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Business Unplugged™
This blog features Carol Roth's tough love on business and entrepreneurship, as well as insights from Carol's community of contributors.

How to Infuriate Your Customers with Purple Prose

Written By: Rich Gallagher | 6 Comments

If you run a business long enough, you will eventually have to tell your customers things that they don’t want to hear. In writing. And for some strange reason, many of you will slip on your white gloves, pick up a quill pen, and write something that sounds like an engraved invitation from the 18th century. You know, phrases like:

“We regret to inform you that we are unable to offer a refund.”
“We trust that you will be able to find alternative arrangements for this issue.”
“We strive to insure that all of our customers are satisfied.”

Statements like these all sound like they should be delivered by a butler with a pencil-thin mustache and a clipped British accent – not a real business talking to real customers.

Do phrases like these work? Sure they do, if you want to be the target of things like corporate hate sites, viral blog posts, and national news stories about you. Because many of those things, in the real world, started when someone felt wronged, got one of these snippy, snively responses from a business, and pushed back – hard. After which, they regret to inform you that they are unable to stop bashing you in public.

Take the time one of my favorite products disappeared off the shelves after a recall and I wrote the company a polite note asking when I might be able to purchase it again. Their reply stated that “we are aware of the problem” (I knew that), they “appreciate the time I have taken to contact them” (could have guessed that one too), and finally that they “would be happy to assist me in the future” (huh?), while telling me nothing whatsoever of substance.

I had two reactions to this missive. The first, of course, was “Who actually gets paid to make words like these up?” But the second was that this company was too stupid to know when, where, or if I could ever buy its products again. So, I haven’t. And I probably never will.

So, how do you get around this? As my hip-hop friends would say, by keeping it real. Talk to customers the way you would talk to your friends. (They are your friends, aren’t they?) Explain things to them using exactly the same sentences you would use with your mother, assuming you like her. For example:

“Some customers, understandably, want to be able to return clearance items they buy from us. Others want us to keep our prices as low as we can. We’ve tried to keep as many people happy as possible by doing the latter. If we get enough comments like yours, though, we’re certainly open to changing this in the future. So, thanks for letting us know.”

So, let’s make this real simple. Take out two bar stools. Sit in one of them. Pretend your customer is sitting in the other one. Take whatever you would say to him or her, and write it down. I guarantee that it will work much better than the corporate twaddle 98% of businesses use. Try it and see!

What do you think? Have you ever been infuriated by a generic form letter? Have you ever tried to use one to dodge an issue? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

Article written by
Rich Gallagher is a former customer service executive and practicing therapist who heads the Point of Contact Group. His books include two #1 customer service bestsellers, “What to Say to a Porcupine” and ”The Customer Service Survival Kit: What to Say to Defuse Your Worst Customer Situations,” both released by AMACOM. He has taught over 30,000 people what to say in their worst customer and workplace situations.
  • PointA_PointB

    Oh I just loved this post. Few things can take my blood pressure up like pompous language, quoting company policy, or continually repeating the same dumb thing – as if on the third or fourth try I will actually buy it. Well done!

  • RichGallagher

    @PointA_PointB Thank you Catherine! The pleasure’s all mine. Here is what truly amazes me: *we* get it – why don’t the people who write these bon mots? Thanks!

  • wilsondan

    Purple prose is a bane. Avoid it.

    “We strive to insure that all of our customers are satisfied.”

    That would drive me mad too. I am sure they strive to ENSURE… let he who is without sin get pompous when his examples are grammatically correct.

  • PointA_PointB

    @wilsondan Yes, the insure and ensure thing is something people get wrong all the time. Drives me nuts.

  • RichGallagher

    @wilsondan Good catch Dan! Although I could have technically been thinking of an insurance company … 🙂

  • LiynLing

    thanks for making the article which was very nice and interesting to read and continue working so that other maysarakat will know the information that you created