Becoming Professional: A Blog

Form Letters and Customer Service #Fail

Posted on: March 30, 2011

Image of girl in awkward position covering her head with her hands.

by Alex Bellink on Flickr

While this blog series is part of my personal rant against poor customer service treatment, I think it is also a good case study on what not to do. You don’t see quite as many situations where the entire process and system needs an over-haul quite so badly as Barnes & Noble’s seems to. So why waste this opportunity to study some customer service #fail in action?

As a follow-up to yesterday’s Open Letter to Barnes & Noble, I’m posting their form letter response. We all know how terrible form letters are. You pour your heart and soul into a CV and covering letter and get back a “Thanks for your application. We’ll let you know if we pick you” note. It doesn’t have to be that way. I recently submitted an application to GyroHSR‘s Make My Day 2011 Graduate Recruitment program. I did get a form response, but a also got a phone call from a nice lady in HR. Personal contact – it’s really something! Form letters can be useful, but they are not a substitute for personal contact. It’s a holding pattern. You send them to say, “We got your letter. We really care, and we’re gonna read it in a jiff!”

It is not how you actually respond to a person, particularly not on a complaint line. Yes, it’s easier. Sure, it’s probably cheaper, but what’s one of the best ways of dealing with a complaint? It’s not to apologize. It’s to listen. And sending a form response says loud and clear that you haven’t heard a word I said.

Before you read the response, I will make one concession to this form letter. It asks for needed information for my complaint to move forward. However, I think that a non-form letter response could have been used just the same. So, without further ado, the Barnes & Noble response:

Dear Kate Davids,

Thank you for writing to us regarding your NOOK.  To protect your
privacy and security needs, we require more information from you.

To respond to your email, we must ask you to provide your registered
email address, your registered billing address and serial number of your

If you do not have your NOOK’s serial available, please provide the last
four digits of the credit card associated with your registered email

We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused.

See what I mean? If you read my Open Letter to Barnes & Noble, you’ll see there was plenty to respond to. But they haven’t responded to a single point or addressed the complaint at all, even to say “That sounds pretty rough. I need more information to get into your account, though, and see what’s going on.” I completely understand that the legal department would have their ears if they conceded the validity of a complaint before verifying it themselves, but nothing in my proposed statement would do that. And everything in that proposed statement would make me feel like I’m being heard.

There are a few options around the general time-suck that writing individual customer service complaint letters can be. For instance, a canned letter for a variety of situations, such as “Lost Item in the Mail,” might be able to pass as being individually written if it is tailored to the situation enough, but don’t bet on it. Canned letters, as we all know, are ridiculously easy to spot. As Myra Golden, a customer service and PR blogger, said, “Customer service professionals should always tailor the form letter to the customer’s specific situation.” While a form letter might be a starting point for different situations, in order for an interaction to feel genuine and the customer feel like he’s been heard, it should always be edited to fit each particular instance.

What do you think? How can the emotional wall of form responses be done away with?

2 Responses to "Form Letters and Customer Service #Fail"

WOW! This is exactly the type of email I hate to see companies send out. It’s clearly a form letter with no human touch. Customers recongize form letters and they don’t like them. I’d recommend giving Barnes & Noble e-service employees training on how to make emotional connections with customers over email by personalizing the response with friendly statements and making the email more of an invitation for dialogue. Here’s an example of a company doing it right:

Great to know that it’s not just me thinking they need some training! Thank you for commenting, Myra!

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Who Am I?

I am a Digital Native who is trying to puzzle out what exactly that means. I share my thoughts on social media, digital business models, and PR here on this blog.

I am currently getting my Masters in Digital Marketing from Hult International Business School, having gotten my B.S. in Marketing from Arizona State University. Everything is on track and I am making headway towards my dream: World Domination... or being a productive, helpful citizen and marketer. Whichever comes first.

Don't hesitate to get in touch. I Tweet daily at @KateDavids and also have a science fiction and fantasy blog ( and Twitter (@Masked_Geek).

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