Category Archives: Customer message

Fix This Writing! Jed’s Customer Email

The terrific Leslie O’Flahavan, owner of E-WRITE, and I recently held our first LinkedIn Live broadcast of Fix This Writing! Two Experts Show How to Make Bad Writing Better. Watch the recording and view the writing we discussed below.

The idea behind our broadcast is to take an example of not-very-good writing, explain why it’s not good, and show you how to fix it. We also talk about why the writer wrote it in that not-very-good way. (We’re both writing teachers, so we’ve studied why people write they way they do!) We invite our attendees to ask questions, as well as to offer their insights.

For the first broadcast, we examined the following customer support email that failed.

Our discussion began by recognizing that Jed, the writer, is probably working within a company that doesn’t support his writing skills much–or customer service in general. But we moved quickly into our primary purpose: to help Jed write a better message.

While acknowledging there are many aspects of the original email that could be fixed, I focused on what I believe are the two most important ones.

Fix #1: Make your tone helpful and friendly.

What comes first establishes the tone. I personally don’t want to be thanked when asking for help. For me, that created a negative tone in the original email. But Leslie and others more knowledgable about customer support noted this is the standard opening so I acquiesced.

I did insist that the most important fix I needed at the outset was reassurance that I would get help. In the revised email, I added “we want to help” to create a more helpful and friendly tone in the first sentence. You’ll see that I also used the contraction “we’re.” That’s another way to establish a friendly tone. Of course, casual tone of voice might not work in every organization. That’s depends on the organization’s brand voice.

Fix #2: Structure information in reader-friendly ways.

This fix is so important I might have listed it as #1! Jed’s original email included most of the information a reader needs. But it’s arranged more from his perspective than the reader’s. What the reader needs are instructions that are actionable. Here are some of the ways I altered the structure to be more reader-friendly.

  • Arrange information in the order that the reader needs it when acting on it. The information I labeled “OPTIONAL STEP” is frustrating (or perhaps useless) if the reader gets it after they’ve acted on the instructions. In the revised email, I moved that prerequisite information before the primary instructions.
  • Make action steps short and number them in a list. I revised Jed’s long sentence with three independent clauses into three, consecutively numbered action steps within a list.
  • Differentiate action steps from other information. In the revised email, I used capital letters as a visual cue to all steps. I also used white space to group steps that go together.

Other fixes…

You’ll notice other fixes in the revised email. For example, the arrow shows I want to include a photo to show the reader where to find the SD card. In instructions, visual support can be critical for readers.

You’ll also see I fixed the grammar of phrasing such as “does the dash cam cannot turn on” and “…the cam stop working issue.” While it was one of the first things I noticed when reading Jed’s email, I believe the majority of customers asking for help care most about (1) getting that help, especially from someone who is friendly, and (2) understanding the help in a way that allows them to act. Whether the writer can create prose in the reader’s preferred language or style is, at best, a tertiary concern.

As a writing teacher, I’ve found that structure–arranging information–is the easiest thing to learn about pro writing. What do you think?

If you want to become a better writer (or help someone else become one), we hope you’ll join us for the next Fix This Writing! broadcast on July 18!

Control your tone to avoid negative attention from readers

When you can’t perceive the variation in pitch between different musical notes, you’re considered tone deaf. That’s how the  Napa Valley Register labeled the four writers of the flyer at right in  9/11 memorial flyer offensive and tone-deaf. So you can also be tagged as tone deaf if you can’t perceive the variation in attitudes conveyed through different language choices. The writers’ tone was described as adolescent, tasteless, and contrary. They got readers’ attention. But, as a professional, negative attention is worse than no attention at all.

Tone is explained in Chapter 15 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in a formal setting, you’ll find lots of exercises in that chapter, all designed to help you recognize and fix tone problems in workplace documents. But here are some additional resources to help you learn more about this aspect of writing like a pro:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Provide me with feedback in the comments below if I can provide more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this email from a financial services company. It was adapted by me based on one I received as a customer of TIAA-CREF.

  • Writer: CEO of a financial services company
  • Readers: customers of the company
  • Bottom Line Message: investing with the company is still wise even in the midst of a financial downturn

Here’s a revised version of that email message, with more effective tone.

Video Tutorial

The financial services email and some other examples are included in this <14-minute video about tone in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are a handful of posts here at Pros Write that deal with tone in workplace documents. Just enter “tone” in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, see the following articles.

Campbell, K.S. (2012). Just-in-case and just-in-time use of a video lecture-tutorial to teach students to manage tone in professional writing. Journal of Organizational Behavior Education, 5, pp. 135-144.

Campbell, K.S., Riley, K., & Parker, F. (1990). You-perspective: Insights from speech act theory. Journal of Technical Writing & Communication, 20(2), pp. 189-199.

Campbell, K.S. (1990).Explanations in negative messages: More insights from speech act theory. Journal of Business Communication, 27(4), pp. 357-376.

Riley, K. (1988). Speech act theory and indirectness in letter-writing style. Technical Writing Teacher, 15, pp. 1-29.

Riley, K. & Parker, F. (1988). Tone as a function of presupposition in technical and business writing. Journal of Technical Writing & Communication, 18(4), pp. 325-343.

Thayer, A., Evans, M. B., McBride, A. A., Queen, M., & Spyridakis, J. H. (2010). I, pronoun: A study of formality in online content. Journal of Technical Writing & Communication, 40(4), pp. 447-458.

A good example of bad customer service writing

I recently discovered Leslie O’Flahavan’s Writing Matters blog and thought I’d share her analysis of some bad writing. Follow the link to see how she re-wrote the email. I look forward to reading more of Leslie’s work.

Text of Customer Service Email Leslie Explains Why This is Bad Customer Service Writing Click on the Links for Tutorials in Each Area
Thank you for taking the time to contact Clinique.
 I am sorry to learn of your disappointing experience with our Quickliner For Eyes in Smoky Brown. Please be assured that . . . It uses an officious, blowhard-y tone. This e-mail should be shorter, simpler, and more personal. Cut the words “Please be assured that…” Nobody but a lawyer in a PBS miniseries talks that way. Managing Style: Tone
. . . all of our product formulas are extensively researched and evaluated prior to approval for manufacture. Part of this testing is devoted to determining the packaging that will best protect the specific formulation during shipment and while in use. The Quickliner For Eyes is an air-sensitive product, and will dry out quickly if exposed to the air for long periods of time. It is therefore important for the product to be tightly closed after each usage so that its air-tight seal is fully engaged. It gives a huffy answer to questions the customer didn’t ask. I didn’t ask, “Do you research your products extensively?” And I also didn’t ask, “Is it OK to leave the eyeliner cap off?” If Clinique wants to tell me to put the cap on firmly each time I use the eyeliner, that’s OK. Just don’t load up the email with information I don’t care about or need. Developing Content: Informative Prose
Nevertheless, we regret to hear of your experience. It blames the customer. When I read the sentence, “Nevertheless, we regret to hear of your experience,” I got mad. What is Clinique saying? “Even though you don’t know how to care for your eyeliner, and you probably left it out in the sun, in the desert, with the cap off, we will grudgingly send you a new one.” Look, the eyeliner isn’t a big-ticket item. It costs $16. But I have been buying about four of these per year since 1999. (I will NOT do the math. I don’t want to know how much I’ve spent on eyeliner.) Do not blame the customer when a product is of poor quality. Just be gracious. Just give; don’t blame. Managing Style: Tone
Since your satisfaction is important to us, I am happy to send you a complimentary replacement Quickliner For Eyes in Smoky Brown. Please allow 4-6 weeks for delivery. It buries the information the customer cares about most. I am glad Clinique is going to replace my eyeliner. That’s decent and generous. That information should be at or near the top of the email. Customers want the bottom line up front. Organizing Content: Bottom Line Placement
Once again, thank you for taking the time to contact Clinique. I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your concerns. You are valued as our consumer, and I hope you will continue to use and enjoy our products with confidence and satisfaction. It over-thanks the customer for writing. In this e-mail, I got thanked twice. Once is plenty. Remember, most customers aren’t happy they had to write at all. Managing Style: Tone
  It’s one huge, blocky paragraph. This email needs more white space, so I can see when the topic changes. It’s too much text at once. I am the opposite of motivated to read it. Organizing Content: Format

You can satisfy consumers and legal at the same time

Thanks to Christopher Trudeau, law professor and plain language champion, I just viewed the Terms of Service for CodePen. Proof that the company takes its consumers and its legal risks seriously!

I especially like the clear version of the copyright and content ownership clause: The things you make on CodePen are yours, “CodePen” is ours.  The legalese version required 151 words.  But my favorite is the translation of legal’s list of “impermissable acts” as Don’t be a jerk.

From their About page:

CodePen is a playground for the front end side of the web. It’s all about inspiration, education, and sharing.

Need to build a reduced test case to demonstrate and figure out a bug? CodePen is great for that. Want to show off your latest creation and get feedback from your peers? CodePen is great for that. Want to find example of a particular design pattern for you project? CodePen is great for that.

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