Five E-Mail Errors That Cost Your Customers

What's the state-of-the-art of customer service e-mail?

To find out, we sent out hundreds of customer service questions and requests via e-mail. We e-mailed everyone -- from Fortune 500s to ma-and-pa companies, from public corporations to nonprofits and government agencies. What we've learned:

(1) Lots of customer service representatives lack the basic writing skills they need to communicate with customers;

(2) Lots of companies are sending out embarrassing, inaccurate, business-damaging e-mail disguised as "help."

As we analyze the e-mail responses, five common e-mail errors emerged:

Error #1: Don't Write Us, We Won't Write You

The Mayor's website urged citizens to send e-mail and promised a timely response. We sent an e-mail complaining about a garbage pickup. We got no response-untimely by any measure.

A surprisingly high number of our e-mails got no response. We were annoyed and puzzled. Didn't this company want our business, the politician our vote? The no-responders lost our business and, if we had been their customers in the past, our loyalty. We'll be doing business with the competition from now on.

Error #2: Sending The Wrong Canned Response

We understand that auto responders and "canned" responses are practical. We appreciate a machine-generated response that acknowledges our e-mail and gives a timeframe for a "human" response. However, we were quite irked when the response didn't meet the promised timeframe, didn't answer our question or failed to answer all our questions.

Sometimes we got a one-size-fits-all response that probably fits no one. For example, we sent the following question to a financial aid information service: "I have a daughter, age 8. I would like information about saving for her college costs." We received a 1200-word answer that told us everything we DIDN'T want to know about the necessary forms and the filing deadlines for scholarships. The e-mail said nothing about SAVING for college.

Error #3: Giving Customers The No-Answer Run-Around

A particularly annoying type of response not only failed to answer our question, it sent us to the company's website where, most likely, we hadn't found the information in the first place! For example, we sent an online travel service this e-mail: "I'd like to rent a Chrysler PT Cruiser on my next trip. How do I find out which company rents them and how do I reserve one?" Instead of answering our question, the e-mail response explained how to make reservations online and referred us back to the website's unhelpful FAQs.

In another query, we asked a senior citizen's organization "Do you have a list of summer camps that grandchildren and grandparents can attend together?" We were sent back to the website for a keyword search. The customer service representative wrote "With our enhanced online services, you can now search our catalogs by topic or other key word via our website." Is it too much to expect that customer service do the search to find the information or know their products well enough to answer the question?

Error #4: Giving Customers No Satisfaction

Sometimes the company did an adequate job of answering our question, but the response did not acknowledge our pain and suffering or our value as a customer. For example, we sent this e-mail about a bill we'd received for a magazine subscription: "You have sent me three bills for your magazine since I made my payment. Would you please make sure that I don't receive another bill?"

The subscription company finally solved the problem with the bill, but the e-mail response it sent us did not satisfy. The company wrote: "We have your payment." The company didn't acknowledge or apologize for our pain and inconvenience. Each customer service e-mail is an opportunity to build a relationship with a customer. Each response should make the customer feel valued.

Error #5: Sending A Sloppy Response

Some companies that sent us e-mail had clearly adopted the "it's only e-mail" attitude. They decided that e-mail was so casual that spelling and grammar don't matter. Here's the e-mail response we received to our question about a product guarantee. "Our product quarantee is Gauranteed Period." This response made us wonder. Is the company as sloppy about shipping as it is about spelling? Would the package arrive by Christmas, as promised?

What do these five e-mail errors tell us?

Many companies need an attitude adjustment when it comes to customer service e-mail. Perhaps the benchmark of a successful customer service e-mail effort should be the quality of the response, not the number of e-mails answered per hour. Did the e-mail response serve the customer? If not, companies risk alienating customers and hurting the bottom line.

By Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O'Flahavan, E-WRITE