The Customer Service Playbook

I answered 10,000 emails and came up with four rules for making happy customers


It’s wonderful to work in an industry built around the preciseness of programming syntax and the rigor of computer science. But for all that exactness, customer support from high-tech companies, and from startups in particular, seems like mostly hit-or-miss guesswork, perhaps a bit mysterious, like the field of web design felt ten years ago.

Software engineers enjoy an amazing wealth of debuggers and editors and frameworks. For designers in the field, there’s more excellent kits, templates, plugins and guidelines than ever.

There’s even plenty of apps for managing customer support, but what makes the actual support communications back-and-forth smooth and successful?

I couldn’t find the tools and rules I needed, so I made my own.

Over the course of three years, I personally answered 10,484 customer service emails for my developer tools project, and I wrote down stuff that resulted in happy customers.

Here’s my short, opinionated, effective playbook for customer service over email. Plug it into your CS team and see what happens!

1. Acknowledge with an immediate reply

Reply to initial customer inquiries as absolutely fast as possible. This doesn’t mean provide a complete handling of the issue — it means just let the customer know they were heard and understood. With speed. Reply within 60 seconds. Faster if possible. The return on investment in lightning-quick replies is enormous.

Even when the first reply doesn’t fully handle the issue, a real human response sent rapidly usually prevents upset later. The faster the reply, the happier the customer will be. If the customer writes and says hey my shipping box had holes in it and I got billed the wrong amount and your website gave me scurvy, reply immediately just to let them know they were heard and that we understood what they said.

Customer email:
Dear Company, I ordered a chess set from your website three weeks ago but it never arrived. I’m so bummed!
Immediate reply, 52 seconds later:
Hi Jennifer, thanks for writing. I’m going to look into your order right now and will follow up shortly. Can you send us your order number from the order confirmation email? Best wishes, Bridget in Customer Care

At this point we don’t know if the customer’s issue is real, or if they actually ordered Item A but were expecting Item B, or what. There could be any number of conditions that must be debugged to resolve the issue. But a quick initial reply lets the customer know their message arrived and that we got it and read it and understood it. And it buys time — either to figure out the solution, or to sit on it until we have time to properly handle it. And even if we already have the order number we requested from the customer, asking anyway gets the customer to keep the thread going, and it’s an easy way to show our engagement with the issue.

Related metric: Track time-to-first-reply and always be working on lowering it.

2. Don’t apologize

Never apologize needlessly to customers. This doesn’t mean don’t accept responsibility, and it doesn’t mean we’re not to blame. We’re always responsible for the customer’s issue, even when it’s someone else’s fault entirely. But customers aren’t writing because they want to hear we’re sorry and we feel bad about it. They want to know we understood the issue, that we’re on their side, and that we’re going to solve the problem.

Not apologizing can be difficult! Automatically barfing out an apology for the slightest little thing is a bit of a communication reflex. But being careful on this point shapes customer relations in a way that gets everybody on the same team, working together. Apologizing and sorry-ing as the first part of an email reply can turn the conversation into “us versus them”.

Try to find a cheerful, non-apologetic way to show understanding and empathy with the issue. A little bit of humor can be very effective. Or, just heartily agree with the problem and let the customer know we take it seriously. But don’t apologize needlessly.

Customer email:
OMG u guys I ordered a chess set from ur website and it arrived broken lol it sux!! im so mad! thx
Weak reply:
Hi Jeff, we apologize for the bad shipment. We really feel just awful about this. Perhaps we can make this up to you with the attached gift card.
Good reply:
Hi Jeff, We’re going to send a new chess set and it will arrive in the next few days. Let us know that the shipment arrives. Please enjoy the attached online gift card too — our way of saying thanks for being a customer.
Even better reply:
Hi Jeff, your chess set certainly should have arrived without breaking — yikes! We’re going to look into this issue on our manufacturing line right now (got your order number 1234, thanks). Also, would you prefer a refund or a replacement? If you’d like a replacement, I’ll ship it overnight and you’ll have it before noon tomorrow. If you’d like a refund, I can do that immediately.

Another issue with apologizing over email is that emotional signals often don’t translate in writing; sincerity might be read as sarcasm or hostility.

Customer email:
Hi Company, I am writing because I am very unhappy with my latest order, and I’m now considering canceling my subscription. My shipping box contained two broken pencils and a bunch of rocks.
Not great reply:
Hi Julia, so sorry to hear you didn’t like Box-O-Rox. We understand it was not what you expected and we apologize for any inconvenience. Sorry.
Good reply:
Hi Julia, thanks for writing. We appreciate your feedback about our products and we’re working hard to make it right. It’s great feedback for us to know you didn’t like the Artisanal Vintage Pencils, and we’re issuing a refund now.

3. Don’t shift blame

No matter the issue, it rarely makes a customer happy to receive an explanation of why something on our end went wrong. Worse is explaining that it wasn’t us, it was someone else, it’s those guys over there at fault.

Of course the customer needs to know that if we had their shipping address wrong, we’ll have to fix that, so let’s get the correct shipping address. But if the problem stems from our supplier making an error or because the post office was closed, or we just plain forgot, they do not need to know that.

Never pass the buck: assume it’s our fault, seize responsibility, stop it there, and don’t let the customer see any further down the line. We sold them the thing, we took their money, we’ll handle the issue, end of story.

Customer email:
Dear Company, my Artisanal Sharpened Vintage Pencils never arrived and it’s been two months. What’s up with that? Can you help?
Bad reply:
Hi Julia, our Artisanal Vintage Pencil provider appears to have mailed your order to some defunct motel in Los Angeles instead of to your house. They have a nasty habit of doing that. We hate those guys.
Good reply:
Hi Julia, thanks for writing. Woah! Your pencils should have arrived within two days. We’re going to take care of that immediately. Would you prefer we send out some new pencils this evening, or refund your order? Also, please feel free to use the coupon code below for $25 off your next purchase.

4. Give more than they bargained for

One of the best experiences you can provide a customer is to give them something above and beyond what they expect. Ever get a free upgrade to overnight shipping from Zappos? Feels good, right?

Giving a customer more than they expect can take many forms: warm thanks in an personalized email, upgraded shipping, a bunch of free stickers and a handwritten note in a box. It’s a matter of genuine care and that little something extra added. The goal is this: if an item costs $50, let’s provide $60 worth of value and good karma. Even when done only occasionally, it makes ordinary customers into rabid fans.

Customer email:
Hi Company, my order appears to have not shipped yet but it’s been three days. So I’m getting worried that I will not receive my items.
Good reply:
Hi John, I just walked over to the desk of our VP of Sales to check on your order personally, and I called the warehouse to make sure it goes out today — it’s packed and ready to ship. You should receive a tracking number within the hour. (And we put a little something extra in the box for you. Enjoy!)

You can be pretty sure that even though the package above was delayed three days, when the customer receives it — along with the free t-shirt we included — they’ll think back to the good email response and tell friends how awesome we are. Good karma.

Hope you too find these four rules useful!

Photo credit: Kevin Jones

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Joseph Wain’s story.