Customer support ingredients, vol. 2: automatic email responses

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Perhaps because they're not personalised, auto-acknowledgements seem to be something like a stepchild in customer support. Some companies do without them, some use the default message their email system came with. Most accept a look and feel that's in stark contrast to their marketing emails. And when things change, it's easy to forget to update those automatic responses.

Auto-responders set the scene

Because it's first, this email sets the customer’s expectations about tone of voice, attention to detail, what level of service they’ll get, and how long it will take. Leave a bad impression here and you’ll 'automatically' create a negative backdrop for the conversation to come.

Here's a so-so example.

I contacted a company about a broken electric toothbrush and received this acknowledgement:

 

Subject: Confirmation
Dear Mr. / Mrs. Harnau,
We have received your inquiry and will answer your question within 4 business days.
If your question is urgent, please call our toll free Feeling at Ease line.
We are open Monday - Friday: 08:00 am - 08:00 pm and Saturday: 09:00 am - 6:00 pm.
Lighting Products: 00800 1234 56789
Skincare team: 0800 2345 67891
 
With kind regards,
Example consumer care
 
You submitted the following query:
[quotes customer email]

 

On a scale of 0 to 10 with 0 being completely horrendous and 10 being perfect awesomeness, I’d probably rate this a 6.
Not bad, but could be better. Let’s see how.

 

1. Beware spammy subjects

The subject just says "Confirmation". This isn't specific enough to gain the recipient's trust, and there's a good chance that people mistakenly delete it as SPAM. For example, some people share their email accounts with other family members, and their husband or grandma may not expect a confirmation. If their inbox is set to display text only, they'll see the attachments and perhaps even think of malware.

 

2. Choose the right form of address

This example starts with a really clumsy salutation because the form I filled in didn't ask me to indicate my gender. So, to work around the lack of tech, the writer of this template chose to present the reader with an awkward selection of titles. To make matters worse, it's not complete, potentially offending unmarried women, doctors and reverends — to name just a few.

  • If your tech can pull the customer's name from the form but not their gender, use their first name. 
  • If you don’t know their name, best not to attempt a personal salutation at all. You could just say "Hello, thanks for getting in touch". 

 

3. Help your customers feel at ease — not just on the phone

Feeling at ease: I've changed the name of the hotline very slightly to disguise the company that sent this. Both mine and the original version express the essence of great customer support.

But why can customers only "feel at ease" on the phone, and only in urgent cases? The email team should aspire to the same thing!

At 4 business days, their response times are so long that most queries probably count as "urgent". The American spelling and word choice ("Mr. / Mrs.", "toll free", "inquiry") suggest those business days may follow the American calendar.

  • Try to reply to customer emails in less than 24 hours. The longer you keep people waiting, the higher the risk they'll repeat contact you on the phone, social media or via live chat.
  • Beware of accidentally pushing customers to call you by giving your hotline a fabulously customer-friendly name.
  • If you advertise yourself as easy to deal with, make sure your language lives up to this expectation. For example, don't confuse readers by using three different words for the same thing ("inquiry", "question" and "query").
  • People feel more at ease when you speak their language. This includes writing to UK customers in British English, and to US customers in American English. If you have customers in different countries, you'll demonstrate customer focus by setting up localised email templates.

 

4. Get the numbers right

The opening times are convenient, even if carelessly expressed. (Why add a zero sometimes but not always? Why not drop all zeroes altogether?) 

But which number to call? My electric toothbrush has LEDs – does that make it a lighting product? Or is it a case for the skincare team?

Next, does that number really start with 00? If they hadn’t been so inconsistent with their zeroes before, I’d believe that the lighting experts have an international freephone number and their skincare experts a freephone number in the UK. Could be an accidental extra zero though. After all, there are also some extra spaces and lone hyphens.

  • Make your opening times more readable by leaving off unnecessary naughts and zeroes.
  • For a professional look, use en-dashes (not hyphens) between opening hours and weekdays. Or you could use "from" and "to" instead.
  • Clearly state if your hotline is free. People aren't that accustomed to international freephone numbers, so if you use one, explain that the "00800" means it's free to call. 

 

Here's an improved version of that email.

Subject: Thanks for your message – Reference 123456789
Dear Sabine,
This is just an automatic confirmation that we've received your email. Our Feeling a Ease team will get back to you within one business day.
If your question is more urgent, please give us a call.
- If it's about lighting: 00800 7445 4775 (international freephone number)
- If it's about skincare and body care: 0800 331 6015 (UK freephone number)
We're here to help Monday to Friday from 8am to 8pm and on Saturdays from 9am to 6pm.
Please quote your reference number 123456789 when you call. This will help us find your email and answer your question more quickly.
With kind regards,
Your Feeling at Ease team
Example Customer Care
This is the message you sent us today:
[quotes customer email]

 

Over to you

Struggling with your auto-responders? Not quite sure what to write?

Get in touch for some help and ideas.