the writer’s position and motivations. You may be feeling calmer and more forgiving (you have, after all, just counted to ten). You may even have just saved an important business connection.

So treat yourself to a cup of eggnog. And don’t worry: the season will be over before you know it.

Customer-letter writing for tax professionals

When the naturalist Charles Darwin outlined natural selection, he almost certainly didn’t have business people in mind. But his idea, that the species best suited to their environments are the ones who survive, has never been truer in the world of work. Competition for clients can be fierce, and never more so than now. The firms most able to meet their clients’ needs are often the most successful.

One effective way to do this is to make your written communication client-centred. It doesn’t have to be complicated – simply pre-empting client phone calls and emails with a letter, for example. In fact, well-written, aptly timed letters are one of the best ways to provide good customer service. They help to make your clients feel that you really care about them and their businesses.

The trouble is though that too many letters get it wrong. They unwittingly offend the client, don’t take responsibility for misunderstandings and talk around issues as though they were having a debate. Clients need you to be the expert; provide the right figures; be honest when you don’t know the answers and consistent about the information they need to provide you with. In short, they need to know their needs come first.

With the dealings of financial institutions increasingly under public scrutiny, trust is a sought-after quality. So, make sure that it shines through in your written communication because integrity and accuracy will help the numbers add up for your clients.

Just SCRAP it

Good letters and emails have a clear structure and a specific goal in mind. The aim is to make you’re your readers know why you are writing to them and what you want them to do. The SCRAP formula can help you to write clearly. The acronym stands for: situation, complication, resolution, action, politeness.

Situation

Begin by explaining the situation (or ‘where they are’). By doing this your reader will realise you understand and empathise with them.

Complication

Introduce the idea that there’s a problem (‘why they can’t stay there’) they need to solve or a request they need to fulfil.

Resolution

State your resolution to the problem or request. Your reader will probably be relieved that you’re offering a ready-made way of fixing things.

Action

Suggest what action the reader can or should take. In some cases, this will be what further action you are going to take. Make sure that this follows on logically from the resolution.

Politeness

Finally, end with a polite sign-off.

Like any good recipe, you don’t have to follow this formula to a tee. Some client correspondence will be so simple and straightforward that there’s no problem to resolve. You just need to decide what’s happened and what you want the reader to do about it.

Top writing tips

Get active

Use the active rather than the passive voice. So write ‘we found a mistake in your tax return’ rather than ‘a mistake was found in your tax return.’

Keep it short and simple

Good sentences contain no more than 15-20 words. Long flowery phrases are difficult to follow and can even breed distrust. Clear, plain writing suggests that there is nothing to hide. Always choose a simple word over a complication one. And remember that you can never have too many full stops!

Clarify your main message

If you’re having difficulty figuring out what you really want your letter to say write down the words; who?, what?, where?, when? and why? at the top of a piece of paper. Use these headings to brainstorm the contents of your document.

Ditch the management lingo

If you’ve been immersed in the business world for some time, it’s easy to start writing in management-speak. So, prune carefully through your written work to ensure that you’re not unwittingly lapsing into the types of language that would make David Brent in sitcom, The Office proud.

Metaphors such as ‘raising the bar’ and ‘picking the low hanging fruit’ sound more like a tropical limbo challenge than references to taxation matters. While generic phrases such as ‘working in close partnership with’ and ‘after due consideration’ may make your clients think that your letters aren’t tailored to their industry – or even to them. Don’t add redundant words, such as ‘pre’ in ‘pre-prepare’ and ‘forward’ in ‘forward planning’. All planning goes forwards and you can’t prepare until you’ve prepared. The extra words dilute your message and can make the reader think that your advice is full of padding and waffle too. Remember, clients will thank you for being short and concise, as it will save them time. Brevity can be a courtesy.

Case study

Whether it is tax, technology or telecommunications; these letter writing principles work in any industry. Here’s how letter-writing skills training transformed the customer services of a major insurance provider.

The problem:

The customer services department wanted to reduce the number of second-stage complaints they were receiving so they asked Emphasis to help the complaints team make its letters more customer-centred.

The solution:

We helped the team to fully identify the issues and facts behind the letters from complainants. We instructed participants about importance of structure in letters and then analysed the types of language, intentions and assumptions used in their standard responses. We enabled them to write letters in an easily accessible style.

The benefits:

Each delegate had a one-to-one coaching clinic six weeks later, where they submitted a post-training writing sample. All had progressed in structure and style. The team was so motivated by the course that they now talk about ‘Emphasising’ their letters.

is Chief Executive of Emphasis.

Give me the facts, not the excuses

We’re lucky here in Emphasis Towers. Five minutes from Brighton beach and five minutes from the station, we really have got the best of both worlds. The beach is great. It’s close enough to go for a lunchtime dip on those rare days when the thermometer climbs above 10 degrees. (Not that I have since the summer of 1998. I mean, are you mad: it’s freezing in there. But I could if I wanted to, that’s the point.) And what most people call pebbles, we just call ‘big sand’.

But before I make you too jealous, I have to say that it’s not all sea and sunshine. I usually have to get on a train if I want to get out to our clients, which, for obvious reasons, is quite often.

Now there are people more qualified (and even more fed up) than me who can rant about the rail system. So I won’t bother here. But I do wonder why the rail companies don’t at least get their communications right. Take yesterday morning, for example.

Faulty train outside Haywards Heath

After a couple of hours in the office, I arrive at the station in Brighton in what should be plenty of time for an important lunchtime meeting in London. ‘Delayed’ says the departures board. I look for someone to ask for more information. The man at the ticket barrier doesn’t know anything more. I glance at the departure board again, willing it to have some good news. It doesn’t. A few painstakingly long minutes later, there is an announcement:

‘We are sorry to announce that due to problems with the signalling system in the Clapham Junction area and a faulty train outside Haywards Heath, the 11.55 train to London Bridge is running approximately 25 minutes late.

Excuses, excuses – followed by facts. Social niceties and excuses are fine. (There are enough bad manners in the world, after all.) But if we can’t always have a speedy and reliable rail service, at least give us speedy information. As I stand on the platform with my chances of arriving on time slipping away, all I want to know is exactly how late I’m going to be. So why not say:

‘The train to London Bridge is running at least 25 minutes late due to ”¦’

Just give me the information I need first. Then give me the detail and the reasons.

And just to be clear. Southern Rail is not the only offender here. It’s the same when I arrive in London and go to get my tube connection to Euston. Hurrying towards the escalator, I catch a glimpse of a sign that reads: ‘Due to repairs to the track and staff shortages…’ Unfortunately, I’ve already walked past the sign before I get a chance to read the last part of the sentence. But I have a sixth sense that it’s one of those days, so I go back and check the sign again: ‘…there is a very limited service on the Northern Line today’ the second part of the sentence continues.

I’m quite sure many other people walked passed the sign – and some down the escalator to the platform – before they realised that their chances of getting a Northern Line train were pretty slim.

What, then why

It might seem a small thing, but it’s so easy to remedy, both in speaking and writing. Just give people the information they are most interested in first. Then follow up with the whys and wherefores.

In most cases, the part of the sentence people are most interested in is the main clause:

‘The train to London Bridge is running at least 25 minutes late…’

and

‘There is a limited service on the Northern Line today… .’

There are a few exceptions though:

‘Fill in our questionnaire if you want the chance to win £500.’

‘Go to Section B if you are under 18.’

Here, clearly, the most relevant part of the sentence for the reader is in the second bit – the secondary clause. So, when writing this kind of sentence, it’s best to put this part first:

‘If you want the chance to win £500, fill in our questionnaire.’

‘If you are under 18, go to Section B.’

Reader’s perspective

Good writing stems from thinking about what you write from the reader’s perspective. And that includes thinking about how they will read it – for instance, in a hurry trying to catch a train.

But London Underground appears to have learned a thing or two about clear writing while I’ve been in my meeting. On the way home the sign says:

‘A good service is running on all lines’.

What it didn’t say was: ‘Due to the fact that not many people are off sick today and there are no repair works going on, a good service is running on all lines.’

Funny that.