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  • Writer's pictureRichard Spencer

Six steps to successful customer service responses.

We’ve lost count of the number of businesses that lose customers, or hit the headlines, due to a poorly worded email or post.

Often, that very same business has excellent processes for handling complaints or dealing with tricky issues.

But at the very last hurdle in dealing with their customer’s challenge, the language of their response upsets all the good work that’s gone before.

Perhaps the tone is off, the language is impersonal, the email or letter too long-winded, or maybe using a previous template doesn’t quite solve the issue in hand.

In our Sharper Writing for Customer Service workshops, we breakdown responses into 6 key areas that add up to a compelling whole. You may not need all 6 elements, but hopefully the checklist below will help you keep customers onside.

1.     Appreciate

2.     Apologise (with feeling)

3.     Explain clearly and concisely

4.     Take ownership

5.     Add value

6.     Invite response


1.     Appreciate their frustration

When customers complain they are usually either angry or frustrated. They’ve considered the issue for some time before they write. And probably agonised for even longer about how to phrase the letter or email to you.

In short, they’ve often poured their heart and soul into the letter. What effect does this have on way they write? Chances are it will be passive aggressive, overly formal or long-winded on the detail.

That doesn’t mean you should reply in kind.

Thank you for your complaint

Thank customers for their complaint. Remember, a complaint is a business opportunity. However unjustified the moan, always thank the customer.

You need to sound like you mean it too. Begin each letter with a fresh start not a cut and paste version of ‘thank you’ – if it sounds tired and insincere to you, it will to your customer.

You don’t need to thank them for complaining (if that’s what they’re doing).

Thanking them for anything, no matter how minor, will set a good tone for the response, for example:

•       For getting in touch

•       For letting me know

•       For this update

2.    Apologise with feeling

What can you do to defuse the situation and reassure the customer that things will be take care of? By apologising you can take ownership of the problem – but be positive.

Think carefully about what you’re apologising for. Do you want to apologise for the problem if it’s not your business’s fault?

Perhaps you can apologise for any stress or uncertainty they may be feeling. It’s empathetic and you’re not accepting liability for the issue, simply acknowledging that when things don’t go as planned that can be stressful. It’s a universal condition.

Whatever you do, don’t apologise for things under your control during the handling of the complaint.

We see endless customer service emails and letters apologising for a delay in getting back. This just makes you look inefficient and potentially like you’ve been ignoring them.

Don’t apologise sincerely

'I sincerely apologise' is probably the most overused phrase in replies to complaints. Ironically it smacks of insincerity.

Delete the adverb ‘sincerely’. There’s a reason that Stephen King says that ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’. They sound passive aggressive from the start.

Other contenders for this adverb editing tip include:

·       We kindly suggest…

·       We sincerely apologise…

·       Unfortunately…

·       We fully understand…

·       We gladly accept…


A simple ‘sorry’ is more effective. It’s human, natural – and means exactly the same thing!

“When an apology is perceived as genuine, research shows customer satisfaction increases 10%-15%.” Myra Golden. How to Write Response Letters

3.    Explain clearly and concisely

It’s easy for complaint handling to descend into a tit for tat, ‘you said this, we say that’ conversation.

Really try and avoid this in your replies. It drags out the conversation and is liable to be picked apart again.

A more successful strategy is to concisely state the problem and then say what you’re doing to resolve it.

Keep the language nice and simple. Anything unnecessarily complex can come across as bureaucratic and remote – like you’re trying to confuse the poor complainant.

4.  Own the problem

To show you have been listening to the customer, make sure that you keep referring back to them by using the words ‘you’ or ‘your’. To strike the right balance between the ‘I’ or ‘we’ of your business and the ‘you’ and ‘your’ of the customer, persuasive writers aims for a ratio of being twice as much about ‘you’ as it is about ‘us’.

We is for:

•       The business

•       The t’s and c’s

•       Recompense

I is for:

•       Empathy

•       Enabling

•       Going the extra mile

More passive than aggressive

This complaint has now been passed to our compliance team.

This is a passive sentence - we don’t actually know who forwarded the complaint. To make the sentence active we need to introduce a subject.

I have passed your complaint to the compliance team.

Passive sentences often avoid taking responsibility for the action. Simply adding an agent of change - 'I' or 'we' - wil fix the problem.

It would even better not to bother your respondent with details about internal machinations of your business. Do you really need to explain any interdepartmental conversations? To them, you’re just one business. So own it:

I’ll try to resolve this as quickly as possible.

Owning the problem

·       Don’t be anonymous

·       Say who’s doing what – and why

·       Be positive

·       Focus on the customer


5.    Add Value

What can you give the customer or client for their pain (even if they don’t really deserve it).

Many businesses employ random acts of kindness to mysteriously reward random customers. Perhaps a free seat at the cinema. An upgrade on a plane. A free subscription.

Or just going the extra mile on top of solving the problem.

The trick here is to own the giving. Whatever it is you have in your locker of potential giveaways, make sure it’s clearly a gift.

There’s a big difference between saying ‘please find a voucher for 10% off included’ and ‘I’ve included a voucher for you that’ll save you 10% on your next shop’.

Even better if you can break the rules – ‘my bosses say I can’t but I’ve included a voucher….’

If you don’t have any specific giveaways to add value, always review your website, or business for potential freebies. Even if you just point people in the direction of helpful articles or advice – ‘I’ve included a few links to relevant posts you might find useful…’

6.    Invite a response

The temptation is always to try and close the conversation. But telling your customer that you consider the case closed can exacerbate the situation. It sounds assumptive and can provoke another response from your customer.

Counter intuitively, it's better to invite dialoge. It's the email equivalent of saying 'my door is always open'. Of course, you'd rather they didn't come back for more. Fortunately, they're much less likely too with this positive and accessible close.

At A Thousand Monkeys, we're always interested to hear what you have to say!


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