How Poorly Worded Messages Can Cause Your Customers Grief

Woman in home office, upset while talking on phone

When you or your company write email and other informational messages to or for your customers, do you thoroughly review them to make sure that they are clearly understood by the average person?

It is very important that nothing that is said contains any information or terminology that is used only by the people within your company. A common metaphor for that is "inside baseball": using special knowledge or nuances not understood outside of an industry or field. A recent experience of mine illustrates the problems such misunderstandings can cause.

A few days after Christmas I purchased a special software package, and as part of the confirmation I was given the tracking number to follow its progress through the US Postal Service. A day later it left the company's distribution center in Puerto Rico.

On New Year's Eve afternoon, after taking only two days to cover over 1600 miles, the package was in my home state. But instead of being at the usual regional postal distribution center (130 miles away), it was at a post office 80 miles south of me.

Normally that would not be a problem. Until I read the alerts for my package on their web site:

December 31, 2016, 8:19 am - Arrived at Post Office

December 31, 2016, 3:12 pm - Arrived at USPS Facility

December 31, 2016, 3:13 pm - Undeliverable as Addressed

Your item was undeliverable as addressed at 3:13 pm on December 31, 2016. It is being returned if appropriate information is available.


To me "undeliverable as addressed" meant that a totally incorrect and invalid address was on the label, one for which the postal service could in no shape or form figure out who the correct recipient was or where they were actually located. This seemed to be reinforced by the additional wording that it was "being returned if appropriate information is available". In other words, was there a valid return address listed on the label?

I immediately thought that someone had perhaps mistyped my zip code which then generated the incorrect destination city on the shipping label (even though my email confirmation from the manufacturer showed my correct address). And since I did not discover this until New Year's Day, I had to sweat things out for two more days until they reopened.

I called that post office first thing on Tuesday morning, where I found out that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my package. It had simply been misdirected to the wrong local office. The person I talked to seemed a bit irritated that I would even question the wording of the message posted on their tracking system.

In their mind and in their parlance it was perfectly correct and made complete sense. Since my address was not in the area that was serviced by their office, the package was obviously "undeliverable as addressed". And it was being "returned" to the regional center so that it could be sent to the proper post office.

I tried to explain - to no avail - how to the average person not familiar with their terminology that "undeliverable as addressed" meant that it was effectively an orphan package.

I guess that is my fault for being both a programmer and a writer. I come from a world that deals in pure logic and also one where words have meaning.

That person also could not understand why I had called them directly rather than the Post Office's 1-800 Customer Care Center. Which I did next.

It turns out that customer service's internal tracking system has additional information and messages not available to the outside customer. And their entry for 3:12 pm specifically stated that my package had been misdirected to the wrong post office. But since that internal system has no corresponding message on the external system, it shows "undeliverable as addressed" instead.

Which, to the people working there, is perfectly correct.

You know - "Inside baseball".

Unfortunately, eventually finding all of this out did not relieve my stress and grief.

Yes, I did finally receive my package. But when there still was no sign of it or anything in the tracking system by Friday, I called the 800-number again and opened a case number. During that second call I also found out that I was not the first person to bring this misleading message on their web tracking system to their attention! The item was finally scanned at the regional sorting center - a mere 55 miles from the misdirected office - on Sunday afternoon, and happily it arrived in my mailbox on Monday, January 9th. A week after this all had started.

But that, of course, is a completely different customer issue.


© 2017 Michael Marrer, Silver Lake Wordsmiths & Marrer Enterprises, Inc.


Image © Monkeybusinessimages |

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