Is your complaint being “form lettered”? Here are three ways to tell

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.”

Don’t confuse this “form” with something called an “autoresponder.” An autoresponder is just a courtesy reply, to say “we got your message.” It’s not meant as anything more than that, and it’s understood that this will be an automated reply, unless you’re dealing with a small business. I use autoresponders, which save me from having to type the same email over and over again.

The forms I’m talking about are the ones that offer you a “resolution” to your customer-service problem. Large corporations dream of automating the entire process. They use a compensation “matrix” to determine what you’re entitled to and then send you an email based on it. The only human hands that ever touch your complaint are a hotkey or two to send things along their merry way.

There’s nothing wrong with that, unless there is. Which is to say, if the matrix and the form letter coincide with your expectations, and you get a restaurant voucher or airline miles that adequately address your complaint, then that’s absolutely fine.

But when the boilerplate response doesn’t bother to address your problem and offers you little more than an empty apology, then you’ve got trouble.

How do you feel when you get a form letter?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook - LinkedIn - Google Plus

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    My bank often uses form letters. That’s why I usually use the chat function instead (until they learn how to “fake” that). While it’s more tedious than a phone call, at least it leaves a paper trail. Plus, I can always watch “Hulu” while I’m waiting for them to type the next line. Multi-task FTW!

  • PsyGuy

    What good is a single letter, I can tweet 140 of them in one message.

  • EdB

    How to spot when a company has sent you a form letter? Easy. It’s the first letter you get back from them when you try communicating with them.

    I remember one time I sent a letter *complementing* a company for doing an outstand job with an order I had placed. I got a form letter back saying, “we’re sorry you didn’t feel our service was up to standard…” What? No one bothered to actually read the letter, so even though I had great service from them, I have never done business with them again. If that was how they handled complements, image how a complaint would be dealt with.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Actually, most companies email form acknowledgments, which are supposed to be form letters. It’s the “personalized” ones that come afterwards that you’ve gotta watch. They look too perfect!

  • EdB

    I wasn’t as clear on what the first letter from them is. I don’t consider that automated reply as being “from them” but rather from the email system. In my example, I got the standard “thanks for writing. Someone will respond soon” message. So I guess I should say, the first non-automated “we got your email” message.

    But even that response message could be automated. There are systems that can parse your email for key words and phrases and craft an automated reply.

  • Anna

    As far as I can tell, form letters are standard from legislative offices, as well. They rarely answer questions, just spout their position on an issue, which may or may not be what you wrote about.

  • BillCCC

    Anytime I send I send an email to a company either to complain or praise them I fully expect to receive a form letter in response. if I am unhappy with the response then I expect to receive more personalized attention.

  • Kairho

    The most obnoxious form letters are the ones where a customer service(?) agent puts in a sentence or two of customization followed by a form letter addressing a completely different concern. Eg:

    “…I am sorry we sent the wrong size and are pleased to correct the problm; below you will find instructions on how to exchange for the correct size.

    “Unfortunately our policy is no refunds. Nonetheless, you are a valued customer and we look forward to meeting your needs again soon.”


  • SoBeSparky

    If I take the time to write a personal letter to a company about its product or service I purchased, then it can take the time to respond. I usually am not looking for an exact solution when a problem is stated, but starting a dialogue on how to resolve a situation. They say you should always suggest solutions which meet your requirements, but then again they say do not be too “demanding or else…”

    The response to my first letter should be constructive and move the dialogue along to a solution. I don’t expect the company to propose what makes me happy, but then again I am greatly offended by “good bye, good luck and get lost.”

  • emanon256

    This reminds me of a story I heard on the radio recently. Several fast food restaurants are now marketing that they are now serving hand made artisan food, and to make the food look hand made, the factories that pre-form their food are throwing out the round mold, and replacing it with several different randomly shaped molds with rough edges and scalloping around the edge to give it a hand made appearance. So rather than getting a perfectly round hamburger, you now get one that has some imperfections so that it appears to be hand made. Its just like the advanced algorithms that cut and paste bits together to make the form response appear personalized. Its still all a load of hog wash in my book.

  • emanon256

    Awesome Idea! I remember back in the day waiting on hold for hours while playing Pac Man.

    Sadly, I think they do fake some of the chats. Had a chat with my cable company recently, and after it took me a full minute to formulate my question, I almost instantly got a multi sentence response that didn’t address my question at all. This happened three times, and then I asked the agent if he could stop pasting generic responses and read what I was asking and come up with a valid response. Then I got some message full of typos stating that he didn’t understand my question, and asking me to end the chat and then start a new chat so that I can get someone else.

    I hate ComCast.

  • emanon256

    I am with you on that. I often send compliments to United when I get good service (Rarity these days) and I used to always get a nice e-mail back within a day or two thanking me for taking the time to recognize their employees, and saying they will pass it along to the supervisor. Since the merger, the few times I sent in a compliment, a few weeks later I got a generic message saying they are sorry that I am disappointed in their service, and then some BS about running an airline and striving for great service. One of them even said I would be receiving a $25 voucher for the inconvenience under separate cover, which I never received.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I guess people didn’t appreciate the play on words.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Beat me to one of my biggest customer service peeves, if one considers legislators to be performing a public service. Silly me, I still do. :)

  • TonyA_says

    LOL that requires a stupid consumer to fall for the trap.
    Fast food and artisan don’t seem like they ever go together.
    You know most folks nowadays have no idea how chicken stock is made or where food comes from. Most say it comes from the kitchen :)

  • emanon256

    Doesn’t it come from the store? Just kidding. Wow, that is really sad. I used to make chicken stock whenever I had a left over chicken carcass. Nothing tastes like homemade stock. I think all school curricula should have mandatory fields trips to farms to show the source of food. We also used to have home economics in school where they taught us to make basic food items, how to sew, and many other tasks that I still use regularly. I wonder if they still teach that?

    Now in this fast food nation, our food, and our letters, are all pre-formed.

  • emanon256

    I am LOLing that your comment got voted down.

  • Stephen0118

    For me it’s the junk postal mail that I get that can’t even get my name right. My full name is Stephanus (male). I get mail addressed as Ms. Stephanie. Those go directly to the recycle bin. If they can’t even get my name right, then I won’t do business with them.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    And I, that YOUR comment got voted down! Stopping now . . .

  • TonyA_says

    Did you read the news, Cruise Boss stepped down as CEO of Cruise Kingdom and gave Mr. Monsanto GMO the job. Fantastic!

  • emanon256

    I didn’t. Wow out of the frying pan and into the fire. No one will get sick on cruises now, until they get home and die of chemical poisoning.

  • emanon256

    So tempted to go on…..

  • Adam_The_Man

    I hate companies that lie to us, and then shove us off when we complain about it. But there are so many people, and so few companies, and so many monopolies, that there is no way to avoid these scams unless we go live in the woods and don’t do anything.

  • Ann

    Forget the form letters.

    Post your complaint on the company Facebook or Twitter Page
    Get the name of an executive and going to Linked In and see if they are listed – contact them from there.

  • Londoner1936

    Had exactly the same chat style response from Comcast (which I too hate, with a passion). I had not finished looking for the information I thought useful, when I was invited to “chat on line” with a representative. Same kind of generic nonsense, and the one typing or monitoring the company end of the chat suggested perhaps I should telephone my request … and even worse experience than chatting. Comcast, with the most alienating web site you have ever seen, scrapes rock bottom endlessly with its customer service. Even the walk in offices (which I finally had to use) are almost as bizarre.

    But what is it with Comcast: are they really the worse there is ?

  • Mark

    Sears Auto Center sent a form letter to my attorney after he sent them a letter demanding payment of $6k for the loss of use of my work vehicle; all because Sears replaced 2 tires under road hazard warranty with completely different tires, which ruined my transmission and 4wd.

    You figure that my $250 letter would strike VP Joe Finney as important…. LOL…. never expected such a heartless response from Sears to a very well known law firm….. BUT IT DOESNT SURPRISE ME MUCH!

  • Miami510

    The Classic Joke about Form Responses

    Dear Mr. Elliott,

    Permit me to first express our hotel’s regrets that you experienced bed bugs during your stay with us.
    I hardly know how to respond to such a complaint because we’ve never had such a complaint. We like to think our housekeeping department is a shining example of the ingredients that go into making us a 5 star hotel and we’ve never had a single infestation of bedbugs. We take our ratings seriously, are very proud of our ratings, and sincerely appreciate your bringing this exceptional fault to our attention.

    Please accept the enclosed voucher for use the next time you
    are our guest.



    Unrealized was the fact that the secretary sending the above letter included the writer’s own complaint letter, and scribbled on the bottom was the manager’s note: “Send this guy the bedbug letter.”

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Guys, I work for Comcast and I personally have had better experiences with chat than on the phone because they could transfer me to another agent to deal with my issue as a customer.

    I have “make it right” cards I’m issued to help people fix their problems via an escalated chain. If you are interested, please let me know and I’ll give you the info.

  • naoma

    We had something similar to this when I worked at a law firm. The head of a company told his secretary to “send the bedbug letter.” Turns out it was a FORM LETTER so you did not have to personally write to the complainer. UNFORTUNATELY, the secretary sent out the boss’s note with the “bedbug letter.” on it. Big Office Joke, but true.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That surprises me. Letters on attorney letterhead generally get routed to the legal department.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Emanon, I work for Comcast and I’m sorry this happened. Please contact me or post a reply and I’ll give you a number to call to resolve the issue to your satisfaction.

  • emanon256

    Hi, sorry, I meant to write back yesterday and forgot. I am just curious what the make it right cards are.

    I am actually okay now. But whenever I have needed to call, I am often on hold for more than an hour, and the agents seem to rush me off the phone. They also seem to give incorrect information more often than correct. When I do the chats, they often don’t seem to have a clue, and whenever I e-mail, the e-mail me back and tell me to call. It often takes a few hours a day for a few days to get one small issue resolved. I asked a phone agent once why she was rushing me off, and she said they get paid based on the number of calls they take per hour. Just seems like a bad business model, and wastes the customers time.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I agree with you and we have a similar problem in the company itself with internal workflow. Stuff often doesn’t get done unless you escalate. But that said, I like working here and the company treats me well and I like the services.

    “Make it right” cards are escalations. We get three of them and there’s a special queue where the employees can refer someone to get something negative fixed, pronto, if we hear about a situation similar to this discussion. I know, this raises the question why EVERY customer doesn’t have this avenue. I think this queue is the top line analysts in the firm. That said, here is one:

    Code: 111233938334007

    Please call and let them know about what happened. Again, I’m sorry as an employee about your experience.

  • Mark

    OH, IT WENT THROUGH THEIR “LEGAL DEPARTMENT” OR “GENERAL COUNSEL”. However, it was a generic response. I had to hire my attorney to write the letter because Sears sent me a Cease & Desist letter threatening legal action against me for “harassment” due to my aggressive methods of attempted contact with Sears Executives (sending an email to the VP of Sears Auto thru Linkden- since he first ignored my written letter) regarding my alleged property damage claim that “is without merit”…..

    So i guess the letter sent to my attorney in response to his demand letter on my behalf, was generic but at least it wasn’t threatening. Despite my attorney letter, Sears has no reason to take the matter seriously because they are self-insured. Anyone can spend a few hundred dollars for such a letter, but who has bottomless pockets for a civil suit against a corporation as Sears Holdings.

  • JewelEyed

    It’s called Family & Consumer Sciences now, but yes, those classes still exist.

  • StarKiller

    If I write in about a complaint and say I took step one and two and it didn’t resolve the problem and they reply with advice to do step one and two it pisses me off big time.
    If I complain about something and the reply picks up on one peripherally involved keyword and the entire answer has nothing to do with the problem, I’m appoplectic.