Writing really difficult customer communications

A couple of years ago we were working with the customer services team of a well-known high street retailer. And amongst all of the letters and emails they regularly – or semi-regularly – sent out, was one that everyone hated writing. It was the letter that banned people from their stores.

The retailer is known for being nothing short of lovely. Its teams look after you. Their customer service is fabulous. So writing something that appeared to be so negative and so “awful” (as a number of people there described it) felt utterly alien to the people who worked there.

And it showed. This caring, well-regarded brand had whole suites of warm, positive communications – and then they had the “banning” letter. It looked nothing like any of the others. It was overly long, confusing – and felt like it had been written by a Dickensian lawyer. 

Why was it so hard to do?

The people who’d written it had filled it with this kind of language to create as much distance between themselves and the message they were conveying as possible. There was also a feeling that this was a very serious situation – so very serious language was called for.

We worked with the customer services teams to help them see that you always need your tone of voice. Perhaps you need it more than ever when you’re writing about the tough stuff.

So how do you make difficult customer communications warm and on-brand?

We started off by asking the customer services teams what led to their customers being banned from stores for a period of time. They told us that usually, it came down to repeat offending – either shoplifting and/or being abusive to store colleagues.

Several agencies were likely to be involved with the person they were banning – including the courts, social workers, probation services, as well as addiction and other healthcare services.

To us, this meant that the letter had a wider audience than just the person being banned from store. It could also possibly be read by a number of professionals who might all be customers.

It also gave us an opportunity to position the letter as a caring communication, rather than a punitive communication. Caring didn’t mean that the person wouldn’t be banned – but it did allow writers to step back into territory that felt like a far more natural fit for their brand.

And, if all the other professionals involved in the banned person’s rehabilitation read the letter, it would serve the purpose of reinforcing great brand values for them.

So what did the letter look like?

We can’t share the exact letter with you, because that belongs to our retailer client. But this is a close proximation:

If you want to chat to us about your customer service communications, please do give us a call.

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