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6 traits of a great customer service email

We're long-time fans of Basecamp. No lie, it was a key tool in scaling my operation to meet increased demand from an important client and become content agency of record for a major North American brand. We recently upgraded to Basecamp 3 and had a small billing miscue that was mostly our own fault. True to their word, a support rep got back to Steve (who doubles as our internal tech support guru) within an hour, which is awesome enough, but with one of the best customer support communications I've ever received. Below Elizabeth's note is a quick break-down of what makes it so effective so you can use it as a model for your own writing.

How to Write a Customer Service Email

If you need to write anything to an unhappy or confused customer, supplier or vendor, here's a terrific example from Elizabeth at Basecamp.

An example of a terrific customer support email from Basecamp

Here's what's good about it, using the Six Traits of Good Writing:

Voice: It's clear from the start that this isn't an autoresponder. Voice is a function of word choice and sentence patterns, and Elizabeth's use both immediately signals "human". Notice how the sentence structures and word choice create a friendly and knowledgeable voice. I especially love "You're probably wondering why all of this wasn't obvious." Again, sounds human and real. The voice immediately makes me trust that Elizabeth really does want to help me, and I'm enjoying hearing from her. Quite an accomplishment for a support email! Actionable Writing Advice: You've probably got a whole ream of customer personas, but do you have any for your writers? Pick a few adjectives to describe the kind of person your customers want to hear from. Then draft copy that sounds like that kind of person.

Word Choice: First, see those contractions? Notice how they're key to the friendly tone, but don't make the response feel too casual (which is the reason so many tell me they don't like to use contractions in business writing. C'mon!). Elizabeth explains a sort-of complicated situation (for us, anyway) in as few words as possible, relying on clear, plain language to convey critical information quickly--again, paramount in a customer support situation. Even this really long (39 words) sentence is really easy to understand because the language doesn't get in the way: The discrepancy is because the accounts need to have the same owner in order for the system to see that they're linked and offer you the chance to sign up for those special plans and get the transition credit. Actionable Writing Advice: Use more plain language in your writing, especially when you need to convey something complex or when you need to do it quickly

Sentence Fluency: Elizabeth uses a mix of sentence patterns and lengths to create a nice rhythm to her writing and make it sound like a real person. Mixing up structure and length makes our writing more pleasing to read and keeps us moving. If every sentence were 39 words, not matter how clear, we'd give up! Examples: Here’s how that works:With emails from both of them, I can make that change and make sure you then get the credit. Actionable Writing Advice: The best way to work with sentence fluency is to read your writing out loud. You hear all the impact of too many long or short sentences in a row (drones or rat-a-tat-tat) and easily identify opportunities to vary structure and length.

Ideas: The first two paragraphs contain the main idea: You're right and I'm here to help. No haggling, no making us feel like idiots for being unable to navigate this pretty simple transaction in the first place. Each graf explains what happened so we understand where we went wrong, and tells us what Elizabeth can do to help us. There's just the right amount of explanatory detail to inform without overloading. Actionable Writing Advice: Before you start drafting, jot down the most important thing you want the customer to know (in this case, I'm here to help) and then the customer's issues. Quickly jot down the essential information required to address each issue, check that off and then draft from there. This is called the Idea-Details Strategy© and it's useful for any kind of writing.

Organization: The message follows a clear logic, moving smoothly from point to point and paragraph to paragraph, so I don't have to work hard to understand what happened and why. The really important information about refunding our money, is set off in its own graf so it stands out clearly during a quick scan. So often, support emails are long and poorly organized. This is usually a function of rampant cutting and pasting from prepared scripts. Actionable Writing Advice: When responding to a complaint or query, you can always follow the logic of the customer. But it's often more effective to read over the work and ask "Would my friend how to fix this be able to follow these instructions?" 

Conventions: This is all the technical little stuff I like to call SPUG (spelling, punctuation, usage and grammar). Most of us have been told to avoid exclamation points in business communication, but it works here because the voice is casual and relaxed. In the first instance--I'm here to help!--it adds an element of superheroism that's fun and immediately sets a tone (and expectation). The second instance--I'm so sorry for the confusion!--which I'm sure some of you think is overkill, isn't because the voice is so clearly established early in the piece, I feel like Elizabeth is truly sorry. Actionable Writing Advice: I'm not advocating that you start dropping exclamation points or interrobangs into your business writing, but don't be afraid to use them when the feel appropriate.

Follow this advice and you'll be writing better customer support and service messages in no time. When in doubt, ask What Would Basecamp Do?

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