After Business Writing Example #1, the customer sent an inquiry to my friend.

Please check possibilities to my inquiry form attachment. Please confirm prices and lead time too. Please also pay attention on weight of batteries.

We don't have any storage space at the moment. There is a rollover and more than 40 containers arrive almost at once.

My friend wrote the following response.

Many thanks for your reply.

We fully understand your warehouse pressure. You can confirm the order this week, because the lead time might be 45 days, which it will arrive you around or after the Spring Festival. This timeline will not occupy your storage space. How do you think please?

Look forward to having your feedback, thank you.

My friend's English is adequate. Her tone is fine. She is perfectly friendly. The problem with my friend's message this time is it fails to answer the customer's questions.

The customer asked for the following information:

  • Prices
  • Lead time
  • Weight

When replying to a business email you should answer every question as completely as you can. My friend didn't answer the questions about price and weight. A customer should never have to ask you for information twice.

My friend did a minimal job of addressing the lead time question. She should include multiple lead time estimates, depending on when the customer confirms the order. This provides more information to the customer (which is good for the customer) and applies external closing pressure on the customer (which is good for my friend).

The reference to Spring Festival only works if the customer is Chinese or is intimately familiar with Chinese culture. The customer is not Chinese. Either the reference to Spring Festival should be removed or my friend should provide cultural context like "lead times increase around Spring Festival".

The customer's warehouse pressure is a potential bargaining chip. My friend should use it to try to upsell the customer.

Here is my version of the message.

Thank you for getting back to us so quickly. We understand what it's like to have a limited warehouse space.

If you confirm an order this week, we estimate a lead time of 45 days (plus <number> days for shipping). If you confirm an order four weeks from now (late December) we estimate a lead time closer to <bigger number> days.

As for pricing, <pricing information>.

We are not (ourselves) super limited by warehouse space. Another option is to confirm an order now (so lead times are short) but have us mail the package later so that it arrives at the time of your choosing.

Negotiation is not solely about money. My friend benefits when orders are confirmed fast and confirmed early. If she can offer her company's warehouse space in exchange for faster confirmation then everybody wins.

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Upvoted both examples because I would like to see more content of this broad kind on lesswrong, even if they don't become the most popular posts.


While I agree that the revised response is vastly superior to the original, and that the points about fully answering inquiries and offering low/no cost add-on services to assist with a customer's pain points is spot on the bull's eye of customer relationship management.

However, I think a key point has been missed. Why did the other questions go unanswered? That seems to be the core problem to solve and offering a solutions alone doesn't really seem to bridge the gap between error and improved response in the future.

Put differently, we seem to have identified the inputs and outputs (customer query and the company response) but treated the response process a bit like a black box.

I think you're not optimizing for the goal Make the Sale and instead optimizing for Make the Customer Comfortable.

Sales is a complicated field with a bunch of techniques. There's some highly skilled practitioners and there's really strong selection pressure. This implies that the really effective sales techniques, unlike the really effective rationality techniques, are complicated and can't be easily learned.

I'm not salesy and I know it. I'm better making agreements with folks when I follow rote advice from salesy people rather than doing what feels natural or trying to figure it out myself. It's better for me to follow rote advice that I don't even understand. And it's not because my natural communication skills are terrible. My job (that has little to do with sales) is 80% persuading smart, critical people that my technical explanation of this field is correct and that they should adopt it for themselves. But sales, definitely sales in the context you're talking about, it's a very different kind of persuasion.

When sending a formal e-mail my natural response would be very similar to yours. Keep everything comfortable, provide all necessary information, keep it brief, keep it sensible. That's how you optimize for efficient communication between intelligent folks. But making a sale is not about good communication. Sales and efficient communication aren't necessarily opposed to each other, but it's perfectly reasonable that the e-mail which best conveys your ideas is a terrible e-mail for making a sale.

My mom is a very salesy person. Her job is selling and upselling services to customers. Show people how it's worth spending 30% extra to get premium services from her rather than cheaper and lower quality services elsewhere. Have them figure out how it's better to spend thousands when it's really worth it even if they only planned on spending a few hundred. It hurts to listen to her talk on the phone sometimes. I can tell when somebody is in a rush and they just want information. And when I sense that I make sure to quickly cut to the chase. I think she can tell too. Nevertheless, when the customer wants to just cut to the chase that's always when she slows everything down. She talks about needless emotional stories, obvious deflections, boring filler. Sometimes I cringe when someone matter of factly asks about the price and my mother talks for minutes about what the customer must be feeling and how they should deal with it and how they really need to take care of it this way (which costs a lot of money btw). Rarely, customers are very direct and my mom is forced to either tell them the prices or they'll hang up the phone. But more often she's able to mellow people out and get them committed to pay more than they expected they would going into the conversation.

I really don't know why it works. Maybe people treat long conversations as sunk costs, maybe it's that folks respect someone who sticks to their guns, or maybe its a bunch of factors that I don't know or understand. All I know is that her sales style works, the same style works for other people too, and it has nothing to do with clear communication.

So my general criticism for ideas such as:

When replying to a business email you should answer every question as completely as you can.

Is that this shouldn't be taken for granted. Maybe your Chinese friend is better off not answering every question if it keeps the customer in an ongoing dialogue with her.

A customer can always get lower prices by routing around you. They buy from you because it is simpler. Your job is to make buying things easy. You create convenience. An eager salesperson makes buying effortless.

Like, maybe not. Definitely not that your friend's job is to make buying things easy. Her job is to get people to buy things and how difficult or easy it is doesn't matter unless that's correlated to the job. Maybe getting people to focus more on a transaction makes them more inclined to pour even more money into it. They're thinking about how to close this damn deal all the time so your business must be pretty important to them.

I'll bet there's different sales styles for different situations. Maybe your post is only meant to comment on this one particular type of sales and maybe your clear communication style is very effective for this type of sales scenario. My mom's salesyness probably wouldn't work if she was working behind a gas station counter trying to sell cigarettes. I love sales as a communications example because clear rational discourse is definitely not the optimal strategy.

You make good points.

My article does take it for granted that the reader is an ethical person selling a genuinely valuable product to a customer she hopes to establish a long-term relationship with. We should not misconstrue "effective" with "cooperative". They are not always exactly the same thing.

In my work experience there are few leeches in positions of high leverage. The most successful people I know usually aren't predatory. In the rare cases where I do see them behaving badly, meanness is a disadvantage. They win small contests at the expense of big gains.

The only time I've ever seen manipulative high-pressure sales outcompete the cooperative sales techniques in a long-run business setting is canvassing (for tiny amount of money), scams and selling used cars. What these have in common is either they're one-off interactions or the customer cannot evaluate the quality of the product. If you're in a one-off interaction then swindling your customer may be a winning strategy.

I try to avoid consequence-free interactions entirely when doing business because they suck. You earn a little bit of money at the expense of networks, reputation and capital. There is no exponential growth curve. You cannot add another zero. Manipulating customers is for desperate sellers like canvassers and telemarketers.

If you're going to optimize a number, the one to choose is your growth rate. Suppose as before that you only extract half as much from users as you could, but that you're able to grow 6% a week instead of 5%. Now how are you doing compared to the rapacious founder after two years? You're already ahead—$214k a month versus $160k—and pulling away fast. In another year you'll be making $4.4 million a month to the rapacious founder's $2 million.

Obviously one case where it would help to be rapacious is when growth depends on that. What makes startups different is that usually it doesn't. Startups usually win by making something so great that people recommend it to their friends. And being rapacious not only doesn't help you do that, but probably hurts.

Why It's Safe for Founders to Be Nice by Paul Graham

High pressure sales makes sense when your reputation doesn't matter. Such places are soul-destroying to operate within. They are local maxima.

Maybe your Chinese friend is better off not answering every question if it keeps the customer in an ongoing dialogue with her.

My friend didn't deliberately omit information as part of a deep plot. She just forgot to include it.

These business writing emails are great.

I do agree though that they tend to be examples of customer service (assisting a customer to place an order), rather than sales (generating interest in ordering).

Don't make the mistake of thinking that all sales is "manipulative, high-pressure sales!". This appears to be a mental stumbling block for many technical-type people.

Here's a fictional, non-strawman example of sales activity:

I sell steel manifolds (blocks of steel with 'pipelines' cut out).
A lot of potential customers don't use manifolds in their manufacturing equipment, they use plastic pipes to transfer fluids... these are prone to breaking, and causing production delays.
Switching to a steel manifold is a larger cost upfront, but will keep them operating seamlessly for many years with no issues... saving them time and money.
This is a great buying decision, but due to inertia, there aren't customers beating our doors down to buy our manifolds!
It is my job as a salesperson to contact a potential customer, alert them to the sub-optimal state of their current situation (a lot just accept it!), talk to them about the benefits of using steel manifolds, and walk them through the decision-making process.
This is very much salesperson-driven, not customer-driven, and ends with both happy.

What does your mother sell?


I was going to comment but decided down voting was a more appropriate response. The down vote was primarily due the comment appearing to be rather off the subject of Business Writing. I don't think it is very helpful down voting without offering some thoughts on why the criticism was made. A secondary reason for my down vote was just disagreement with several of your positions.

Strong upvote! We need more posts that make things like this legible.

[deleting my comment because it was in reply to a comment which was deleted]

[also: UI feedback. If I'm replying to a comment, and the comment was deleted in the interim, and I click Submit, I would like a notification + "are you sure?" rather than my comment just posting.]

[Also on UI for the deleter's part of it, it's great that the site saves a draft of all potential comments I type in the reply box even if I close the page. I don't really know if that's an intended feature for drafting or just for saving your work if you accidentally close your browser or something. I use it for drafting short comments. Unlike draft posts however there's no list of my draft comments anywhere that I can find. Means I have to separately keep track of comments I'm drafting and plan on posting later and that removes most of the benefit for drafting of saving comments on the site. A list on my profile for comment drafts similar to post drafts would be pretty nice I think. Or maybe an indicator on posts that I have a pending draft comment for. It would definitely stop me from submitting comments as a form of first draft and then editing 5 times before deleting.]