Seven writing mistakes guaranteed to annoy your customers

Crafting the perfect customer letter or email can be tricky. Mass corporate communications are usually composed to tight deadlines yet often require delicate input from multiple business stakeholders. Even with the best intentions it can be easy for the importance of the customer experience to slip from top of mind in the sheer process of ‘getting a letter out’.

Nonetheless there are certain traits prevalent in many corporate communications that are unlikely to lead to happier customers and yet are easily avoided. Below are a few culprits that seem to crop up time and again.

1. Companies predicting their customers’ feelings. (“You’ll be delighted to hear…” “We know you’ll be thrilled about our new range of….”). Er, don’t bet on that. Brands that purport to anticipate their customers’ emotional states are playing a risky game. Yes, people want to be delighted – but it’s unlikely they want a faceless corporation confidently presuming they will be.

2. Telling customers how they, the company, are feeling. (“We’re super excited to announce…!” “We’ve been working extra hard to bring you…”). These attempts to engender a shared sense of delirious anticipation usually fail to resonate. Most people don’t give a hoot about the employees or internal workings of the companies from whom they buy things – they only care about what that company can do for them. Unless they’re saying sorry – and in which case they’d better sound like their remorse is genuine – corporations might be better off keeping their feelings to themselves.

3. Euphemisms and weasel words. Every year I get a letter from my life insurance company that says “Your policy renewal date is coming up, so your premium has been adjusted.” Adjusted? Every year my insurance premium increases, and at an alarming compounding rate. It has never decreased, and never will. I know it and they know it, but they just can’t bring themselves to use that ‘i’ word. I don’t know what they think I’ll do if I read the word ‘increased’. Something bad, presumably.

Brands that purport to anticipate their customers’ emotional states are playing a risky game.

4. Clumsy email salutations. (“Hi Smith!”. “Dear John Smith.” “Hi Mr John.”). These errors, common nowadays in supposedly attention-grabbing subject lines, typically result from data file malfunction as much from sheer carelessness. Thankfully this happens less often than in those happy far-off days of the mail merge function in Microsoft Word: “Dear Jones, Ms Jane.” “Dear Jones.” Dear God. Help.

5. Misplaced or dangling modifiers. (“As a valued customer, we think you’ll enjoy…”) What the writer means, in this much-favoured corporate opening line, is that you’re a valued customer, and they think you’ll enjoy whatever it is they’re offering. However, this isn’t immediately obvious. It’s like writing “At the age of five, her mother died in a car crash.” You can work out what is being said, but only after pausing for thought. And why should your customers waste their time doing that?

Sometimes, a company finds it difficult to separate what’s important to them from what’s important to their customers.

6. Use of exclamation marks. (“Great news!! We’ve upgraded your insurance!…” “Now you too can enjoy these great new features!”). Sometimes, a company finds it difficult to separate what’s important to them from what’s important to their customers. The senders of these hyperbolic letters may justifiably be excited, but it is presumptuous to expect their paying customers to care – or at least, to the same extent. For most corporate brands, exclamation marks have about as much place in customer communications as they do in prose fiction – i.e. none.

7. Misspellings and basic grammatical mistakes. (“We’re excited to offer you a sneak peak…”). Some people might get a sharp whiff of pedantry at this point, but these clangers do matter because as much as the error itself, it’s the fact of who has committed it. Mistakes like these often come from organisations that place enormous value on gaining their customers’ trust. But isn’t it possible that many of those very customers might not find it so easy to trust a company to look after their money or insure their car if it can’t string a coherent sentence together?

Right, that’s enough for today. Time for a cup of tea and a couple of Panadol. But I fear I’ll be returning to this topic again soon.

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