Brand Voice Victor: Threadless, Wolf Shirts and Using Your E.A.R for Customer Service

I was on the hunt for a wolf shirt.

Why, you may ask? Because I'm a member of a wolf pack — the 804RVA Wolf Pack to be exact. You see, instead of working from home, I'm a member of a co-working space. I love being around other productive and creative people every day. But most of all, I love Larkin Garbee, the owner, who rallies us together with goofy get-togethers like Wolf Shirt Wednesdays. Before joining 804RVA, my wardrobe was noticeably lacking t-shirts of the lupine variety. So, I turned to the interwebs to purchase one and found an amazing collection to choose from on Threadless.

But this is not a story about wolf shirts, it’s a story about customer service emails.

I recently received an email from Threadless alerting me to a problem they had with their systems. Due to a glitch in their system they signed everyone who entered an email address into their system up for their newsletter - even if they clicked the “I don’t want to receive emails” button. Oops.

The way Threadless handled the situation was spot on. They were proactive and kept true to their casual and slightly goofy brand voice. Here's a screenshot of the email I received. 

Customer service is an important channel to think about when it comes to brand voice because your brand is the collection of experiences your customers have with it, no matter whether that experience comes from inside or outside of the marketing department. Receiving this email for me (I actually don’t remember if I opted in or I opted out) was a positive experience because it made me feel like they cared. They could have just ignored the mistake and left it up for people who didn't want their emails to unsubscribe but they didn't. They owned up to the problem and offered a solution. I was so impressed I tweeted about it!



This is why (among many other reasons), customer service is so important. At the end of the day, you want the collection of experiences each person has had with your brand to be positive.

The most common mistakes in customer service emails

I've seen (and worked through) these mistakes with many customer service departments. Making any one of these can lead to miscommunication and a bad customer service experience.

  1. They are far too formal.
  2. They start with an immediate apology.
  3. They lack empathy.
  4. They don't solve anyone's problems.

This is why I developed the E.A.R. model for customer service emails. Here’s how it works.


Customers don't want empty apologies. What they want is someone to let them know that they understand where they are coming from. The first step to empathy is to truly understand what the customer is going through and then to express empathy for the person in your response back. Empathy is such a powerful tool in customer service. Empathy, which is different than sympathy, is the ability to hold someone else’s feelings as your own. Sympathy, on the other hand, is a sense of pity. Sympathy means that you feel bad when someone else is going through a difficult time, but it subtly sends the message of being at an arm’s length. 

Starting a customer communication off with a blanket apology often has the opposite effect that is intended. It can actually put more distance between you and your customer. So instead of starting your email off with an apology, take a cue from Threadless and acknowledge how your reader is likely to be feeling. 

Acknowledge (And If Necessary, Admit or Apologize)

Once you've grounded your statement in empathy, then you can explore culpability. There are lots of different situations that could be at play here. The customer could be wrong, you both could be at fault on some level, or you could be 100% at fault. Not all of these situations warrants an apology.  In fact, apologizing in our communications too much can sometimes be more frustrating than no apology at all. Over-apologizing sends the signal to our customer that we aren't working towards a solution. Solutions, not apologies, are what mend fractured customer relationships.

The acknowledge step is where “Formality by Fright” often rears its ugly head.  When we feel threatened or challenged our immediate tendency is to turn up our formal tone to impress through language. I call this Formality by Fright. It’s a symptom of Red Pen Syndrome (our fear of conversational writing). Formal writing in a customer service email may seem proper but often it's not the best tone to use. The problem with being overly formal in your customer service communications (especially when you have a fun or casual marketing tone) is that it’s often misconstrued as distant, which is not what you want to convey. Using a warmer, more conversational tone makes you more approachable and frankly more human.


Beyond empathy, and beyond acknowledgement, a customer complaint is a call for you to fix a problem. Something is wrong and not that it has been brought to your attention, it is in your hands to fix it. I know it seems like common sense but you have to actually rectify the situation when you receive a customer complaint. Customer service isn’t about apologizing it’s about fixing problems, making things right, and mending the relationship.

So let’s get back to that Threadless email. Here’s why it’s so great.

  1. It’s written in a conversational tone that is in the company’s brand voice.
  2. They acknowledged the situation and explained how it happened.
  3. They didn't start with an apology, they started with an upbeat explanation.
  4. Instead of just saying “We’re sorry” they chose to say: “we've been sending you emails you didn't sign up for, which makes us feel terrible.”
  5. They offered an easy solution to the problem.

That’s how you rock customer service. Start using the E.A.R. template in your customer service emails and you’ll be sure to improve your communications and connect deeper with your customers.