Constructing Great Support Emails

I want to expand a bit on my last post about customer service as a competitive advantage. In the past I’ve written about our customer service workflow, our “self service” system, and how we’ve begun “auditing” specific functions of our site based upon our support emails, but in this post I want to focus primarily on writing great emails.

In particular, emails when a customer has a problem. At this point they’re already frustrated, annoyed, and possibly angry. While it’s important to write back in a timely manner, it’s more important to get the email right. Nothing is more infuriating than getting an email back 15 minutes later that doesn’t answer your question!

Over the years we’ve developed a rough outline for these type of emails. The single most important thing we’ve learned is to solve the problem as early as you can in the email. Reduce their stress. Put them at ease. Talk them off the ledge. Let them know that everything is going to be O.K. Then later on in the email you can offer more details or explain why the problem happened. I’d say that’s the biggest improvement we’ve made to constructing our emails now as compared to five or ten years ago.

This might be better illustrated with an example. Let’s say a customer receives a damaged package and their irate because they won’t be able to do their weekend detail. I might write something like:

I’m so sorry! I’ve gone ahead and shipped your order again at no charge to you. I’ve upgraded your shipping to FedEx Express so that it will still reach you by the weekend. As soon as your package leaves our warehouse today you’ll received an automated email with your tracking information.

We work hard to ensure that every order is packed carefully, but occasionally there are issues while the package is in transit. I’ll be sure to review your case with our warehouse team in order to help us prevent issues like this in the future.

Thanks for shopping with us! If there’s anything else I can do to help please let me know.

(We actually answer that email a little differently now that we have our “self service” system, but I think you get the point).

In the past, I might have swapped those first two paragraphs, putting the reason ahead of the resolution. I might have buried the lead in the second paragraph, making it easy to miss. The reality is that people scan more than they read, and if they’re already a bit ticked off with you it’s wise to make sure that the first thing you do is let them know that you’re going to take care of them.

In my last post I mentioned how low the bar is set because of how poor other companies perform customer service. This creates a big opportunity, but the downside of that is that customers who don’t know you are going to assume that you’re going to provide bad support too. You have to go out of your way to win them over, and in most cases you can.

6 comments on Constructing Great Support Emails

  1. Rob says:

    I really like the email. Very conversational and real. Doesn’t look scripted at all. I’ve copied it to my autohotkey text expander to use as a template!

    Do you send these messages in plain text, or with big html banners, footers as you may send offer/promo emails?

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Thanks Rob! We send these messages from our support Gmail account, so they don’t have any of the HTML headers, footers, banners, etc that our newsletters or transactional emails have. I think that’s important, to make it look like it’s a real email coming from a real person.

  2. Peter says:

    Hi Adam, that response is awesome. However, how do you deal with fraudulent customers overall with situations like this? Do you just take it straight up as a loss and count your percentages at the end as long as you guys are doing ok? Just recently we had a case that a customer complained that 2 items were missing in the box (we do daily inventories on products sold, and we had camera capturing that the package was packed with all items), so other than FedEx employee stealing it out of the box and taking those 2 items, the customer is lying. Obviously, if we count that as part of doing business and the percentage are small, we can just reship them, however, we feel like we enable frauds even more when we just go by the numbers.

    • Adam McFarland says:


      That’s a really good question, and something we do spend a decent amount of time thinking about. At a high level, I look at it like this: the majority of customers are being honest. Those customers have already had a poor experience, so making it even more difficult on them by asking a lot of questions, requiring extra proof, etc will just turn them off even more. I’d rather be exceptional and win those customers, with the understanding that a few dishonest ones might slip through, than upset/frustrate the good customers just to catch the bad ones.

      That said, we do have some checks and balances. We now point customers to our “self service” system where they can mark items in their order as missing, damaged, or incorrect item received, and then choose to get a store credit, refund, or reshipment. We have an optional field for photo uploads on that form. You’d be surprised how many people upload photos even though it’s optional. Each submission has to be reviewed by us before it’s approved. We’ll look at their entire history with us and ask for more info if something seems suspect or if they have a pattern of questionable activity with us.

      This reminded me of a recent story. We have an internal report we use to evaluate the effectiveness of the warehouse team. Missing or incorrect items count as a mistake made by our pick & pack team. Damages are reviewed to see if there are opportunities to improve our packing. A few weeks ago our warehouse manager expressed some frustration on one of these where we thought maybe the customer was lying but couldn’t prove it. It’s frustrating for the warehouse team to see their #s dip when it might not be their fault (although we use those #s as a guideline, not gospel). We discussed the reasons why we make a calculated decision to have this policy. No sooner than a few days later, we got a testimonial from a customer:

      No question just wanted to applaud you for your excellent customer service. I had an issue with an order (i.e., product missing). You folks did not question the issue like many online companies do. You simply took the information and replaced the product in a very timely manner. Thank you and you can be sure that all my car oriented friends hear about my excellent experience with Detailed Image.

      That’s why we have the “honesty” policy.

      Btw – do you take photos of every outgoing shipment? If so, how do you do it? This is something we’ve considered but haven’t been able to figure out how to do it at scale (at least not without a huge investment).

      – Adam

  3. Peter says:

    Hi Adam,

    Thank you for your response.

    I totally understand where you’re coming from. We do give our customers benefit of the doubt as well. It’s the letting the dishonest ones slip by that we have a problem with because simply, it rewards that dishonest customer for being dishonest!

    As for recording, we used to take pictures of everything but that didn’t work out well. We ended up getting those security camera systems with IP cameras and just place one nearest our packing table. We pack USPS and FedEx separately and record the time when we do. And if mistakes are made, we look at when it went out, what service was used and we have a smaller time window to review our videos to see what went wrong. A lot of times we were able to confirm the exact moment the order was packed and do see that we either made a mistake, or we didn’t and know that the customer is probably lying. We don’t do this to blame our warehouse. We know mistakes happen, but more to learn how can we avoid this in the future.

    Another thing we do is we just keep a detailed inventory report. Things that aren’t on the picking shelf is kept separately. If they have to restock the shelf, they update that record. So at the end of packing previous day and this mornings order. They’ll do a quick inventory of what has sold. Usually takes only about 10-15 mins Tue-Fri, but will definitely give us the peace of mind that all inventories match so we at least didn’t pick wrong. It’s not perfect but we eliminate at least a lot of possible errors.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Thanks for the insight Peter.

      It’s the letting the dishonest ones slip by that we have a problem with because simply, it rewards that dishonest customer for being dishonest!

      Believe me, this drives us nuts too! Unfortunately we haven’t been able to come up with a way to always catch these people without making the honest people jump through hoops.

      That’s a pretty good idea with the cameras to use video instead of photos. That’s something I hadn’t considered but I think we could do something similar and be pretty successful with it.

      Our inventory is pretty accurate as well, and we do use that in some instances when the customer complains that something is missing. It’s a good data point but not 100% reliable as our vendors make mistakes that we don’t catch, our warehouse team makes counting mistakes, etc. It’s especially helpful though when a customer is complaining about a big ticket item where we’re rarely off, or an item where the customer ordered large quantities and it would be really obvious if we shipped them say 10 of the wrong item. It’s less helpful when someone complains that we sent them a blue towel instead of a black towel, and we have 1,000 of each in stock.

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