#TBT: (What’s So Funny ’bout) Speaking Like a Human Being

Happy #TBT. To celebrate, we’re sharing an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: (What’s So Funny ’bout) Speaking Like a Human Being

A colleague of mine got an email from a well-known e-commerce site the other day that said this. (I took out anything I thought could identify the company or product.)

Dear [xxxxx],

We at [xxxx] work tirelessly to bring our members luxury products and experiences that exceed their expectations, all at exclusive prices. We also strive to provide the best support possible, especially if an issue arises.

You are receiving this letter because you purchased a pair of [xxxxxx] from our [xxxx] sale on January 19.

Due to an inventory issue with our vendor, we were unable to receive the correct merchandise and we had to cancel all orders placed for this item. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused. Fortunately, our vendor was able to supply us with additional units of the [xxxxx] in the color blue. As a token of our appreciation, we will be shipping these [xxxx] to you within the next week, free of charge on behalf of [xxxx].

In order to ship you these complimentary [xxxx], we will place a new order for you in our system. We will issue the appropriate account credit to cover the cost of the [xxxx] and the associated shipping charge. Please note that you will not be charged for the order, and this process requires no action on your part. You will receive a confirmation email once the order has been placed, and a shipment confirmation email once the order has left our warehouse.

We truly value you as a member, and look forward to assisting you with your future orders. Again, our apologies. Please feel free to contact us at  [xxxxx] or at (877) xxx-xxxx if you have additional questions or comments.

Customer Support
[Name of Company]

*Insert footnote copy here, if any.

The only problem was that my friend hadn’t ordered anything from this company. A little while later, she got this:

Dear [xxxx],

Earlier today, we mistakenly sent you an email regarding an order for a [xxxx]. This was a human error on our part and we want to assure you that your account was not and will not be charged for this order.

We value you as a member, and look forward to assisting you with your future orders. We truly apologize for any confusion this has caused. Please feel free to contact us at [xxxx] if you have additional questions or comments.

Customer Support
[Name of Company]

*Insert footnote copy here, if any.

My friend’s reaction to this whole thing was extremely negative. To quote her, “I think this apology just really misses the mark. I’m sure people were just as alarmed as I was and this just doesn’t cut it. Unsubscribe.”

She was puzzled by the first email, and that puzzlement gave way to concern about the security of her account. Well, mistakes happen and when they do, obviously, companies have to clear them up. For her, it was the tone of the second email, the apology email, that fell so flat and the whole affair soured her on the company in question.

Let’s break down why that might be.

Here’s what I hate in the first email. The first line says, “ to bring our members luxury products and experiences that exceed their expectations, all at exclusive prices.”

If you’re about to apologize, it’s best not to go on about how awesome you are. “Honey, I work tirelessly to to exceed your expectations as a husband, but I completely forgot our anniversary last week.” If you knew somebody who spoke to you like that, you’d slap them in the face.

If you’ve got bad news for your customer, spit it out. Give them the facts as directly as you can, apologize fully and sincerely if you’ve screwed up, and save the speeches about how great you are for another time. You can tell them how you TRY always to do this or that thing, but now’s not the time to brag.

Here’s something else I hate: When was the last time you said the word “assist”? What’s wrong with “help”? Why does this company “look forward to assisting you with your future orders”? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that they hope you’ll think of buying from them again in future, despite this screw-up?

Well, this supposed screw up. The real screw up was that only a handful of people bought this product, but almost everyone in the data base got the message. Thus, the second email, which is, as my friend said, much worse. Let’s say why.

First, there’s this whole thing about the fact that it was a “human error.” What? You expect us to believe that a human error was committed by a company obviously staffed by robots, if the customer service emails are any indicator?

Human error? Are there Vulcans at this company who roll their eyes every time one of the pathetic Earthlings screw up like this? Honestly, it would explain a lot.

“We value you as a member.” This is an empty phrase that everyone should stop using. It sounds like what you hear when you’re on hold with a company that claims to “value your business.” And I’ve already talked about the “looking forward to assisting you…” nonsense, which they’ve repeated verbatim in the second email.

And is it just me or does the phrase “truly apologize” sound like it’s coming from a person who’s afraid to say they’re sorry? We are sorry we sent you a scary email that didn’t make any sense.

“Additional”? How about “other”? Why would you say “additional questions” when you could say “other questions” and not sound like a DMV form?

I’ll tell you why: Because somehow, somewhere, people got the idea that customer service meant talking in a stilted, formal, vague, robotic voice. It got that way because for a long time, customer service meant the most efficient means for keeping a customer at bay, for shunting them and their questions aside so you could focus on “doing business.” Well, to paraphrase Jacob Marley, your customers ARE your business. I believe there are a lot of businesses, like this one, that really want to do customer service well, but they’re in thrall to a way of thinking, speaking (and perhaps acting) that grew out of a desire to have as little contact with customers as possible.

It got to the point where speaking like a human being to other human beings in a customer service context became a sign of lack of sophistication.

Well, yee-haw. I’ll be a bumpkin who talks to people as though they’re actually people rather than a drone trying to hide behind vague, boring, condescending, pointlessly formal business babble any day.

Finally, why put a signature block in if a person’s not going to sign it? “Sincerely, Customer Support, [Company name].” That’s awful.  The second email should have come from the CEO or at least the head of customer service by name. And if your reaction to that is “but then people will know our names,” my question is “and how will having them know you a little better and see your company as being made up of human beings hurt your business exactly?”

And don’t give me that garbage about email inboxes being flooded. There are a million ways around that. In short, if you don’t have the commitment to stand in front of your product personally, especially when things have gone somewhat wrong, why should a customer be committed to you? After all, you’ve got their name, and a whole lot more.

And yes, BOTH emails had the “*Insert footnote copy here, if any” at the bottom. One, I’d excuse as a careless mistake. Twice, on a fairly significant customer service issue, mind you, means no one is looking.

Last but not least, here’s my version of the second email:

Dear [xxxx]:

Earlier today, we sent you an email that probably confused you quite a bit. It said that we had shipped you an order of [xxxx] that you’ve probably never heard of, and I’d be surprised if you weren’t puzzled.

I wanted to let you know that this email was sent to you by mistake and that no order has been placed and no charge has been made to you in any way. Please accept my apologies for the confusion this must have caused. Rest assured that this was a simple error of sending too many emails about a problem we had with a piece of merchandise. No charges have been made to your account, nor has any of your account information been shared with any third party.

Feel free to let me know if you have any questions about this, and I’m sorry for the hassle!

Jim McCarthy
CEO, [Some Company]

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