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!