Don’t cut & paste replies to customers… you won’t look human


Today a customer forwarded me this link about “canned responses from MS PMs“.  The end boils down to “I hope MS’ idea of openness doesn’t mean reading off a checklist of prefab answers.”

Me too. My team has been pushing teams not to leverage canned respnses in the forums and feedback centers. They just don’t come off as human and there are better ways to approach these situations.  I know it happens today, I’m not proud of it, and we are going to do our best to curb it moving forward. 

It’s also possible that some situations happen almost by accident. We’re such a large org. Talking points get sent out and people translate them the same way. That may have been the case in the thread above… but I’ve seen lots of times where I know this isn’t the case.

I’m not saying there isn’t a need for “prefab” answers. If you get a lot of repeat questions and bugs you may want to have some common speaking points for employees so that they can point to central FAQs and meld into thier own terms. 

We need to get people to think about these types of replies like refactoring.  Don’t keep inlining the same code part into all 20 methods you need it in.  Write it once and reference it.  At least in that case you are admitting that you are cutting/pasting a prefab reply… and there’s nothing wrong with that. It also means that if the answer changes… you only have to udpate it once instead of all the places you’ve inlined your prefab reply to.

What can you do about this sort of thing?

  • Blog the answer and reasons for the answer. If you don’t have a blog… I’m sure someone on your team does in this day in age.  Blogs are very google-able.
  • Pin a FAQ post that contains the answer/statement.
  • When you reply to individual posts/bugs… reference the blog or pinned post rather than cutting/pasting.
  • Send mail to your influencers so they understand the issue, talking points, and central refference to point customers at. 

If the problem persists its likley a symptom of a larger communication issue. You might need to dig deeper and ask yourself the following questions…

  • Why are questions and bugs misplaced? Is there not a better venue/catagorization?
  • How bad is the problem? Is this a once a day thing or a 20 times a day thing?
  • Is there a root cause in your products documentation/functionality that causes people to have these questions? Can you do something about it in a service pack?
  • Is there a visible roadmap for your product that would cut off basic questions?
  • Do you have the right set of MVP types engaged in the right locations where the issue is visible?

Its OK to admit that due to the volume of issues received your pointing everyone at a central resource.  It’s a lot better than pretending to be “human” in a reply.  I’ve written lots of replies to groups of customers that start out “Hey, I get this a lot, here’s where you can find our canned answer… if that doesn’t help please send me another mail…”

Really… just don’t do it. There are so many better ways to distribute information to customers in today’s world that will look so much more human.

Comments (4)

  1. Wes Miller says:

    Wow… one of my big annoyances when I left Microsoft last year was dealing with PM’s who simply ignored mail. I think this behavior is actually _more_ disappointing than that. If you can’t put some personal investment into communications with customers and partners, don’t bother doing it.

  2. tzagotta says:

    Check this out, as an example of how to *not* respond to customers.

    My wife wrote an e-mail to Coca Cola to tell them that we liked Vanilla Coke and we were disappointed that it was discontinued. Here is their reply:

    "Vanilla Coke and Diet Vanilla Coke have been solid contributors for the Coca-Cola brand over the past three years.  What we are demonstrating is the ability to create and market profitable line extensions for our core brands and the flexibility to capitalize on new opportunities when we see them.

    Consumers still like vanilla and we think Coca-Cola Black Cherry Vanilla will appeal to them.  We believe that Coca-Cola Black Cherry Vanilla gives us the best opportunity to further develop our Coca-Cola flavors at this time. "

    Can you believe this?!? Not only a canned response, but a really bad one at that!

  3. MSDNArchive says:

    Wes: Agreed.

    TZ: Good story.  

  4. Joku says:

    Linking is good and great when replying to questions…

    Matt Pietrek – Recent MSDN Magazine Columns http://www.wheaty.net/Columns.htm

    "These all used to have hyperlinks. MSDN’s web site has changed their URLs around so many times that I’ve given up trying to keep with them."

    I am fairly sure we haven’t seen the last of that.

    Another nagging thing might be that if you are preferring the local MSDN copy and have for example bunch of favorites linked.. Well see if they work after updating VS, not to mention being able to use the same links online. If you ask ME, the MSDN local documentation should always give and show the Internet URL, but show the local copy of the content and background query the hash of the online doc, if different then update the local doc. Or something …