Writing coach Leslie O’Flahavan on the do’s and don’ts of customer messaging

From considering the channel and brand voice to matching the situation and the tone of the customers, can you ever really nail down the perfect message in customer service?

Writing a clear, timely, and empathetic message to your customers is a very sought-after craft. Fortunately, it’s not as elusive as you might think, and it can definitely be taught — writing coach Leslie O’Flahavan has spent over two decades doing just so. She’s helped what she calls the most stubborn, inexperienced, word-phobic people improve their writing skills.

Leslie, a writer and reader born in a family of writers and readers, has been fascinated by language ever since she was a kid. She went on to become a high school English teacher, college writing instructor, and writing consultant for government agencies. And then, email went big – so big, in fact, that Leslie realized it would take the corporate world by storm and radically alter the way people wrote at work. And so, in 1996, she founded E-WRITE, a writing training consultancy that helps people do just that.

For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people and businesses draft their own style guides and write better emails, chats, and social media messages to improve both communication and the customer experience. In this episode of Inside Intercom, we sit down with Leslie to chat about what writing to customers is all about — what not to do (the classic non-apology, anyone?), what to keep in mind, and what’s going to help you navigate all the tricky, touchy situations in customer service.

If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:

  • Writing successful emails is an acquired skill, so businesses should always train their customer service agents. Only then can you encourage them to take macros and knowledge articles and customize them as the situation calls for.
  • When apologizing, agents should avoid broad, passive generalizations such as “We regret any inconvenience this may have caused.” Acknowledge what the customer is saying and be as personal and specific as you can.
  • Use plain language. The writer should be confident that their readers can understand and use the language, especially in delicate situations where the customer may already be upset.
  • Emoji use in customer support is a no-brainer when the brand’s voice is playful and fun – just make sure it’s there for embellishment, not carrying content or replacing words.
  • When the customer reaches out in a different tone from the brand’s, try and match it as much as possible in the greeting, closing, and apology, and use more of the brand’s voice in between.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on iTunes, stream on Spotify, or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

The art of writing well at work

Liam Geraghty: Leslie, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. Could you tell me a little bit about your background and how you started teaching people about writing?

Leslie O’Flahavan: Well, that’s a great story. Sometimes I would begin, “I was born in a cabin in the woods on a snowy winter’s evening,” but I have always been a writing teacher. That’s always been my profession. I started as a high school English teacher, a job I dearly loved and did for about nine years. Then, I became a college writing instructor and a freelance writer. And in 1996, I was teaching day-long writing workshops in government agencies because I’m based in Washington DC, and they’re an employer in the neighborhood. And I started to say to myself, “This email thing is really going to change the way people write at work.” And that was the birth of the idea for E-WRITE, my company, a writing training consultancy that helps people learn to write well at work.

Liam: So, you are the absolute perfect person to talk to then about effective customer messaging and engagement. One thing I wanted to start with was messaging that’s not effective, the kind of fails and blunders of written communication. There are many ways to get it wrong, aren’t there?

“When they receive our response, they think, ‘Well, you could have sent this to anyone. Do you see me at all?'”

Leslie: Yes, indeed. And let’s keep it negative, huh? Would you like me to speak about some of the ways we get it wrong? Yes, indeed. In customer service, especially in email, we often fail to prove to the customer that we read their incoming complaint or inquiry carefully. We respond too quickly, we omit specific details about what made them unhappy or what they needed help with, and when they receive our response, they think, “Well, you could have sent this to anyone. Do you see me at all? Do you know who you’re writing to?”

In live chat, I think we sometimes blunder when we fail to manage the delays in live chat that are natural to providing service in that channel. For example, sometimes the customer has to step away from the chat to retrieve the information they need, or sometimes the customer service agent has to do a long, detailed investigation into the customer’s account. Managing those delays is a writing skill unique to chat. And sometimes, we don’t do that well enough. “Can you give me a minute?” may not be all that’s called for.

Say it like you mean it

Liam: Is there one that really gets to you? One sentence you see quite a lot that you just can’t stand reading in messages to customers?

Leslie: Yes. “We regret any inconvenience this may have caused.”

Liam: Oh, that’s a doozy.

“There’s no question that the company has done something that harmed the customer’s wellbeing in some way. So, ‘any inconvenience’ is passive-aggressive”

Leslie: I hate that one the most.

Liam: What is it about it?

Leslie: Well, it’s passive-aggressive. “Any inconvenience this may have caused.” Well, in fact, it caused heartbreak, hassle, suffering, loss of money, et cetera. There’s no question that the company has done something that harmed the customer’s wellbeing in some way. So, “any inconvenience” is passive-aggressive. Inconvenience is a euphemism for any type of difficulty. If we have sent a customer an invoice twice and the billing account is therefore incorrect, and we say, “We regret any inconvenience this may have caused,” well, it’s more than an inconvenience. It’s an error and maybe has cost me double payment. You must acknowledge that.

I also dislike that sentence a lot because knowing how to apologize and express empathy sincerely is the way mediocre customer service differs from excellent customer service. If we feed our customer service agents this drab, insincere, passive-aggressive sentence and they use it, well, it’s just a failure multiplier.

Liam: And so, to avoid these kinds of mistakes from the get-go, should people go about developing a messaging strategy? What would that involve?

Leslie: Do you mean what would involve to replace the sentence I just gave you?

Liam: Well, I suppose in general, but actually, it would be great to hear how you would change that particular sentence.

“It’s not a matter of ‘if the backlog is terrible, just use the template.’ No. We expect them to customize”

Leslie: I would love to tell you how to change that sentence. First, we choose “I” or “we” to start the sentence. If the company has made a mistake, go ahead and use the pronoun “we.” If the customer service agent individually has made a mistake, use the pronoun “I.” This simple switch of words, “we” to “I,” you and I know it’s built upon a lot of trust for your frontline agents. If you let them or encourage them to write in the first person singular, that means that if they have to apologize to a customer, they won’t themselves suffer dire punishment from management. So, “I regret,” and now we use a specific noun instead of a general one. Inconvenience is general. “I regret the delay,” or, “I apologize for the shipping delay this billing error has caused.” All along the way, I swapped in specific words, and now we have a sincere apology.

And to go back to the question about strategy you asked me earlier, the exercise I’ve just gone through in revising that sad little sentence is built upon a few assumptions that are part of a good strategy. Number one, we train our frontline customer service agents well enough that we can trust them to communicate candidly with customers. That’s the first thing, writing training for frontline agents. We cannot expect them to have these skills because the way we serve customers is changing so quickly that frontline agents are forever having to acquire new writing skills. Second, we provide templates or macros or knowledge articles, whatever you want to call them. But third, we expect our frontline customer service agents to customize them. It’s not a matter of “if the backlog is terrible, just use the template.” No. We expect them to customize. And this is a very high-level writing skill. If they’re going to do it successfully, we have to train and support them.

Guidelines for crisp, clear communication

Liam: And speaking of training, you have a fantastic course on LinkedIn Learning about the importance of plain language. What advice could you give for people who aspire to write more clearly and correctly? Because I certainly think it’s harder than you would think it is.

Leslie: You’re right. It is harder than you think it is. And I believe avidly in plain language. It’s the communication movement I’m aligned with and have been for my entire career. I think plain language is often condemned by the word “plain,” so I just want to explain what plain language is. It’s a communication philosophy or a writing approach that says the measure of the merit of what you’ve written is in the reader’s ability to use it. “Can my reader use it?” Not, “Have I written plainly? Do I use one-syllable words instead of three? Am I writing in short sentences of nine words instead of long sentences of 29 words?” Those are all choices. Yes, we could make those choices. But if you subscribe to the philosophy, you believe “I am the writer, I will adjust what I am writing, so that I can be quite certain my reader can understand and use it.” That’s the philosophy. And it is hard. You have to know your reader. And if you don’t, if you have multiple readers, you have to find out what different readers need and how to prepare one communication that meets the needs of different readers. It is hard, but it is worthwhile. And it is a matter of respect for the reader.

“Can you imagine if we started a text message to a customer, ‘To whom it may concern?'”

Liam: Yeah, 100%. I was wondering how you think the world of customer messaging has adapted to a more modern, kind of conversational tone. A quote that comes to mind is the English actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry saying, “For me, it’s a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language.” And he goes on to talk about the kind of pedantry some people have when it comes to the rules of language and writing and grammar and the whole shebang. How well do you think we’ve adapted to that within customer messaging?

Leslie: I think we have done quite well in some channels because the pressure to sound natural in those channels is very high. Can you imagine if we started a text message to a customer, “To whom it may concern?” “We regret any inconvenience this may have caused.” When customers are using a channel to receive customer service that they mostly use to communicate in their personal lives, you just look like the world’s hugest dork if you write in too formal a style in a text message.

I think there are some natural safeguards in place. Just as you don’t use four-letter swear words when you’re with your grandmother, most companies don’t communicate in an overly formal style in the channels people use to communicate in their personal lives, in social media, in text. We slip and kind of lose our love of language and our capacity to be natural in the channels people are less likely to use in their personal lives, namely postal mail or email. Email’s getting dusty. So, yes, I love that quote, and I’m always here for quoting someone who loves language while we talk about language.

Liam: When it comes to engaging customers through chat and text, could you share some tips on the best way to actually do that?

“We don’t want the customer to have an upbeat, playful experience when we’re marketing to them and a drab, bureaucratic experience when they need help”

Leslie: We must always exploit the real-time engagement in live chat or text to use the strategy of probing, of question-asking. The way we suffer when we must deliver customer service in email is that it’s just not a good practice to cause a lot of back and forth in the email. We strive to respond once, first contact resolution in email. But in live chat, where we are live with the customer, or in text messaging, which is often close to live or synchronous, we should have a conversation. I have a corny saying I love to use, “If phone and email had a baby, they would call it chat.” That’s my new country song. Let’s use what the phone offers – the opportunity to go back and forth – to ask probing questions, to check for the customer’s understanding and our own. Let’s use those offerings when we write in these other channels.

Setting the right tone

Liam: And what about emoji and abbreviations? Here at Intercom, we absolutely love using emoji everywhere. What are your thoughts on when we should be using those?

“The emoji must embellish the communication, not be part of the meaning of the communication”

Leslie: We should always be using those when they’re part of our brand. Some brands rely on emoji a lot in their marketing, and customers will expect that kind of somewhat lighter, more modern style. If emoji are part of our marketing brand, they should be part of our customer service brand. This is a through-line we always want to create. We don’t want the customer to have an upbeat, playful experience when we’re marketing to them and a drab, bureaucratic experience when they need help. If emoji are part of our brand, they should be there in our customer service interaction.

But here’s my strict rule about using emoji when you’re solving a customer’s problem in writing or when you’re responding to a complaint or even a compliment. The emoji must embellish the communication, not be part of the meaning of the communication. In our personal lives, we sometimes use emoji to replace words entirely. And the better we know the person we’re communicating with, the more solid their interpretation is of what that emoji means. If you text your mom and say, “I had a cold on Thursday,” and she gives you a thumbs up, that could seem absolutely idiotic to an outsider. But if you know that you recover quickly from colds and your mom knows that too, the thumbs-up is like, “Go ahead, honey. You’ll feel better soon.” The emoji is carrying content in that conversation. In customer service, the emoji must never carry content. It’s just embellishment. It looks fun, but it doesn’t replace words.

Liam: And is it the same for abbreviations?

Leslie: Depends on what the customer has demonstrated about understanding those abbreviations. I’ll give an example from airlines. I’ve worked with lots of airlines, and in their own communications, they refer to airports by three-letter codes. Sometimes they really need the airport’s abbreviation because a city, like the one I live in, has three nearby airports, and you can’t write “The Washington DC Airport” because there are three so near. If the customer has used the airport code correctly, you can respond using the airport code too. You can assume – because the customer’s demonstrated knowledge of the airport codes – that they understand them. If they have not, you should not. We don’t want our use of abbreviations to cause another contact.

Liam: How important it is to recognize the level of formality a customer is coming to you with and responding back to that on the same level?

“We do this all the time in our personal interactions – we notice the other person’s tone, and we adjust”

Leslie: This mirroring of formality is a matter of respect. For people who communicate with customers, there’s more than one pressure in setting the tone. If we expect frontline customer service agents to write in the company’s brand voice and the customer is communicating in a brand voice that’s very different, for example, you greet customers saying, “Hi, Liam,” but the customer is furious and has emailed, “To whom this may concern,” we have a conflict. What does the customer service agent do? Does the person use the company’s brand voice because that’s what the training has been and that’s what the manager expects, or does the company notice what the customer’s tone is and try to become a little bit more formal, maybe a little more official?

These choices are subtle, and customer service agents are extremely well-versed and competent at making these slight shifts in tone when they talk on the phone. We do this all the time in our personal interactions – we notice the other person’s tone, and we adjust. These same skills are possible to teach and to learn for writing. I would say we always acknowledge the customer’s tone in the greeting and closing. In the body of the email, we may use more of our organization’s brand voice. If those two are not close, we may just saturate the opening, the closing, the apology, if necessary, and the empathy with the customer’s tone, and then, when we’re solving the problem, we may use our company’s brand voice.

Liam: Let’s chat a little bit about a company’s brand voice. We actually had our Brand Studio team on the show not too long ago, where they explained Intercom’s voice and tone and the importance of it. What is the brand voice to you, and how can you make it shine through in writing?

“I cannot tell you how many times I am telling the director of customer care, ‘I think your company probably has a brand voice guide. Maybe you could ask the people in marketing if they could share it with you.'”

Leslie: Well, brand voice is the way a company’s brand personality – which is shaped by logo and color palette and icons of different types or mascots, etc. – it’s the way the company’s brand personality is expressed in writing. And the nimbleness that it takes people inside the company or their marketing agencies, their advertising agencies, to write in a company’s brand voice is a very high-level writing skill. While I’m somewhat interested in this, I’m a writing teacher, so I’m curious about a person’s capacity to write in their organization’s brand voice. I really care about how we help frontline customer service agents understand what their company’s brand voice is, what the encouraged words, terms, phrases, tone, and relationship to the customer are, and how we help them do this hard thing, which is to write in a voice other than their own personal voice, or other than the kind of dry, bureaucratic workplace brand voice.

There’s such a large gap between the conversations companies have around brand and brand voice in marketing, advertising, and coms and the ones that are happening in customer care. I cannot tell you how many times I am telling the director of customer care, “I think your company probably does have a brand voice guide. Maybe you could ask the people in marketing if they could share it with you.” It’s not a joke. They don’t even know that the brand voice has been defined in a document. They’re unaware because there’s kind of an upstairs, downstairs quality to the work we’re talking about. If you’re paid hourly, and if you are possibly less likely to hold your customer service job after the holiday season has passed because the company doesn’t need you anymore, why are they handing you the brand voice guide? But they should be. They absolutely should be. I believe that most people who work for companies can be coached to use the brand voice in the way that their job calls upon them to use it, and it requires coaching and collaboration between parts of the company that may not have good patterns of collaboration.

A lucky match

Liam: Before we finish up, Leslie, where did your love of language come from in the first place?

Leslie: What a lovely question. Thank you for asking me that. I loved to read when I was a little kid and have loved to read all along. When I was an undergraduate, I thought I would become a writer, and when it came time to finalize my college major, and I realized I wanted to be a writing teacher, I had that sought-after feeling that I had slipped into the role that matched my gifts and my loves. I think my childhood beginnings as a writer and reader were just golden, really. My family were writers and readers, my teachers supported me. It was a lucky match between my loves and my work that has led me here.

Liam: That’s wonderful. At this point, we always ask what’s next, if you have any projects or plans coming up?

“The customer experience is lousy with chatbots. If you interact with 20 of them, you’ll have a good experience with one, and the other 19 are absolutely lousy”

Leslie: This has been a year of standing on the deck of a rocking ship and hoping not to be thrown into the water. My business is thriving, absolutely thriving. There’s one area where I’m doing more work, and I’m quite curious about this, which is helping companies who have deployed chatbots do a better job of this because I think the customer experience is lousy with chatbots. If you interact with 20 of them, you’ll have a good experience with one, and the other 19 are absolutely lousy. And part of the reason is the chatbot is drawing on content in the knowledge base or the FAQs, and that information is poor. I’m very excited to be thinking more about the knowledge collections humans have created and use. And now that machines are using them, the communication flaws in the knowledge collection are magnified. That’s something I’m really curious about.

Liam: Brilliant. And lastly, where can listeners go to keep up with you and your work?

Leslie: Well, they can always find me online at ewriteonline.com. That’s my web address. You can follow me on Twitter, I’m @LeslieO. I’m really enjoying LinkedIn now. So, if you want to follow me there, I would like that too.

Liam: Leslie, thank you so much for joining us today.

Leslie: It’s absolutely been my pleasure. Thank you for interviewing me like a friend.

Intercom on Marketing – Desktop Article – horizontal 2019