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We are a small company; when we receive emails on our support email address, we have an autoresponder with a detailed FAQ.

Not out of rudeness, but because of resource constraints, we can't reply to the staggering amount of common questions that we receive.

What would be a polite way to tell the customer that we won't answer their email IF their question is answered by the FAQ autoresponder?

We would like not to be rude, but at the same time, make it very clear that their email will be ignored unless they're asking something which is not covered by the FAQ. We would however honor a second reply from the customer, in case they're asking something not included in the FAQ, or in case they need any other clarification.

(I want customers to email me twice if they have a question that isn't on the FAQ)

Note: if at all possible, please don't be judgemental. Opinions are welcome! But I'm looking for an answer to my question, not summary judgement. It's easy to point fingers, until you find yourself on the other side of the pond. Given infinite resources, we would answer all questions personally and wine & dine every single customer. If you have a better solution, I would love to hear it. Criticism without alternate solutions is not helpful. Thanks!

  • 18
    Are you saying that you want the auto-respond email, which goes to everyone who emails you at the support address, to start off with something that basically says, "Thanks for emailing us. If your issue is covered in the below FAQ, we wont respond to your email. Otherwise, expect an answer in X business days."? – Keiki Jun 27 '18 at 13:57
  • @Keiki yes, exactly. – magma Jun 27 '18 at 13:59
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    I am confused. What does your current auto-reply currently say? Are you auto-replying manually after reading these emails? Is the auto-reply smart and tries to match a question to the relevant FAQ? Which part of the process are you trying to improve exactly? Are you personally getting emails to which you are contemplating whether RTFF (Read The Fine FAQ) is a reasonable response? – MonkeyZeus Jun 27 '18 at 19:03
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    Just noting, the question title can also be interpreted as "There is this frequently asked question we refuse to answer. How to politely tell this to people". That's how I read the title in the HNQ list each time. Maybe better to word the title as "How to politely say we wont answer questions found in our faq" – David Mulder Jun 28 '18 at 10:39
  • It seems this question would be more appropriate at ux.stackexchange.com than here. You could probably get many suggestions there. – Relaxed Jun 28 '18 at 11:17

11 Answers 11

75

I have been in a similar situation in the past. Our group's "primary" contact email was designed to take form submissions from an ordering portal (which were automatically processed) and responded to all others with an FAQ about our process and product. The response email clearly stated that no human ever checked this email address (a human did actually check the "auto" email address once a week in order to update the FAQ but we only responded to those emails very rarely). After the FAQ we provided a different email address and invited people to "get in touch with our human support team if you have any further questions."

Our logic was this:

  • Plenty of folks would get their questions answered by the FAQ
  • Nobody would get mad at a machine for being impersonal
  • If someone's problem was big enough they would bother to find and use the "human email" address. A few people even thanked us for having a method for them to "elevate" their concerns

Note that if your rules are sophisticated enough you could tell people to respond to the same email for a human response. They key is to remind your users that the original email is automated: you're not ignoring them, you are anticipating their needs.

  • 4
    As a minor addendum, you could probably also use repeated emails instead of a separate one (i.e. "If your issue isn't covered by this FAQ, please reply to this email to let us know" instead of "email this other email address"), by using an email filter that looks for a phrase in the FAQ that a user is unlikely to say in their question, if it's particularly important to use only one email address for this – Fund Monica's Lawsuit Jun 27 '18 at 22:20
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    That makes sense too. We just weren't sophisticated enough to filter for a second email from the same user so the second email was easier. Either way you get your second email but people blame "that darn computer" for being ignored the first time. – PhotoScientist Jun 28 '18 at 3:23
  • I mean, either one works just as well. It's a matter of preference, and how much trouble it is to make that second email. In my case, for example, it'd be a bit of a pain to get another official email on our domain, so I'd probably opt for the fancy mail-filter rules, but it works just as well either way. – Fund Monica's Lawsuit Jun 28 '18 at 16:32
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I'd reply with a statement along these lines:

Thank you for contacting us. Please check out our FAQs below to see if any of them answer your question.

If the FAQs do not answer your question or if you need additional support, please reply to this email so one of our representatives can personally help you.

It makes it clear this is an auto-response (lacking a personal touch), however, if they do need additional support, you clearly indicate that a human will help them.

Because it requires them to take an additional step on their side and they have to wait to be helped, it provides incentive to do the due diligence and go through the FAQs.

To further provide incentive to go through the FAQs, you could have an auto-response when they first reply to the email that states,

Thank you for letting us know you need further assistance. A representative will contact you within X business days.

  • 2
    I was about to write the same exact answer so thanks for writing it 42 minutes ago. – MonkeyZeus Jun 27 '18 at 19:00
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Just link them to the FAQ with a standard email template.

Be impersonal in the email to forstall any conversation.

Thanks for contacting us. Your question may have already been covered in our FAQ (link). Please let us know if there's anything else we can help with.

And leave it at that.

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    How is the customer supposed to know that the next time their question will actually be answered? I'd expect them to answer anyways and buy elsewhere when they don't. – DonQuiKong Jun 27 '18 at 19:59
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    How would that help? Nobody reads anything at all (even if you tell them to read, repeatedly). – Peter Mortensen Jun 27 '18 at 20:38
  • This implies a human read your email, thought it was in the FAQs and sent back this. If my question wasn't in the FAQs id be annoyed/confused – Richard Tingle Jun 28 '18 at 7:50
10

Many companies use the following strategy: "Force" the user to find a solution before contacting.

In your website's "Help&Contact" tab (or wherever else you might post your contact information for customer service) have you FAQs and their answers written big and bold. Make the FAQ more obvious than the contact information. It's a way to force the user to go through the FAQs before contacting you, lessening the chance of having them ask questions which are already answered.

You can "hide" your contact information behind a "My Issue Isn't Listed Here" button, further lessening the chance of being contacted by a repeat question.

Before giving your contact information, make the users go through a "what are you contacting us about" process. If their issue is in the FAQs, pop up the answer instead of your contact information (and maybe have your contact email hidden behind a "that didn't help me" link at that point).

For example: eBay only gives you their contact information after you go through several version of their self-help website. When you click the "Help & contact" link, you get brought to their help page. That page has a very large banner at the top to search for help topics (and find a solution yourself). Scroll down on the page and you are shown a list of your recent orders which, when clicked, pop-up a list of common actions people may want to take (cancel, return, review etc.). Scroll further down and you see their FAQs and links to the answers. Further down you see "Browse help articles" where common articles are linked. And only at the very bottom of the page you see the "Need more help" section. The "more" subtly implies you've already gone through everything and might make users think twice about skipping the above links and going straight for the "contact" link. Once you click the "Call Us" button, you're not given their contact information: you are asked to tell them what you're calling about. Once you specify what you're calling about, they'll finally give you a web page with their contact information; the contact information takes about a quarter of the width of the window,the other 3/4 of the window is occupied by (again) a list of your recent orders and FAQs related to what you said you're calling about.

They're not keeping you from getting to the information but they certainly do a lot to keep people from contacting them without looking for a solution first. It's a great way to keep your customers happy AND not have to constantly answer the same questions over and over again.

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If you want to implement this workflow, you don't want to use email for support. If customers aren't savvy enough to read through the FAQ before they submit their question, they aren't going to read a FAQ that you email to them. If they understand your message, they're going to immediately reply leaving the issue for a human to address. If they don't understand your message, they are going to be very upset that no one ever replied to their support request. Either way, it is unlikely that you'll have users go away happy.

It sounds like you want support requests to come through a channel other than email. Create a support portal instead of a support email. At the simplest level, you can show the FAQ before you allow the user to enter their request (behind the scenes, of course, you can have the form simply send an email to the existing inbox). If you want to get trickier, attach keywords/ tags to FAQ entries and when a request includes one of those, suggest a particular FAQ entry before allowing the request to go through.

As an aside, if you don't have the resources to deal with support requests reasonably, that is a strong indication that you've got a flawed business model. Either your product/ service is too buggy/ confusing for the target audience and you need to invest more resources in UI/UX or your product/ service is not priced at a level that supports the cost of providing the necessary level of support. Now, perhaps you're growing exponentially and the issue is simply that support requests are increasing faster than you can hire people to deal with support in which case the issue is temporary.

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No one has time for support. That is why you try to distribute the load as much as possible.

  1. Instead of saying no, tell users what to do.

Some people can't connect dots. This is usually because the person does not know the domain well, and so are missing the dots they need. If they knew what to do, they wouldn't be asking you. So simply saying no will turn them off as customers.

Instead, try to foster a user community. Your users will scale to your client base (by definition), so the best resource pool to help new people, are other users who love your product, and love to help others. (See StackExchange =P) Direct new users to these resources. And encourage experienced users to be a part of it. (example of this in action)

The reality is being told no is infuriating. You can't change that. No matter how polite, if you have no idea how to move forward, you give up. Tell the user what actions they can take to have their question answered. (Not necessarily by you)

  1. Update your FAQ frequently.

If FAQ questions keep getting asked, try to identify the problem points, and do your best to make them clearer. Rotate who you have do this, and have another person approve changes. Its trivial to understand what you wrote, make sure that it transfers well to others.

(Interns are the perfect test subjects for this, as they will usually have the least domain knowledge. Followed by people from different departments. Everyone should have an equal say in the wording, because this is for everyone to consume)

  1. Sell higher level support

This is more for higher paying customers, but the easiest way to address resource limits, is to allow customers to fund the services they care about. This also makes a statement that advanced support is a service, not a right. This option only works though if support isn't a key feature of your business (like for a bank or ISP)

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We are a small company; when we receive emails on our support email address, we have an autoresponder with a detailed FAQ.

So, you have an email account that automatically responds to all emails by sending an email containing a FAQ? An email is not the correct format for a FAQ. Besides the fact that it isn't as interactive as webpage, many email clients show emails in a small sub-window that is quite cumbersome to read large documents in. And your customers aren't going to want to read through an entire FAQ document trying to find what applies to them, any more than you would want me to hand you a book on customer service and say "Read through this to see how to tell customers to read a FAQ". You should instead give a link to a FAQ webpage that interactively facilitates finding answers, rather than having people have to read through an entire document. At the very least, you should give customers the option of reading through a list of just the questions, where clicking on the text of a question expands it out to give the answer. Here's an example of bare-minimum interactivity of a FAQ.

What would be a polite way to tell the customer that we won't answer their email IF their question is answered by the FAQ autoresponder?

You are using imprecise language. What you mean is "We won't answer their email if we determine that their question is answered by the FAQ". I'm not clear on how reading an email, determining it is answered by the FAQ, and then putting it in the "ignore" folder is significantly less work than just answering the email, even if "answering the email" consists of only providing a link to the specific question-answer that you think answers their question.

We would however honor a second reply from the customer, in case they're asking something not included in the FAQ, or in case they need any other clarification.

Again, you're being rather unclear. Do you mean "If they decide their question wasn't answered by the FAQ, then they can ask again, and we'll respond to any email that is the second one from the same email address"? Or do you mean "They can ask again, and we might answer if we decide their question wasn't answered"? You need to more clearly distinguish between ontological and epistemical issues. If you're saying "If you decide your question isn't answered and so send another email, we'll ignore it if we disagree with your determination that the question wasn't answered", there isn't any polite way to say that. Furthermore, if you're not even looking at whether the email is answered by the FAQ unless they send the email again, that is a rather rude procedure.

A lot of companies have "contact forms". I'm not a fan of them, as they're basically replicating the functionality of email with more hassle, but they would be preferable to my understanding of your current system. You can have a FAQ webpage, have a contact form, and require people to affirmatively click a "I've checked the FAQs" box and a "I understand that due to high volume of inquiries, questions that are determined to be covered by the FAQs will not be responded to" box. Your FAQs should be numbered and have anchors for easy reference. That way, if a customer is still confused after reading the FAQ, they can say something like "I read FAQ 1.1.2, but I'm confused when it says 'Items can returned within 30 days'. Does that mean within 30 days of order, or 30 days of receipt?"

It's easy to point fingers, until you find yourself on the other side of the pond.

The usual usage of "across the pond" is to refer to British versus American, with "the Pond" being a tongue-in-cheek term to refer to the Atlantic.

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Why not in addition to linking to the FAQ, place the answer to a frequently asked question as a canned reply if it’s asked?

That way, the customer gets their answer, and you save time and energy.

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It may be convenient for YOU to enforce this 'ask twice if you want a reply' policy. But it's lousy, annoying customer service. OK, on the contact page, plug the FAQ as hard as you like. But if the customer can't or won't 'RTFM', don't punish him.

Ever searched for help with a Windows problem? You can jump over the official Microsoft responses - right? - because they'll just be automated excerpts from a stock FAQ. You actually look at the independent sources, where someone might have actually READ your question.

  • It sounds to me like you're comparing Microsoft to a small business that has limited customer service resources. – Ian MacDonald Jun 27 '18 at 19:10
  • Well, yes. But I'm saying you can do better than Microsoft. Anyone can do better than Microsoft! – Laurence Payne Jun 27 '18 at 20:52
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My answer isn't one of ten already posted so I feel ok to reply.

None of the ten posted answers ask the client for help. Most of the time they actually want to.

The response I'd want to send is:

==================

Thank you for the question! Less than 0.5% take the time and we'd certainly rather have too many inquiries than too few!

(Yes, even complaints!)

We've been asked this question a few times in various forms so I'd like to ask if you would be willing to tell us how the web FAQ fell short.

In fact if you'd find it a fun challenge we actually welcome your editing comments! Some users have even pointed us to our competitors site and said "Write like this!".

(And we did!)

But certainly if your question isn't addressed by the FAQ simply reply, we'll generate a support ticket, and typically answer in 24-72 business hours.

==================

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Our company got a support contract with a large software company which essentially says:

  • We get a discounted rate for our support contract
  • In order to get that discount, we commit to show some due diligence before we open a support request
  • If the support request asks a question which is clearly answered in the FAQ or knowledge base, the support request is rated as "not fulfilled"
  • When too many of our support requests in a year get rated "not fulfilled", we lose our discount

This prevents us from asking support questions we could just as well answer ourselves. But note that we made the decision to take this form of support contract. The supplier also offers "ask us anything, no matter how stupid" support contracts, but they want far more money for that service.


If different support levels don't fit your business model, then you could look for an automatic solution. There are software solutions available which parse customer emails for keywords and can automatically reply with fitting boilerplate texts from the FAQ. This is far more useful than sending the user the whole FAQ which they then likely won't read because it's just too long.

Such emails should then finish with instructions what the customer can do to escalate this support request to a real person in case this text does not help them.

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