To Template or Not to Template: Streamlining Email the Right Way

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email templates

Do your email responses sound canned? Templates are great—but avoiding repetitive, canned responses can be tricky. (Source.)

Brace yourself. You’re about to delve into the thrilling world of email templates.

The best piece of advice we can give to people who are new to communicating directly with customers? Take advantage of tools that can help you streamline and stay organized. It will make a big difference in the experience. Email templates are high on the list—if they’re used correctly.
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We’ve all been there. Picture it—you’re sitting in front of your computer. You’ve been working on an important project for hours. You go to save your file, and your computer crashes. After the appropriate freak-out, the first thing you do is send an email to tech support.

You get an auto-response that says “Ok, we’ve received your message, etc.” And then you wait. You think, “Now, someone is going to sit down and carefully read my message, and understand the urgency of my situation. I just need to be patient and wait to get the help that I expect.”

Only you get an email message that looks something like this:

Dear [recipient] (nice touch there, right?)

I received your message with questions about computer issues. I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble. Please try these troubleshooting tips let me know if they don’t work and I’ll be happy to keep helping blah blah blah blah blah, nothing useful, etc.

Sincerely,
Some faceless tech support person

So, technically, that letter is just fine. It gives troubleshooting tips and it addresses the person’s issue. Here’s the problem—there is no personal sentiment or empathy. There’s no reassurance of “Wow! That’s a huge problem and I’m so sorry that you’re experiencing that!” It just feels cold.

And that’s where email templates have an opportunity to work for you, instead of against you.

One of the approaches that I really like is using snippets of text to craft a response, rather than one giant, templated block of text. It’s a great way to save time, but it also gives you the opportunity to customize your response more to the situation at hand, and it feels more personal to the reader.

A poorly written email that is most certainly a templated response can cause a benign interaction to quickly escalate when a customer feels like they’re not being heard or respected.

We’ve all been on that end of those bad customer service conversations from one time or another, and it’s really frustrating. To give a real-life example, I recently sent an email to a company, asking them to please cancel my service. I tried to include as much detail as possible, to cut down on any back-and-forth correspondence. I received an email response soon thereafter that was obviously a template. It asked me to provide every piece of information that I had already provided in the original message. Immediately frustrated, I replied back, reiterating the same information.

Then, to top it off, I received a second email from another rep, with the SAME templated response! Along with a footnote that if I didn’t respond to this message, my ticket would be closed! It was incredibly frustrating, knowing that a simple request was made so tedious, all because no one had stopped to actually read my original correspondence. It just all felt so avoidable.

Now with all that being said, I should probably mention that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. More than once in my storied career, I have spent long periods of time carefully crafting personalized responses with helpful information specific to that person’s question, only to get a response of “I can’t believe you just sent me a canned message! Don’t you even care about my problem?” That one is always a bit of a gut-punch—especially for the dyed-in-the-wool customer care rep who truly wants to help.

But there are a few things you can do to make sure your email templates are working for you, not against you. It all starts with figuring out what kind of messages lend themselves to templating.

What should you template?

If there are specific words your organization wants to use across the board

For example, if you always want to describe a particular process in a certain way for trademark reasons, or because you’ve just figured out the best way to communicate something.

Templates that relate to your FAQs

If you already have an FAQ section on your company’s website, think about designing email templates for each one of them. Likewise, if you don’t have FAQs on your site, think about your most often asked questions and create FAQs on your site about those, so that you can refer customers there for more information.

Templates for training purposes

Templates can act as great training tools as well. A well written, clear response can help guide new employees on the communication style and vibe of the company. It helps set the tone.

When not to use templates

Templates (especially snippets) can fall into the category of “too much of a good thing” very quickly. A good indicator for this experience is if you are spending more time looking for just the right template than it would have taken to just type out the response, you’re not really working very efficiently at that point.

There are a lot of great tools out there that can help you manage your responses and keep them organized so they are a help, rather than a hindrance. On another note, it probably goes without saying that templated responses should be avoided or highly customized in the event that you’re dealing with an upset customer or any other sensitive situation.

How to create a good template

1. Make it clear

The first rule is clarity. A great customer response should have proper punctuation, it’s best to avoid a lot of industry jargon or odd abbreviations, and it should convey a high level of professionalism. The whole purpose of a template is to provide a complete, concise response to a customer’s inquiry.

Don’t make the mistake of skipping the proofreading step. Have someone else read over your template before you start using it. There is nothing worse than a factual error or a typo that ends up being sent to hundreds or even thousands of customers because you didn’t proofread.

The messaging should be easy to understand and provide all of the necessary information. That being said, brevity is also important. Readers tend to trail off if you present them with a big wall of text. They want a quick solution to their problem, not a homework assignment. (Note: That is an actual response that I have received from a customer.)

If you do need to convey a lot of information, use line breaks between thoughts so that customers aren’t literally reading through a block of text.

2. Make it human

Does it read like a robot wrote it? The other side of the email template equation is probably the most important and most challenging one. When composing a template, don’t let it read like a template. Sometimes, it helps to have a second set of eyes to read over your template to verify that is doesn’t feel too cold or robotic.

Can it be easily modified? The best kind of template is one that can be easily modified to address the needs of the specific customer with whom you are corresponding. While templates can save time, it’s rare that they can be used in a response in their unedited form. One of the main goals in using a template is to save time, and even though you will typically need to make some modifications to personalize your response, you are still saving a ton of time compared to the time it would take to type out a complete, original response every time.

Does it sound empathetic? This falls into the “don’t be a robot” category mentioned above. Add some feeling and personality to your messaging! Unless your company culture tries to avoid looking too informal, it’s always nice to receive correspondence from a real person, and customers really appreciate it.

3. Make it personal

Take some ownership. This means making sure that you have a signature at the end of your email, even if the email is mostly pre-written.

If your goal is to help your recipient feel that a real, live person is on the other end of the email, this is a nice way to close things out.

4. Avoid these common pitfalls

Forgetting to fill in the variable data, like name or acknowledgment of that person’s particular question or problem. We’ve all received these messages, and it’s a quick way to turn an interaction from bad to worse. Templates are great for saving time, but it’s always worth it to take an extra moment to double check before you hit send.

Answering the wrong question. If someone asks a question and you don’t have a template specifically for that situation, it may be tempting to use another template that is similar. However, this is really not the path of least resistance—and it’s going to be very off putting for the person reading your email message. It helps to think of your email template library as a living document. This could be a great opportunity to tweak a current template, or create a new one based on this new question.

The moral of the story? Use templates wisely. Plan carefully. Be human.

Take some time to build a flexible, robust, living library of common templated responses. Arrange them so they are useful and save you time. Revisit often to ensure that you are not sharing outdated information, and to catch any inaccuracies that may have slipped by when the template was originally written.

Email templates are a great tool to have in the old toolbox, but keep ‘em polished, sharpened, and organized—or before you know it, you’ll be using a rusty wrench to hammer a nail, and trust me on this, that’s not fun for anyone involved.

Want more advice on how to better communicate with customers via email? Download our email response checklist!

Posted in Customer Service, Email

Gretchen Bourland

Gretchen Bourland

Gretchen is part of the customer advocacy team at Palo Alto Software. She has a wide range of experience in service and support roles, and loves the opportunity to help people work through their questions and challenges.