Writing Great Emails to Customers: Q&A with Leslie O’Flahavan

Published November 4, 2014
Last modified May 21, 2020

There’s no denying that the Internet and social media are changing the way we all communicate. The shift isn’t limited to personal conversations and mass media: Traditional companies are also beginning to adopt the more friendly and personal tone that their customers increasingly expect, even in business dealings. But many companies—and their customer-facing employees—struggle to strike the right balance between conversational and professional.

Leslie O’Flahavan of E-WRITE is ready to help, so sharpen your pencils (or warm up your keyboards) and join us for a free, one-hour webinar on Thursday, November 13 at 10:00 a.m. PT, during which Leslie will demystify the process of writing great emails in the age of social service. In the meantime, Leslie shared the following tips and advice. [Nov. 13, 2014 has come and gone, but you can view the webinar recording here.]

You’ve been teaching and advising businesses about writing for almost 20 years. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in communications in that time, and what hasn’t changed?

Yes, a lot has changed in the last 20 years, but the essentials remain. To write well, you have to understand what your readers care about, you have to use concepts they understand, and, in customer service writing, you have to enable them to take action.

Many of the biggest changes I’ve seen in business communication are ones I really like. For example, today’s great workplace writers are committed to using plain language. Our documents and online writing look much better than they did 20 years ago; they’re much prettier! Today, most people use a more personal, direct tone than they did 20 years ago. In general, it’s all good.

One thing is for sure—business writing is changing all the time. Twenty years ago, a workplace writer would have turned to a graphic designer to help prepare an enewsletter or infographic. Today, the writer is expected to produce that content herself. To be a good business writer today, you need an open mind and flexible writing skills, because the forms and types of writing you’ll do just keep changing.

Social media and texting have retrained our brains for a new world of 140-character statements and abbreviations for every word. Is there still a place for proper grammar and correct spelling in day-to-day communications among companies and their customers?

Oh, yes. There absolutely is still a place for proper grammar and correct spelling, especially if you are writing to customers. We use proper grammar and correct spelling to convey professionalism and avoid confusion. If you’re writing to customers on Facebook or Twitter, you still need to come across as professional and clear.

We are, however, writing during a time of tremendous change in what’s considered correct and proper. Some uses of textese are so common that they are becoming correct and proper or becoming words themselves. For example, is it OK to write “Thx” in a tweet to a customer? Yes, and no. Yes, if the customer uses that abbreviation with you, if your brand voice is casual, or if you’re writing about an easy issue that’s going well. But you should write the proper word “Thanks” unless those conditions exist.

It’s almost always a bad idea to omit the capital letter at the beginning of a sentence or the period at the end, as these conventions make everything easier to read.

Are there any “magic” words or phrases that can help defuse customers’ anger?

I wish there were! Sadly, there aren’t any magic words or phrases that can defuse customers’ anger. There are, however, words and phrases that can make them angrier. Using legalese—“Sir, as per Section 3, paragraph A of our policy, we reserve the right to deny requests for extensions to the warranty period…”—is guaranteed to bring a customer’s mood to the boiling point. Words that signal your weariness with the issue can inflame a customer’s anger too, so avoid writing, “Again, while we understand your position, we cannot …” or “As I stated in my previous email, we cannot…

The best way to write to an angry customer is with an attitude of genuine empathy. It will come across in your writing—loud and clear. The best way to defuse customers’ anger is to let them know that you do truly understand how they feel.

Many professionals dread—or even fear—writing. What advice do you have for people who want to learn to improve their writing and communicate with greater confidence?

I believe great writers are made, not born, so even if you’re not a natural at writing, you can get better. You can be good. The trick is to do as much writing as you possibly can. Take on writing projects. Ask for writing projects. If you dread or fear writing, the advice I am giving you can be hard to take, but the only way to get better at writing is to do lots of it.

Another thing you must do to become a better writer, and a more easy-going writer, is study other people’s writing. Identify two or three colleagues whose writing you like. Instead of getting stuck in “Why can’t I write like this?” thinking, examine your colleagues’ writing and try to figure out why you like it. How does she start her emails? What does he do in his reports to make a complex topic easy to understand? How did she show empathy in her response to that unhappy customer? Once you start to notice how good writers do what they do, you should imitate them in your own writing. That’s right, you should “rip off” your colleagues’ writing tactics because you’ll be building your writing skills along the way. Once you’ve absorbed the good writing behaviors others use, you’ll be able to develop your own. So here are three steps to becoming a better writer: Read critically, imitate freely, develop your own style and skills.

Missed Leslie's live webinar? Never fear, the recording is here: "Writing Great Emails to Customers: How Social Media Has Changed the Rules”