Your Emails Never Listen

Make email replies better using active listening

In person, body language allows you to demonstrate to another human being that you are listening. It signals the amount of importance you are placing on their side of the conversation. On the phone, the nuance of emotion in your voice, pauses, and the back-and-forth of the conversation aid comprehension and fluid conversation. Via email, we so often just assume they are going to understand or that we know what the other side is saying. No wonder customer service teams receive emails that simply say, “WHY CAN’T I TALK TO A HUMAN BEING???!!!!!”

At Shapeways, we almost exclusively work via email. We receive any number of these requests over time, but only rarely does a phone or in-person conversation add value to the resolution of the inquiry. Often those “personal” conversations actually delay or distract from the core concern. Email (given the technical aspect of our product) is actually more efficient and wonderfully personal. How can that be when email is notorious for being a robotic form of answering questions with copied text?

Simple, our agents still engage in active listening.

Lets look at the phases of active listening, then tweak them for the sake of electronic communication.

Phases of actively listening (from the WSJ):
1. Pick up hints or signals that the other person needs or wants to talk
2. Let the other person disclose the issue. Acknowledge and provide legitimacy for their experience and feelings.
3. Encourage the other person to elaborate. Use verbal cues to show you want to hear the whole story.
4. Show you heard what the other person said paraphrasing and using a verbal “checkout”.
5. Continue asking questions and listening so you can collaborate together on possible solutions

These five phases can be adapted to email without too much hassle. Actually, email takes all the tricky business of reading body language or tone out of the equation. Steps 1 and Step 3 are not needed (they already wrote you and verbal cues are useless here). The beginning of Step 2 does not help, but the rest does. Therefore, we do not even need 5 phases. We can actually do it in 4.

Phase 1: Read It (Twice)

You would think this is a no-brainer but you would be amazed at how often people do not actually (carefully) read the full email. Read the email just as if you had never read the issue before, even if you have read a thousand similar emails. This person is unique and even a few small words can change the entire meaning.

Then read it again.

This time, look for what they did NOT say. Just as important as what they have mentioned about the situation is the information that is missing. Did they actually say the order number? Did they mention they were using Chrome or is it just implied? Knowing what information is missing will help you know what to ask of them or can keep you from hearing what happens when you assume: you make an…

Phase 2: Empathize

It still applies that you should “acknowledge and provide legitimacy for their experience and feelings”. You can do this in the first line pretty simply by stating the emotional state of the customer and how it relates to you.

A few examples:

My apologies for the delay and lack of communication. I know how frustrating it can be to wait with no information forthcoming.

I truly appreciate the thoughtfulness and care that you have put into writing to us.

Do not worry about being confused. I have been there and I can help clarify.

Phase 3: Mimic Their Words

Acknowledge the issue by paraphrasing or mimicking their words.

When you start your reply, use words that they are using. To use their words, you will have to have read them (see Phase 1). Importantly, you will signal to the receiver that you have read them. Even better, you start to put the reader on the path of understanding your reply as the first few steps (words) are familiar.

Phase 4: Point Towards a Inclusive Solution

Help the customer understand that you are pointing them in the right direction and will be there to help them along. Before even getting into the details, you should acknowledge the steps you will be taking in a short and easy phrase that says to the customer that you will be collaborating with them to resolve the issue.


I will first speak about the general way in which Shapeways works to help set the background for how you and I are going to resolve this issue together.

We can definitely help get you a solution to this issue by working together. First, I will need a little bit more information so I can get to working directly for you on the resolution.

All in the Introduction

If you do this all in the first part of the first reply to the customer or user, then you have already signaled to the customer that they are important, you have “heard” their issue, and you will be getting them effectively towards a resolution.

Why is this so important? Most people will NOT read past the first paragraph, if they do not feel listened to or are not compelled. We all do it. We must admit it. After all TL;DR exists for a reason.

Actively listening to your customers gives them a compelling reason to keep reading and actually get what they want: a resolution to their problem that you are providing.