I recently addressed a group of customer-service representatives at a conference, and near the end of my speech, I joked that these must be good times for English majors.
As someone who reads a boatload of rejection letters every day, I explained, I've noticed that they're getting a lot more creative.
"Someone needs to write those letters," I added.
A man in the back of the room laughed out loud. Later, he approached me and identified himself as a high-level executive for an airline.
"Chris, you're right," he told me. "We are hiring more English majors. We want our rejection letters to look good!"
I thought that was funny. And a little disturbing.
A well-crafted rejection letter can deflect a customer's anger, restore their faith in your company, even encourage them to give you another chance. But as an advocate for customers, I've seen rejection letters used to turn down a legitimate problem, and even to inappropriately assign blame to a customer.
That's just wrong.
Still, I became fascinated with the best way to tell a customer "no." I'm focusing on the written word (I'll get to the other ways in a future post) because in an age of email and texting, the word is by far the preferred method of telling a customer you can't do something.
1. Send it soon. Most companies, as a matter of policy, respond to any written inquiry within a week, and sometimes less. (That doesn't include the autoresponder, which unfortunately, doesn't count.) It's not enough. A week is too long in an "always-on" society. Customers will not bide their time quietly; they'll go online and vent, complain to their friends through social media, and email people like me. Trust me, you can't afford that.
2. Be polite but firm. The best rejection letters are cordial while leaving no doubt that this is a final answer. No need to sugarcoat it; you have to make a clean break, which will both give the customer a sense of closure and eliminate any unnecessary and unproductive follow-up. In other words, just say "no."
3. Skip the empty apology. Too many times, companies will offer a half-hearted apology ("We're sorry for the way you feel") as opposed to the real deal ("We're sorry"). Customers aren't stupid. When they see a less-than-genuine apology, it lessens the credibility of your answer. If you have nothing to apologize for, then don't do it.
4. Avoid cut-and-paste responses. Form letters are an inevitable part of the customer service process. Heck, even I use form letters to respond to readers sometimes. But there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. Make sure the form addresses the problem, as opposed to a general set of circumstances that may apply to the situation. if it doesn't, write one that does. Nothing says "I don't care" better than a form letter that suggests you didn't bother to read the initial complaint.
5. Personalize everything. Even if you send a form, make sure the customer's name is correct and that you address him or her properly. I've lost count of the number of times someone's name was misspelled (how hard is it to cut and past a name from the original letter?) and the gender was wrong — Mr. instead of Ms. It helps to add a sentence or two that shows you've actually reviewed the first letter, even if the bulk of the email is a form response.
6. Switch it up. Even your best form letters will eventually make the rounds, getting published on bulletin boards and blogs. You can't continue to recycle them, because customers will recognize them. Change the script. Regularly.
7. Be sincere. Perhaps the worst crime, when it comes to your "no," is that of insincerity. After you've denied someone a refund or exchange, it's highly inappropriate to look forward to seeing them in your store again soon. That's just a nonsense thing to say. Instead, acknowledge their disappointment in an authentic way, and express your hope that you'll consider giving you their business. Don't act as if a return is inevitable. It isn't.
Even if you follow these tips, I can't guarantee you'll avoid upsetting your customers. But you'll dampen the blow.
The only surefire way of doing that, unfortunately, is saying "yes."
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
Thanks to Christopher Elliott / BNet / CBS Interactive