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.
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
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…’.
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.