5 Things You Should Never Put in an Email

Last Updated Jul 13, 2011 10:52 AM EDT

When it comes to customer service, some things are better handled by phone. You'd expect a headset manufacturer like Plantronics to understand that.

Apparently not.

I refer to the recent exchange between the company and author Sharon Drew Morgen. She'd ordered several headsets from Plantronics that didn't work, and the company tried to replace them with a refurbished model.

That provoked the following rant on her blog:
Why would a vendor have me pay for a faulty phone, send me a refurbished phone to replace the new one, and then want me to pack everything up for them and get it all back to them? Not to mention that this has all taken three weeks, and I need my damn phone! Asking a bit much from a customer, no? What am I missing here?
Because Morgen confined her subsequent exchanges to email, she captured every company response after that, including a dismissive email from a manager.

"As you can see, they truly care -- about themselves," she wrote in a follow-up post yesterday.

And that got me thinking. Some of the smartest companies I know limit the email interactions between customers and their service department, precisely because in an age of Web 2.0, an email exchange can easily be published. While most of the written communications are mundane and done by the book, they can also be taken out of context in a way that makes the company look bad, if not incompetent.

Here are a few things you should avoid putting into an email, if possible.

A rejection. If you have to tell your customer "no," an email is sometimes the worst way to do it. I've seen clever companies ask customers they're about to turn down to "please call" to discuss the matter. While this is frustrating to customers, it can help a company save face.

An excuse. If a company must defend a policy that, to customers, is indefensible, an email may be the worst way to do it. And yet many companies do it anyway. They blame their competitors, calling something an "industry standard" and insist that they must do something in order to remain competitive. In fact, these emails make them look awful when they're published on Facebook or Google+.

An ultimatum. If the exchange with a customer has deteriorated to the point where you're ready to refer the matter to your legal department, email is the wrong way to continue. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen an exchange that ends, "Any further correspondence with this office will not be answered." Why put that into an email? Why not just let your actions speak for themselves?

A non-answer. Many companies have pre-written "form" answers that they simply cut-and-paste into the body of the email. Problem is, they sometimes don't take the time to actually read the question and ensure the form answers the question. That makes the company appear distracted and clueless.

Anything you wouldn't want to see published. If you wouldn't say something to a customer in person, why would you put it into an email? And yet every day, I see customer service representatives addressing a "Mr." as a "Ms." or sending emails to "{Insert Firstname}" or including internal emails in which the case is discussed frankly, and without any of the pleasantries you'd expect from a customer service agent. Needless to say, they can be avoided by reading before sending.

Advice for Customers
Increasingly, the smartest companies will try to limit their exposure to any form of media that can be republished. That might include shifting customer-service calls to online "chat" where the windows can't easily be copied (a low-down dirty thing to do, in this consumer advocate's book) or insisting that any bad news be delivered by phone.

As a customer, it's your job to keep the correspondence in writing, as much as possible. So when a representative says "no" ask for it in writing. When someone gives you a reason for a rejection, get it in an email -- if you can.

Related: Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He's the author of the upcoming book Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, which critics have called it "eye-opening" and "inspiring." You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
Photo: AMagill/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.