Years ago, when I was newly working in email customer service, I had quite the shock when my boss said to me, “You sound so cold and formal in your emails. They don’t match your personality at all.”
I thought I was being courteous and professional in the email. But, reading back through my communications with my boss’s comments in mind, I could see what he meant.
This same issue is true for many of us—whether you come from an old-school background of writing business letters (like me) or you grew up sending texts, most of us write business emails in a style that sounds a lot less friendly than we might realize.
It really comes down to the basic difference between verbal and written communication. When we speak, our tone of voice adds a whole layer of emotional information to our message—not to mention, relatable humanness. In writing, however, there are only the words, and the warmth often gets lost.
Over the years, I’ve found some simple language tricks that have really helped my emails sound kinder and more personable. Give the following 5 tips a try to warm up your emails and see how your customers react.
1. Be careful about verb tense
This first one may seem odd but bear with me through a little grammar-nerdiness. There are two forms of verbs: passive verbs (which are less friendly), and active verbs (which are more friendly). For example:
“Once that button is clicked, the feature can be accessed.”
“Once you click that button, you’ll have access to the feature.”
Passive verbs de-personalize the action, and in doing so, sound pretty cold. Active verbs sound more like you’re speaking to a friend. Make it a mission to eradicate passive verbs from your emails wherever you can—that will warm up your writing considerably.
2. Use contractions
You may have been trained not to use contractions back in school. That makes sense in the context of formal academic writing, but the good old contraction goes a long way toward creating a friendly tone in an email. For example:
Without the contraction:
“Once you have updated your payment method, I will reactivate your account.”
With the contraction:
“Once you’ve updated your payment method, I’ll reactivate your account.”
Both sentences say the same thing, but the one with contractions sounds much less stilted. Contractions help your customers feel that they’re communicating with a real human being. As with anything else, it’s best not to overdo it—use a moderate number, and it makes a big difference.
3. Display a willingness to help
Never underestimate the power of simple statements like “I’ll be glad to,” “I’d love to help with that,” or “I’ll take care of that right away.”
Expressions like these are classy ways to show that not only will you solve your customer’s problem, but you’re also a caring person who genuinely wants to help. This evidence of your willingness really builds your customer’s confidence and helps them feel heard and valued.
You can even use this method for your closing statements. Simple phrases like “Have a great weekend,” “I hope your day is going well,” or “I wish you the best with your project” also go a long way toward warming your emails up into caring human exchanges.
4. Reiterate their concern in your response
Another great way to help your customer feel heard is to include the key points of her request in your response. Similar to active listening used for in-person communication, t’s a little bit of an art but gets easier with practice.
The main idea is, when you read the customer’s email, what seems to be their primary concern? And how can you directly address that in your reply? Here’s an example from a recent email exchange I had:
“I see that I was charged today for the month, but I meant to cancel the service. I have to have that charge refunded because I need the money for another important expense.”
I could have simply replied with “I’ve processed your refund, and your account is now canceled.” That’s adequate, but far from warm. Instead, I wrapped the customer’s primary concern (needing the money back for another expense) into my response.
Here’s the result:
“I’m sorry that you were charged before you were able to cancel your account. Of course, I’ll be glad to refund this charge for you. The funds will return to your account in a few business days so you can use them elsewhere.”
There’s a big difference between feeling merely answered, and feeling understood.
5. Close with a question
It’s common, in customer service emails, to end with some kind of invitation for the customer to mention any other needs they have—stuff like “Please let me know if you have any further questions.” Instead, I try to close emails with a more direct question. It’s a great way to maintain that personal connection. Here are some examples:
“If I can be of further assistance, please let me know.”
“May I help with anything else today?”
“Please let us know if you need something else.”
“Is there anything else I can assist with at the moment?”
It’s a small change, but it puts an inviting closure on an email. When I use it, I find that my customers are far more likely to respond with thanks (and give positive feedback on our interaction). Or, they’ll hang on to my email and reply weeks later when another question comes up.
See what works and iterate
It’s a lot easier to focus on one change than many at once. To help me evolve my writing, I incorporated one new technique at a time until it felt second-nature and then added another. When I started getting more enthusiastic replies from my customers, I knew the effort was paying off.
Eventually, these techniques will become second nature and you can continue to test and iterate to see what works best with your customers. Doing so will turn your emails from cold and impersonal, to one of your best customer service tools.
Editors Note: This article was originally published in 2018 and updated for 2020.