It was just a matter of time before corporations created the perfect form letter, capable of fooling a veteran consumer advocate. Or you.
You know what I’m talking about: those emails that say “we’re sorry you feel that way,” but offering you nothing for a customer-service failure.
Spotting a form letter used to be super easy, which was helpful, because you could quickly appeal the boilerplate rejection to a supervisor. In the early days of email, when low-level agents didn’t understand the difference between text and HTML, you could actually see the cut-and-paste responses, because they were rendered in a different font. You knew you were being fed a line.
Now? Not so much.
The newest form letters use sophisticated systems to merge pre-written text with personalized content. And that’s not all. The missives are good. Surprisingly good. One executive recently confided that he hires professional writers to convey just the right message. Some companies also use smart decision-making systems to recommend the right word, phrase or paragraph.
Pretty clever, huh?
Bottom line: It’s getting harder to spot a “fake” form letter from the real thing. Even for me.
Why is that so important? A form letter to a legitimate response usually means the company is saying “talk to the hand” — we feel your pain but we don’t care. A real response means someone took the time to personally write you back and that they’ll do their best to fix a problem.
Companies want you to think they care, even when they don’t. And that’s why I’m going to help you figure out whether you’d just been sent a form letter. I consider myself an expert on form letters because I read several hundred of them a week and, ahem, I use them.
Here’s how to figure out if you’re being “formed”:
Typographical errors. Customer service agents are often sloppy. They don’t type your name correctly in the salutation or they get the gender wrong, even when you’re obviously a man or a woman. Why? Because English is often not their first language, so they don’t know there are no women named “Bob” or men named “Mary.” At the same time, a typo can suggest the letter is real when it’s in the body of the text. True “form” paragraphs are scrubbed of mistakes, so when you find one, it usually means it’s the real deal.
Google me! Here’s something companies don’t expect: Take a random paragraph from the company response and paste it into your favorite search engine. What do you see? If it’s an original, then you won’t find any matching results. But if it’s a form, then you’ll find other examples in discussion forums, blogs and social media.
Sharp contrasts. Modern customer-response systems use a combination of a pre-written form letter with sections that can be filled in manually. In their efforts to cut costs, executives will spend lots of money on the technology and hours poring over the form letters, but will then hand the reins over to agents who can’t spell or write. So you’ll see a grammatically-incorrect description of your problem followed by a beautiful, articulate sympathetic response. That’s a sure sign someone is cutting, pasting and filling in the blanks. Chances are, you’re being “formed.”