FLEXing your letter writing


My passion for changing the nation’s service extends to written responses.  I have spent the past 20 years paying more attention than perhaps the ‘normal’ person to the written responses that come from organisations.  In fact, I have built up quite a portfolio of written communication from some of the more recognised brands – I quite often send emails and write letters to companies I have no connection with, JUST to see how they respond.  I’m mostly curious about whether organisations have managed to translate their ‘tone of voice’ through the letters sent out to their customers.  Sadly, in my experience, very few companies are any good at this.  Mostly what you get is a cut and paste job full of the phrases that lack authenticity, written in anything but plain English and without any attempt at personality or emotional connection.

Here are some you might recognise, all lacking colour, imagination and a personal touch:

‘I can assure you this is not indicative of our usually high standard of customer service…’

‘I was disappointed to learn of your poor experience with our (insert department, product, service)’

‘I hope this clarifies matters and we apologise once again for any inconvenience caused.’

We often get asked to work with letter writing teams as part of broader customer experience programmes and when we do, the teams involved usually feel a sense of liberation, having been freed from the straight jacket of business scripting, minds opened up to being able to write with warmth and personality.  It’s actually really quite easy to write good letters, so, inspired by my most recent addition to the portfolio from Innocent Smoothies (shared below) I thought I would pass on some of our top tips.

Put the Good News up front

How many times have you waded through the lengthy paragraphs of explanation (excuses) in search of the outcome – are you getting your refund/compensation or not? Putting the good news up front allows the customer to get quickly to the outcome and then read on for the explanation if they want it.  It really makes a massive difference to the response – if you are going to give something back, let the customer know sooner rather than later.  I also think the phrase ‘gesture of goodwill’ should be banned whilst we are on the subject of refunds or compensation.  It’s much better to say if it is acknowledgement of having made a mistake, or by way of an apology for having let the customer down.

Use plain English

I don’t know what drives people when writing a business letter to use wordy phrases, many containing words you would never actually say out loud in general conversation.  Why say ‘at the present time’, when you can say ‘now’, or ‘due to the fact that’, instead of ‘because’.  Every time you write a sentence, stop and think – is there a shorter, simpler way to say this?  A quick search for Plain English guides on Google will deliver you hundreds of examples to help you if you get stuck.

Respond to emotion as well as key points

When you review business responses to customer letters, what you mostly see is that the key points and facts are given a response, but the opportunity to acknowledge some of the emotion is missed.  If a customer writes, ‘I was disgusted by the level of service and don’t fob me off with a ridiculous excuse’, you’ve got to respond to that.  Something like, ‘You mentioned how disgusted you were with the service we delivered and my intent with this response is to explain what happened.  I hope it doesn’t read as a fob off, as that is definitely not my intent. (Or something like that).  It makes it much more personal and considered.

FLEX to the customers style

Using the company ‘tone of voice’ will get you so far, but there comes a point when you need to reflect the style of the customer in your response.  If the customer is very specific and detailed, reflect that back in your response.  Look for words or phrases that the customer has used that you can play back in your response and try to find something you can agree with to demonstrate a level of rapport and connection.  The Innocent letter does that brilliantly.

Create a Peak Ending

The way an experience ends impacts our memory of that experience (positively or negatively) more than any other part.  So the ending of a letter is really important.  In my experience, most business letters finish with a bog standard phrase that lacks thought, imagination of connection.  Think carefully about the best way to finish and try to refer back to something personal that the customer has given you in their letter.  If you find yourself using cut and paste at the end, you are probably missing an opportunity to end on a high.

Adapt - Flexing your letter writing - Blue Sky Performance Improvement

As promised, the latest addition to my collection from Innocent Smoothies.  I was intrigued to know if they would stand up to the funky and fun brand image they portray and I was not disappointed.  As an aside, I am not a freaky mother who worries incessantly about my children, I just couldn’t think of anything else to ask!

Here was my letter:

Hi there,

I am writing to check in as to the suitability of innocent smoothies for babies. My littlest won’t let my older two swig their smoothies without wanting some himself and if we don’t let him he goes mental. I know it says only fruit, but I never believe what I read on the packaging. Supermarkets have a habit of lying to customers and I am not keen on putting anything unsuitable into my baby’s diet.

Let me know what you think.

Sally Earnshaw

Here was the reply that I received:

Hello Sally

Thank you for your email – I quite understand that you want to be certain about what goes into your little ones mouths. I feel just the same with my little boy.

However I can assure you that all of our smoothies are made of 100% pure fruit and absolutely nothing else. However this does come with a BUT for children under 36 months and I have given you all of the information below so that you can make up your own mind. I do give smoothies to my little one (18 months) but at least you will have all the information to make an informed decision:

With everything we make we have to err on the side of caution as the last thing we want is for someone to become ill from one of our products.

All our products are 100% natural and as such are dependent on the elements. Some fruits, in this case apples, contain micro bugs that aren’t suitable for younger stomachs. The weather conditions last season meant that our suppliers couldn’t guarantee our usual level of bugs and so to be prudent we’ve put this warning on our fruit tubes to make sure that we look after those little ones, with more sensitive stomachs than us. As I mentioned before, children under 36 months have very sensitive stomachs and there is a stricter limit for them, within food production, about what they should eat. The tubes are completely fine for children over the age of 36 months. Please rest assured that the level of bugs in our fruit tubes is still well within all normal levels and legislation and is nothing to be concerned about.

None of this is said to scare you – but we just want to ensure that our products are doing people good.

I hope this helps to explain things more to you.

All the best,


A great example of flexing style, to meet tone and deliver service.


Sally Earnshaw - Blue Sky Performance Improvement


Blue Sky Performance Improvement


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6 Responses to “FLEXing your letter writing”

  1. Kevin Green Says:

    Giving the customer the good (or bad) news up front is an excellent way to cut through the corporate letter writing jargon and also empowers the customer to make a choice if they want to read on through the explanation. Great piece!

  2. benatbluesky Says:

    Couldn’t have picked a better a better topic, we deal with corporate communications all the time and there not always in the positive light its great to find the formula that enables to flex style to get the right response, love it!

  3. Steve West Says:

    Interesting blog piece Sally and something that I find fascinating – how businesses talk to consumers and other businesses and how different the language is to that of ‘normal’ conversations. I always grin when organisations ask if I’m ‘satisfied’. If I advised my wife that I was ‘satisfied’ with our marriage she would quite rightly be concerned….yet most businesses gauge this as a measurement of positive customer experiences 🙂 A great book I recommend to colleagues (there you go, another word I would never use to describe a friend…) when writing for business is this guide by Neil Taylor, ironically called ‘Brilliant Business Writing’ – http://amzn.to/sW9uxq – easy to read and a great addition to your points above Sally.

    • Sally Says:

      Hi Steve – thanks for your comments, I think I have the book! If you get any great examples, send them to me, I want to keep building the portfolio!

  4. Kev Urwin Says:

    Hi Sally. It’s too long since we last had a chat so it was great to see your Blog. So the good news up front “I loved it”. I agee that we too often want to get the letter completed and out; it should never be a volume game. I have three thoughts to share:-
    Using “I would like to say..” when you actually go on to say it in the next few words, I always think comes across as I’m saying it but I really don’t want to e.g. “I would like to say I’m sorry”.
    Which brings me on to the word “but”. A Manager I have huge respect for once told me “everything before the but is BS”. It may not always be true; it often is though. However it makes me think about my choice of words and I replace it with, for example:- however, a full stop or a semi-colon. The Innocent e-mail uses a big “but” in a positive way though.
    Finally, my team and I don’t correspond directly with Clients yet I still insist that we communicate to “Client Experience” standard in our e-mails and our reports. We peer check all of our reports before release and that includes grammar, typos and a good old fashioned “sense check”. Now I will add in “Flex to the Customer’s style” and “Respond to emotion as well”. Thanks as always. Kev

  5. Sally Says:

    Hi Kev! Good to hear from you. How’s the coaching going? Got your email so I believe you are doing really well.

    I wouldnt expect anything short of fabulous from your team! Keep up the good work!

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