Why do good complaint handlers go bad when they write to customers?

There’s a condition in complaint handling which we at The First Word like to call good cop, bad cop. It doesn’t involve interrogating customers in a dark, smoky room. Nor do any of the characters have a moustache. In fact, both the good cop and the bad cop are the same person. So what causes someone to turn from good cop to bad cop when dealing with a complaint? In a word: writing.

Take Michael (we’ve changed his name to protect the guilty). Michael works for a client of ours and on the phone, he’s great. Michael listens to customers and allows them to rant and rave if they need to. He empathises with their situation, even if he knows the customer is at fault. He uses his in-depth product knowledge to explain complex issues, and takes ownership by saying exactly what he can do to resolve the complaint.

But when Michael writes a letter, the caring spoken voice he used on the phone is replaced by barked instructions. Things he explained in plain English are cloaked in jargon and formal language when they’re written down, and the sense of empathy he showed for the customer is replaced by a cold tone of contempt. The understanding good cop has left the room and a fuming bad cop has arrived in his place, ready to rough the customer up.

The strangest thing about this personality switch is that Michael doesn’t know he’s doing it. If he did, he’d be horrified. So why does it happen?

To understand this, we have to look at the different processes we go through when we speak and write. When we speak, we rely on our intuitive ability to communicate. We may try and choose our words carefully, but often we have little or no time to think about what we’re saying; the words ‘just come out’. Our brains do the work of verbalising words without us having to think about it.

Writing is much less immediate. The process of typing, for example, allows us more time to think than we would have on the phone, say, and it’s this thinking time which causes us to change the way we communicate. In business, many people assume writing has to be formal, so given time to think they will often opt for longer, more complicated words than they would use when speaking. They may also use longer sentences because, unlike speaking, there’s no need to pause for breath. You can quite happily type a 100-word sentence without your lungs telling you it’s time for a break. So the instincts which help us communicate clearly when we speak are overridden when it comes to writing.

There are exceptions, of course. Our grasp of the language we’re using, our capacity for empathy and our ability to adapt our communication style to our audience can all play a big part in how we communicate, in speaking or writing. But in our experience it’s when people write at work that the bad habits tend to creep in and, like Michael, there’s the tendency to adopt an overly formal, unnecessarily complex tone.

These habits start before we get to work; they’re drilled into us from an early age. At school we’re encouraged to broaden our vocabulary by using longer words in our writing. At university we’re encouraged to use the academic, technical language which helps us to make subtle arguments but is often unnecessary in business.

Work can be a bad influence too. The desire to fit in can make formal writing the default option, especially if that’s the style our peers use. Writing rules may also be dictated to us. Anyone who’s been to secretarial college will have learnt conventions for how to formally address a letter, conventions which today seem old-fashioned.

So many of the communication skills we pick up as we move through life can work against us when it comes to business writing. This is particularly true when we’re writing to customers, where clarity and empathy are arguably the most important qualities we need to express in our writing. Maintaining these qualities becomes more difficult when the customers themselves load angry letters with long words in the hope this will make them sound important/serious/knowledgeable.

In most cases, switching your personality from friendly to formal when we write is not a deliberate ploy – it’s a learned behaviour that’s so ingrained we don’t know we’re doing it. If you feel you or your team has fallen foul of these habits, here are our top tips to make sure your customer letters are more good cop than bad cop.

1. Write as you speak

Don’t worry about sounding too chatty. You’ll instinctively know if your writing is too informal. Have a professional conversation with your customers, one they recognise from speaking with you on the phone.

2. Give yourself a break

If you have a difficult call with a customer, give yourself some time to calm down before you write a letter to them. That way you’ll be able to focus on the logic of the complaint rather than the emotion.

3. Imagine you’re writing to a friend

If you’ve spoken to a rude or aggressive customer who’s made you feel angry, put them out of your mind and imagine writing to a friend instead. You’ll instinctively adopt a lighter tone and avoid letting negative emotions come through in your writing.

4. Read out loud

Reading on the screen encourages you to focus on the facts, whereas reading out loud helps you to focus on the tone. You’ll ‘hear’ how you’re coming across to a customer and so it’ll be easier to distinguish between the voice of the good and the bad cop.

5. Ask someone else to check it

The only better test than reading your writing out loud is to ask someone else to read it for you. It’s much easier to critique the style of someone else’s writing, so choose someone who you feel will be able to give you constructive feedback on your letter.

Author: Neil Martin, Creative Director, The First Word www.thefirstword.co.uk

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