in General Coding

About those customer support emails

One of the most common usability bloopers when it comes to email is the whole ‘Do Not Reply’ thing. Every time I see a ‘Do Not Reply’ at the beginning of a customer support email, I have to wonder if whoever produced the email template even considered looking into configuring the email such that they reply-to address goes to customer support. After all, if a user receives a response from customer support and then wants to reply to that message, they most likely will want to just hit the reply button and reply directly in that email. Worse, if they do, their response likely ends up in some virtual black hole, leaving the user thinking they’ve sent a response and wondering why customer support isn’t replying, all while customer support never received the message, which in turn is not likely to behoove the overall success of whatever organization this particular customer support belongs to. So why I am bringing this up now? Well, I recently sent a query to the customer support dept. at a certain gigantic organization in Redmond, Washington, and received an email with the following fairly egregious example of bad email usability (the ‘*****’ are my lame attempt at keeping this organization anomymous):

FR: COMPMAIL@**********.COM ******* The following is an email for a support case from ********* Corp. ******* DO NOT REPLY TO THIS MESSAGE–your email will not be added to ******* the case if you do. Instead, FORWARD your response to the ******* email address COMPMAIL@***********.COM and place your text after ******* the keyword ‘MESSAGE:’. Also, delete all other text above ******* and below the keywords ‘CASE_ID_NUM: *****’ and ‘MESSAGE:’ ******* to ensure proper delivery of your email. Thank you.CASE_ID_NUM: ************00272
********************** The message for you follows ************************

Wow! Not only should I not reply to this message, I need to forward the message to another address *and* make revisions to this email for it to conform to the requirements of this apparently not very usability-oriented customer support department. Talk about passing the buck to the user! Why in the world could the reply-to email address not be set to be ‘COMPMAIL@***********.COM’????? And what is up with the ridiculous request to ask me to delete *their* content in the email, since my reply (or forwarded message) would by default appear above all that content? Here is another customer suppor email response I received, in which the following appeared at the top of the email:

To update this question by email, please reply to this message. Because your reply will be automatically processed, you MUST enter your reply in the space below. Text entered into any other part of this message will be discarded.[===> Please enter your reply below this line <===] [===> Please enter your reply above this line <===]

This is somewhat of an improvement, since it allows me to just reply to the same email. At the same time, I still can’t figure out why the user has to enter their message within these blocks of text. If we assume that the reason for this is to allow for some form of automated processing, why not just apply that automation to more common user behavior? Why not something like the following?

[user response]On 3/17/06, ******* Support <******@******.com> wrote:
To reply to this customer support message, just click on reply and type your message above.

After all, it’s likely that many users are going to ignore the above instructions anyway, so why not just assume that users will use email like they normally do and then design the technology around that? To me, this just seems like yet another (doomed) attempt at producing a design solution and then trying to get users to conform to it.