Putting Empathy Back Into Email

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empathy in emailsCustomer service by email has many benefits: it’s usually faster than a phone call, your customer never has to wait on hold, and it’s all in writing, so you and your customer can refer back to the details of your conversation later. The downside of email, however, is that there’s so much missing information.

Here’s a great example—a customer I worked with over the phone recently. (I support LivePlan, a web-based business planning software program.) She started the call by saying, “I need to cancel my service today.” That’s a pretty routine request. But her voice was trembling a bit, and I could hear that she was upset. I immediately made my voice as soothing as I could, and told her I’d be glad to help her.

As I was processing the cancellation, I asked if she had any feedback on our software that I could pass along to our development team. And that’s when she explained that she was canceling her service because her business had failed. So she had good reason to feel upset. And knowing this detail, I had an opportunity to say how sorry I was that things didn’t work out, and how I hoped we’d be working with her again on an exciting new business idea in the future.

A little kindness made a big difference here. She ended the call with a smile in her voice, saying “Oh, I’ll be back soon, don’t worry!”

Imagine, however, getting the same request via email: “I need to cancel my service today.” Without the emotional layer provided by your customer’s tone of voice, you can still take care of the request, but you don’t have the same opportunity to make a difference in her day. Email isn’t always that good at empathy.

Thankfully, there are some great techniques you can use with customer emails that can really help you get closer to meeting your customers’ emotional needs while you’re taking care of their transactional ones.

The way we write is not who we are

Email tends to compress your perception of your customer through the lens of his writing style. It’s all too easy to assume that those who write a terse, vague request are difficult customers. But that’s not always the case.

If your customer dislikes having to express himself in writing, then his email may sound angrier than he actually feels. I had an email from a customer recently, asking about our subscription-based software. The email read, “Why should I have to pay you forever if I only need your product one time?” There was no greeting and no closure. It sounded pretty annoyed and even a little confrontational.

I’ll be honest, my first impulse was to respond in kind. But I took a step back, and employed a little trick: I tried reading this email in another voice. If you think about it, this terse question, when read in an openly curious tone of voice, isn’t all that confrontational. It’s just a question. You might even read it in a playful, joking voice and get another effect altogether.

So, armed with these alternate perceptions, I wrote back with this:

“Thanks for contacting us. You ask an excellent question—it makes complete sense that, if you only need our software for one project, you wouldn’t want to pay for it beyond that. This is why you’re welcome to cancel your account at any time. We have no contracts or minimum commitment.”

Lo and behold, my customer wrote back with another terse email, but a perceptible change of tone: “Oh, awesome!” he said, “Thanks for the help.” By not letting my first impression drive my response, I was able to give him a sense of control and freedom with our product, and that made a positive difference.

Give the gift of matching tone

A customer’s writing style also helps you tailor your own writing when you respond. Some customers write short, factual emails, like my customer above. I kept my response to him similarly short and factual, adding just enough emotional language to help him feel heard and valued.

I have another customer I hear from now and then—she’s much chattier, even in emails. She likes to include details about the project she’s working on and how it’s going. She’ll often mention the local weather. Once, she closed an email with “I have to go now, my son is coloring on the hardwood floor.”

When I respond to this customer, I take a cue from her effusiveness. If I just answered her questions and ignored the personal details, she might feel handled, but she’d hardly feel valued. So I’ll mention that we’re having a beautiful sunny day at our company headquarters, congratulate her on how much progress she’s made with her project, or tell her that I hope the floor survived okay. It’s a few extra sentences that have a huge impact on how satisfied my customer feels.

How much detail can they take?

Another vital detail you can get from a customer’s writing style is how much they’re comfortable reading in one sitting. For email communication, this is golden information, especially when the customer service you provide involves problem-solving.

Generally speaking, the longer and more carefully-crafted a customer’s email is, the more detail you can include in your response. Customers who send short, vague emails may require different handling.

Here’s an example: because my company’s software is web-based, my customers sometimes have issues with logging in to their accounts. There can be many causes; the customer may not be on the right web page, or perhaps they need to clear their browser cache, or re-set their account password. Maybe there was an interruption in their internet connection. Maybe they’re typing their email address incorrectly.

Here’s a sample email I’ve gotten from a customer about this issue:

“Hello there—I was trying to log into my account this morning, and I keep getting an error message that says ‘your login cannot be completed.’ I’ve tried logging in several times, using two different browsers, but I keep getting the same message. I even checked to make sure my internet was working, and it is—I can load other websites just fine. Can you please help? Thank you!”

This email, aside from being very polite, also demonstrated that this customer is comfortable with doing a little troubleshooting on his own. He included details of what he’d already tried to do, and what the result was, and his presentation of these details was very organized. So I could be reasonably sure that I could send him several more possibilities to try in one longer response, and he’d likely be fine with reading and trying them.

But what about the customer who wrote: “I can’t log in help me!!!!!!!”? The first thing I noticed here is that, apparently, this customer maybe wasn’t familiar with common login troubleshoots. I knew I’d need to cover all the bases. But, as short as the email was, and taking into account the emotional state implied by all those exclamation points, I also wanted to proceed carefully. If this customer doesn’t like to write much detail, he might not be interested in reading a lot of detail either.

So in this case, my first response offered just a couple options to try: “Can you please confirm that you’re logging in from this particular web page? And have you tried resetting your password?” Then, when I had his answer on these details, I asked him another question. And throughout the exchange, I was careful to thank him for his patience, and for helping me get to the bottom of the issue. It took few more emails to get things resolved, but by matching his detail tolerance, I was able to keep him engaged, not overwhelmed.

If you don’t know, say so

Here’s another good tip for those customers who write short requests with little detail: admit, gently, that you’re not sure what she’s asking. If you can make a decent guess at what the question is, try offering that answer, but make it clear that you’re not sure it’s the right one, and invite her to correct you (which, conveniently, would give you the detail you’re looking for).

I customer recently sent me this: “I can’t open the web.” That could mean any number of things, so I tried this reply:

“I’m sorry to hear that you’re having difficulties. I’ll be happy to help. I’m not 100 percent sure, but it sounds like you might be encountering some trouble with your internet connection. Did I get that right? If not, I’d love to hear more details about what’s happening.”

That prompted a reply of “No, my internet’s fine. Where’s your website?” And that, at least, gave me more specifics to work with. By framing the confusion as mine instead of telling my customer she wasn’t being clear enough, we were able to avoid her frustration and identify her issue.

Look at the history

Even when a question seems straightforward, it’s wise to get all the background you can before responding. I like to do a quick search to see if a customer has written to us before, and what prompted them to write. Again, if a customer isn’t very comfortable expressing himself in writing, he may not think to offer any details of his past encounters with your company that might be relevant.

I had a customer recently who wrote, “I’m not sure how to enter data into my business plan.” That’s a question we usually answer by offering general tips on how to get started with our software. But in researching the customer’s history, I found that he had written us a week earlier with the same exact question, and we had sent him those tips already. So maybe he was trying to ask for deeper help. Instead of sending the same getting-started information again, I instead asked him some clarifying questions to get a better sense of his unmet needs.

Think of the next step

When you’ve resolved a customer’s question and are ready to wrap up the interaction, it’s nice to consider what she might need next, and offer that in your closing. Doing this well depends on respecting your customer’s detail tolerance, but it’s a great way to leave the conversation in a caring way.

I worked with a customer recently, for example, who had some credit card issues while signing up for our software. Once we’d resolved that problem together, I sent her a link to the Getting Started Guide we offer for new users. I had another customer who needed help printing his finished business plan. Once I answered that question, I tuned into the fact that he was finished planning, and sent him some information about our software’s ongoing business dashboard features, to use once his company was up and running.

Thoughtful offers like these leave the door open for future conversations with your customer and help him feel more comfortable reaching out for help in the future.

The more communication we do via screens, the more challenging it becomes to think of each incoming email as a real, live human being—as a potential for connection.

Anyone can deliver answers to questions. Being able to deliver empathy with those answers is what elevates service, and creates memorable experiences for both you and your customers.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to download our free email response checklist for more on how to excel at email communication with customers. 

Posted in Email

Diane Gilleland

Diane Gilleland

Diane Gilleland is a content developer and customer advocate at Palo Alto Software. She spends most of her time building and polishing the help centers for Outpost and LivePlan.