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How to inject humanity when answering customer complaints

Posted by Sarah Mitchell on 3rd December , 2019 in Copywriting, Editing & Proofreading
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Writing is a quick way – both good and bad – to influence an audience. How you string a sentence together or structure your paragraphs makes all the difference to writing effectiveness – especially if you have to deliver bad news. Businesses are repeatedly exposed for their poor communication choices, and it’s now occurring in the public forum thanks to social media.

Poor writing can be a costly mistake and attract large penalties.


Even when delivering bad news, the way you communicate in writing can be a powerful tool in customer relations. If it’s done well, your customers feel like they’ve been treated fairly. Writing that is devoid of empathy, however, will make your customers and prospects turn away.


So how do you make your business writing more empathetic?



3 kinds of empathy

Empathy comes in different forms. How you demonstrate empathy in your writing helps the reader determine whether they should trust you to help them. According to Daniel Goleman, an author and expert on emotional intelligence or EQ, the three types of empathy are:


  • Cognitive empathy is when you have perspective of the situation – knowing what the other person feels and what they might be thinking. You can possess cognitive empathy but be quite detached from the people you’re trying to influence. Your audience often detects this.


  • Emotional empathy is when you are deeply connected to what the other person is feeling. This is the kind of empathy you experience in a tear-jerker movie. You are so in tune with what’s happening, you may experience a physical reaction – tears, nausea, or a racing heart. The problem with this sort of empathy is it can render you unable to act.


  • Compassionate empathy is when you understand a person’s predicament and relate to their feelings, but are able to help. This is the kind of empathy you want to convey in your writing. You are perceived as sensitive and capable. Your reader trusts you. This is the kind of connection you want to have with your readers, especially if you have to deliver bad news or handle customer complaints.


Techniques for making your writing more empathetic

If your reader is angry, frustrated or disappointed in the customer experience they’ve had so far, do whatever you can to build trust with them. Certain words in your text hurt your ability to make a connection with your readers because they feel like you’re not genuine or you’re hiding behind ‘corporate speak’ or legalese.


Use these words if you want to convince your reader they don’t matter. I suggest you strike them out of your writing altogether.


  • therefore
  • hereby
  • further
  • furthermore
  • matter
  • regarding
  • stated
  • query
  • retain


These words are overly formal, even stuffy, and are not used in normal conversation. As soon as you sprinkle them in your communications, it’s a signal to your reader they’re dealing with someone who is working on behalf of an organisation and is not focused on helping.



Buckets of bureaucracy

Your sentences may contain phrases that lead your reader to believe they’re dealing with a bureaucrat. These include:


  • on your behalf
  • in the meantime
  • if you would like to discuss the matter further
  • show of good faith
  • with the above timeframe in mind
  • the action I have taken


Instead of eliminating some of the words, find substitutions to soften the language and make it more relatable.


  • during this time -> while
  • via -> by
  • query -> question, concern
  • matter -> dispute, complaint, concern
  • Retain-> keep
  • provide you with -> give
  • the length of time this is taking -> how long this is taking
  • taking the time to raise/provide -> raising/providing
  • has advised me they have -> advised
  • what our customers have come to expect -> what we want for our customers
  • I would like the opportunity to review -> I’m reviewing
  • As a consequence -> as a result


Injecting humanity into your writing

Replacing bureaucratic phrases with more human language goes a long way to make your reader feel like you’re there to help, not to hinder. Consider making these substitutions:


  • Once I receive your acceptance -> as soon as I receive your acceptance
  • During this time -> while we work on your complaint
  • I’m writing further to your -> I’m writing about the
  • I hope the action I have taken has restored your confidence in our company. -> I hope your confidence in our company has been restored.
  • Therefore, based on your concerns and to show our good faith -> We recognise your concerns and sincerely want you to be a happy customer.
  • In your correspondence you have stated the following: -> This is the issue we’re investigating for you:
  • Out of the matters subject to -> relating to


At first glance, the wording may seem subtle. You want to shift your language from being authoritative to being empathetic. Put things in context of how the situation is being experienced by your reader – not by how you’re experiencing it. And, by all means, eliminate gobbledegook and formal business language. It doesn’t help one iota when emotions are running high, and it helps you become a better writer.


Get rid of jargon

Your customers won’t necessarily know industry jargon. Avoid using jargon or acronyms that might confuse your readers or leave them with a poor understanding of what you’re trying to tell them. Use a jargon grader to help you find common words your audience might find hard to understand.


Two more ways to inject empathy into your writing

The words and phrases you use are critical when answering customer complaints. The way you structure your information also helps to deliver a more empathetic connection with your reader. Here are two of my top tips for handling complaints in writing.



  • Blurt it out – If you’re about to deliver bad news, your reader will know it. (It’s the proverbial elephant in the room.) It’s a kindness to get to the point and give them the information they’re looking for right at the top. Conversely, if you have good news about a dispute or a settlement, don’t make them read 100, 200 or 500 words before you let them know. Put the action first, whatever the outcome, then back it up with detail. The more that’s at stake, the less likely they are to read anything except the outcome. They’ll skim through your document.
  • Flip the perspective – make it about the reader, not about you. Use a conversational tone. Address them personally and directly. Use ‘you’ and ‘your’ throughout your communication.


How journalists deliver news

Journalists are masters at serving up news, with a lot of detail, and doing it in a way readers find appealing. Unlike business writing which often takes a long time and many paragraphs to get to the point, journalists structure their information to deliver all the key details at the beginning of an article. They don’t hold anything back.


In the first paragraph or two, the whole story is outlined. If it’s compelling, the reader keeps reading. More detail is provided to flesh out the information provided. The end of the story contains basic information or things that need repeating. Journalists know it’s unlikely every person is going to read to the end of a story, so they put the best bits right at the top. Dedicated readers find everything they need.


The inverted pyramid of journalism is designed to capture the reader’s attention and get the most important information at the top of the story.


20/20 rule of complaint writing

If you’re writing to deliver bad news or manage the expectations of an angry customer, there are two rules you want to observe in everything you send out.


  • Don’t use sentences longer than 20 words. When people are angry, it’s hard for them to process long sentences. Strip everything back to its cleanest component. Be spare in your prose.
  • Limit long words to only 20 per cent of the words on your page. Simplify your language to communicate your news so it can be understood by a Grade 6 student. You don’t need to dumb it down, but don’t use too many complicated words. Some of the best writers – even the most sophisticated writers – write to low reading levels.


When dealing with hurt, angry or disappointed people, it’s best to strip your writing back to essential information only. Ditch the authoritative business language and adopt a tone of compassionate empathy. You don’t have to apologise, especially if you’re not wrong, but it costs nothing to let your reader know you understand their feelings. A firm but fair hand in your writing is far more likely to be respected and reduces the need for multiple explanations or even damage control.


If you would like more information about how to help your staff write with empathy or improve their customer complaint communication, get in touch with us at Typeset. We have a number of writing workshops designed specifically to make your writing more effective. We are able to tailor our workshops specifically for your situation. Additional training gives your team confidence in how to approach those difficult situations we’d all rather avoid. You can also register your interest for our next writing masterclass.


What are your rules when writing to angry customers?


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