Consumer IQ

Form Letter Fail: 5 Ways to Know if You’ve Received Cookie-Cutter E-Mail

photo: • Happy Batatinha •

The company’s email had it all. It addressed you by name, acknowledged your concern and left you feeling as if the company really cared.

Except for one thing: It wasn’t real.

The missive was a pre-written response – a form letter – intended to convey the genuine sentiment of a personal message. But chances are, there’s an overworked customer service representative furiously cutting and pasting from various templates on the other end of it.

Every company uses some kind of form letter, from the obvious – an autoresponder when you send a message through its website – to the nuanced letter that seems to answer your question personally. Although there are no formal surveys on the use of form letters, it’s a safe bet that every business, from the mom-and-pop store around the corner to the multinational conglomerate, use forms of some kind.

(Form letters are not uniformly bad, but excessive reliance on them suggests the company isn’t listening to its own customers, and just wants them to go away while it counts its money.)

“Nothing turns people off more than a form letter,” says Stephen Smith, who handles communications for a software company in Bellingham, Wash. “Why should I personally respond to someone who hasn’t made an effort to contact me personally in the first place? More to the point, why would I expect genuine attention to my needs when doing business if they treat me like a faceless revenue source?”

The best form letters are almost impossible to tell from the real thing. But there are a few signs that you’re dealing with one.

1. Dear <Firstname>,

Obviously, if the company can’t take the time to configure its own software and fill in your name on its email program, you can only imagine how it’ll treat you as a customer. A “Dear <Firstname>” or “Dear XXX” is a sign that the company just can’t be bothered. Many savvy customers hit the “delete” key when they see an email that starts that way.

2. Thank you, your email is very important.

Most form letters start by thanking you for your recent correspondence and then telling you how customer-focused the company is. Phrases like, “We value your business,” or “Customer service is our top priority,” are dead giveaways. Typically, and paradoxically, they mean the exact opposite of what they say. Put differently, why would a company have to tell you how great it is if it’s already providing excellent customer service?

3. Your problem is repeated in a less eloquent way.

The most common personalization involves several polished, pre-written templates that are pasted into an email. However, not all of it is pre-fab. Your name must be entered manually, and the particulars of your complaint have to also be restated. “We understand you had a problem with your phone bill,” or, “We apologize for the way in which our associates handled your refund.” The awkwardness isn’t accidental.

It’s impossible for the person sending the response to be as eloquent as the template. And that’s a giveaway.

4. The rejection.

If you’ve written to complain about a product or service, then here comes the rejection. Letters granting you compensation are more often personal and far shorter – after all, they’re giving you what you want, so why waste words? The lengthier form letter is used to disarm you and make you feel as if maybe you’re asking for too much. Form rejections use phrases like, “At this time,” and, “We are unable to …,” and, worst of all, “We hate to disappoint you” – all intended to soften the blow of saying “no.”

5. Baby come back!

Form letters almost always end with the company telling you how important you are (again, it frequently means the very opposite) and asking you to give it another chance. Look for words like, “We value your business” or some variation on, “Without you, we’re nothing,” which is meant to make you feel all warm and fuzzy about the interaction with the company. Remember: it’s a form letter, and they’re really telling you to get lost.

Now that you’ve established you’re the recipient of a bona fide form response, what next? You could send an answer, but odds are, you’ll just get another form letter in response.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Next week, I’ll tell you how to escape the form-response trap.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.