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I was recently in a situation where I was responding to a customer inquiry about the availability of a certain action in our API that is present in our desktop application.

Their question was not very clear so I had to speculate about what they were really looking for and I came up with two things I thought could be what they wanted.

I emailed them back a fairly long walk through of what each action does and what is available for each in the API, expecting them to respond with which one they want to use. The customer instead emailed back more questions about the two APIs I just explained, the answers to which were in my previous email.

My question is how can handle a customer who doesn't read the information you provide them and then asks questions that are answered by said information?

I don't want to re-type everything or copy-paste it, but I also think it comes off as rude to refer your customer to the email they just replied to. I considered starting off my email something like

Hi so and so,

As I stated in the previous email, the API blah blah blah...

but to me that still sounds rude/condescending and I still have to retype or copy everything from my previous email.

I have looked at this question which is similar, but that deals with internal emails whereas this is about interactions with a customer which tend to be more formal.

  • Welcome to the site by the way, Spaceman Spiff. I just have to say that I love your username and avatar. – Lilienthal Oct 15 '15 at 18:45
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    How easy to understand was your previous email? My guess is it was tl;dr. – enderland Oct 15 '15 at 18:47
  • @enderland that was my guess to, but in the end that's not really something I can control. Our software is pretty complex so explaining a how anything works gets long and technical very fast. This was also my first interaction with this particular client so I couldn't really assume any prior knowledge. – Spaceman Spiff Oct 15 '15 at 18:53
  • @SpacemanSpiff Which is why you don't explain how things work in detail, especially not with clients, and especially not if those clients do not themselves have a very technical background, though I can't tell from your post if that's the case or not. Another point of advice for this though: "so I had to speculate about what they were really looking for and I came up with two things I thought could be what they wanted" Don't speculate, just reply back to ask them to clarify what they need to know. If you send them a lot of information they don't need this situation is a likely outcome. – Lilienthal Oct 16 '15 at 13:55
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I believe you made the same mistake in your first email that I have made often; you provided way more detail than the recipient wanted.

The way I recover from that mistake is to throw away the previous email, and answer the second inquiry as if it were the first email on the topic, but this time I limit myself to a paragraph and add "I'm happy to provide more detail about X, Y, or Z if you would like." or something along those lines.

If the client doesn't reference the previous email, as a general rule, I don't either. Figuring out exactly what someone is asking in an email is definitely an art, and I've found erring on the side of too little detail and encouraging clients to contact you if their question isn't completely answered works best.

Often a little information generates a different question than what they thought they needed to know initially. Many folks don't read long emails because they read the first part and it either answers their question or changes their question, so they stop reading. All of their questions might be answered if they read the whole thing, or might not, so the most time effective thing for them to do us ask the question they have right now to someone who should be able to give them a bite-sized answer. If they were inclined to read documentation, they probably wouldn't have contacted you; )

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    I like this answer, I think the issue for me is that I prefer if I get all the information at once so I can process it all without having to go back and forth with whomever I am emailing, but I realize not everyone is like this and smaller chunks will help people understand easier more easily. – Spaceman Spiff Oct 15 '15 at 20:39
  • @SpacemanSpiff I think folks that have the same learning style that you and I have run into the frustration of folks asking questions that we've already written an answer to alot. I'm guessing that the first thing you do when you have a question is search for something to read, and only ask someone if your question is something that's difficult to find documentation for. Some folks are more Socratic :) – ColleenV Oct 15 '15 at 20:54
  • Hit the nail on the head. I guess I just forget not everyone learns like I do sometimes. – Spaceman Spiff Oct 15 '15 at 21:19
  • Don't be surprised if many people just can't understand technical information when too much of it is in written form. At some point, you need to pick up the phone. – user8365 Oct 16 '15 at 2:42
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My question is how can handle a customer who doesn't read the information you provide them and then asks questions that are answered by said information?

Even if they didn't read your prior email, it's your responsibility to convey the information as clearly and cheerfully as you can, without condescension and without sarcasm.

So, just give them the information they need without regard to what you did or didn't send previously.

Copy and paste if you must, but try to rephrase it in a way that is even more clear (it's possible they actually did read your previous email, but didn't understand it).

I don't want to re-type everything or copy-paste it, but I also think it comes off as rude to refer your customer to the email they just replied to.

Yes, it would be rude to start an email with "As I stated in the previous email", even if that's factual. While that clearly isn't your intention, it could easily come across as "If you weren't so stupid, you would have seen that I already gave you the answer...".

It can be tough to handle customer support. Some clients immediately understand you, but others take more hand-holding. This is particularly true when you aren't dealing with folks face-to-face (or even on the telephone) where you could immediately confirm their understanding. When using email, sometimes more back-and-forth as well as repetition is required.

And as @DavidK wisely points out, if email isn't working, perhaps a phone call is in order? You could both refer to your email, as you walk them through their issues.

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    And if email doesn't seem to be working, then a phone call is in order. – David K Oct 15 '15 at 18:52
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    never send the exact same content twice.If they didn't understand it the first time, then you have to rewrite it to make it clearer. The onus is you to communicate with them. They can ask you however many times and you need to remain polite and to keep rephrasing until they get it. If you are copying and pasting content into emails, you are already doing a bad job and people will be very annoyed with you. I just ran into someone like this myself and it made me decide never to buy another product from the company again. – HLGEM Oct 15 '15 at 19:02
  • @HLGEM the original email was not copy-paste, it was my own explanation of how they API endpoints work. – Spaceman Spiff Oct 15 '15 at 19:22
  • The idea of a phone call is good, but if it is programming related, sometimes a screen-sharing session along with phone call/teleconference is the best combination to walk through it interactively. Of course, this is more setup involved, but this type of scenario will probably not come up just once. – Brandin Oct 16 '15 at 7:47
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If they don't read your email, call them. This is often quicker and you can better see where the misunderstanding lies. You still have the sent mails both of you can look at.

When answering a question, the important thing is that you understand the question as it was meant. If the askers wording is unclear you may waste time answering the wrong question. Or maybe your writing was not clear enough. Again, best way to find out is to actually talk to them.

Email is great. But the moment a back and forth starts it's often a sign that there's some misunderstanding and then it's better to pick up the phone.

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