Today a customer forwarded me this link about "canned responses from MS PMs".  The end boils down to "I hope MS' idea of openness doesn't mean reading off a checklist of prefab answers."

Me too. My team has been pushing teams not to leverage canned respnses in the forums and feedback centers. They just don't come off as human and there are better ways to approach these situations.  I know it happens today, I'm not proud of it, and we are going to do our best to curb it moving forward. 

It's also possible that some situations happen almost by accident. We're such a large org. Talking points get sent out and people translate them the same way. That may have been the case in the thread above... but I've seen lots of times where I know this isn't the case.

I'm not saying there isn't a need for "prefab" answers. If you get a lot of repeat questions and bugs you may want to have some common speaking points for employees so that they can point to central FAQs and meld into thier own terms. 

We need to get people to think about these types of replies like refactoring.  Don't keep inlining the same code part into all 20 methods you need it in.  Write it once and reference it.  At least in that case you are admitting that you are cutting/pasting a prefab reply... and there's nothing wrong with that. It also means that if the answer changes... you only have to udpate it once instead of all the places you've inlined your prefab reply to.

What can you do about this sort of thing?

  • Blog the answer and reasons for the answer. If you don't have a blog... I'm sure someone on your team does in this day in age.  Blogs are very google-able.
  • Pin a FAQ post that contains the answer/statement.
  • When you reply to individual posts/bugs... reference the blog or pinned post rather than cutting/pasting.
  • Send mail to your influencers so they understand the issue, talking points, and central refference to point customers at. 

If the problem persists its likley a symptom of a larger communication issue. You might need to dig deeper and ask yourself the following questions...

  • Why are questions and bugs misplaced? Is there not a better venue/catagorization?
  • How bad is the problem? Is this a once a day thing or a 20 times a day thing?
  • Is there a root cause in your products documentation/functionality that causes people to have these questions? Can you do something about it in a service pack?
  • Is there a visible roadmap for your product that would cut off basic questions?
  • Do you have the right set of MVP types engaged in the right locations where the issue is visible?

Its OK to admit that due to the volume of issues received your pointing everyone at a central resource.  It's a lot better than pretending to be "human" in a reply.  I've written lots of replies to groups of customers that start out "Hey, I get this a lot, here's where you can find our canned answer... if that doesn't help please send me another mail..."

Really... just don't do it. There are so many better ways to distribute information to customers in today's world that will look so much more human.