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

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By Christopher Elliott

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. (Related: How consumer complaints work: The guide they don’t want you to read.)

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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. They 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. (Here’s how to contact the CEO directly.)

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. (Related: Three lies you should thank the companies for.)

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?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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