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3 golden rules for writing a decent customer email

It might be getting slightly old-fashioned, but in essence, email can still be a convenient communication channel for both business and customer. Customers can reach out to businesses at any time of the day or night, taking the time to outline their issues without having somebody hanging on the other end of the phone line. It’s simpler and easier for all concerned.

Or is it? Some companies seem to use email because it’s faster and easier for them. They use email programmes which allow them to respond to customers in the most efficient way possible – but only because they want to keep their own costs down. If the customer is actually helped by the response, well hey, that’s just an added bonus! As long as the service reps ‘process’ the ‘ticket’, they consider their job done.

The wrong end of the telescope

I encountered this mindset a few days ago. I used the customer service contact form on a company website to ask my question. The reply I received had a very odd subject line: a single number ‘1’. Let me copy and paste the equally stunning body text:

"Thank you for your inquiry of [X brand] products. We only service the United States and Canada from this location. Please contact the facility closest to you for further assistance. They will be happy to assist you. You can view all of our offices worldwide at [X website]. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused."

The intriguing bit about this email is that it’s almost as if the macro – and a macro it clearly is – was composed with the express aim of letting customers know that the company does not care about them. It doesn’t contain a single one of the essential ingredients for a decent customer email.

Some customer service reps, indeed, are looking down the wrong end of the telescope. Although they should be helping customers to find the answers they need (and thus to promote the company’s image), they’re only concerned about processing emails as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, marketers focus on advertising and put an enormous amount of effort into attracting new customers. But just a little bit of effort spent on customer service emails is worth a fortune invested in advertising. Be sure to follow the three golden rules when writing to your customers.

1. Personalise your email’s subject line

Perhaps that lonely figure 1 really does mean something to the company concerned. From my point of view, it looked like the sender needed to put something there and just clicked on the first key that caught his eye.

Sadly this defeats the purpose of a subject line, which is to save the recipient some time. As the reader’s first impression of the message, the subject line should sum up the contents of the email. Choose something relevant, like “Reply to your query about X”, “Your order at X”, or even “X opening hours. Putting even a teeny bit of effort into your subject line helps to make your message more personal and makes the entire email more believable.

2. Make it sound like you care

No matter how boring your customers’ issues may be to you, they’re important to them. They wouldn’t have written to you otherwise, would they? Be sure that you match their enthusiasm. After all, if you don’t care about your business, why would you expect anybody else to? (And if you hire other people to take care of customer service, read our handy guide on how to get the best from them.)

Use a friendly, personal tone in your message. When writing the awful email I got, it would only have taken the customer service rep a few extra seconds to type: “Dear Kelly.” The fact that he didn’t even bother to address me… well, it speaks volumes.

3. Don’t give your customers the email cold shoulder

Your customer has written to you for help – so help them. In the email I received, the person who “helped” me couldn’t even be bothered to look up the specific office I needed to contact. It would have been a small amount of work for him to have copied and pasted the information into the body of the email. Instead, I was asked to click on a link and trawl through a list of all of their offices worldwide. (The best part? None of them included email addresses. Well, that’s one way of keeping your inbox empty.) And would it really have been so hard for him to have forwarded my email to a colleague who could help me, asking that person to assist me?

Household brands like the one I emailed spend many millions – if not billions – each year on advertising. They employ print, television and online advertising in an effort to convince consumers that they care about their needs and know how to fulfil them. And all that good work is totally undone when their customer service staff demonstrate very clearly that they could not care less.

The recipients of their icy emails will probably not try to contact them again; they’ll simply go elsewhere. Following the 3 golden rules isn’t going to guarantee you a happy customer every time. It will, however, help to ensure that you come across as credible and caring. When a customer reaches out to you, you have an amazing opportunity to show that person just how fabulous your company is. It’s marketing gold; don’t just throw it away.