Quick Emails Can Cause Big Problems

Steve Zehngut - March 22, 2018

ADP is Zeek’s HR vendor. We use them for payroll, health insurance and retirement services. We switched to ADP after we weren’t receiving good customer service from their competitor, PayChex. Both HR vendors are similar and they offer the exact same services.

Let me start off by saying that this post is not a “slam” on ADP. It is intended as constructive criticism of actions taken by one employee.

Yesterday I received a package from ADP retirement services. It contained refund checks for several of my employees. At first I thought this was awesome, but as I read the cover letter, it was rather upsetting.

As a normal part of ADP’s process, they perform a “Year End Compliance Test.” Something was not set up correctly in our 401k plan and we failed the test. Their system issued checks to refund what it determined to be excess amounts. The upsetting part is that now my employees had less in their 401ks than they should have. I didn’t understand this process and I needed to be able to explain this to my employees. I wanted someone at ADP to walk me through this.

When I originally set up the plan, an ADP representative walked me through the process. As not to use her real name, I will call her Kelly. Since Kelly was the expert and she had managed this process, it is understandable that receiving the compliance letter and refund checks was not something I had expected. So I wrote Kelly the following email:

Would you please call me at your earliest convenience? I have a question.

I received this response from Kelly the next morning:

Good morning. What is your question? Any changes or concerns at this point will actually be directed to the client services team as your continued support will be provided by them.


I had 3 reactions to Kelly’s email. #1 Oh, did I bother you by asking you to do your job?! #2 I am being treated like a “number” now that we are past the Honeymoon phase. And most importantly, #3 Perhaps I chose the wrong HR provider.

At this point, it is important to note that I am nearly a year into working with ADP. This is the critical time for them to step up their customer service game. (BTW, there is never a time to step down your customer service game.) Customer retention is as important as customer acquisition, if not more important. We should do everything we can to love the customers we have. Customers that feel loved will stay loyal for years. They will forgive you when things go wrong. And they will refer you to others.

I assume that Kelly took about 30-60 seconds to write that email. Here are some alternative actions that I would have taken if I were in her shoes:

Option 1 – Pick up the phone (Best)

When a customer specifically requests a phone call, I call them as soon as I am able to.

Kelly could have given me a quick call to find out my concerns. At that point, I would have explained that I received this letter. She could then show some empathy by telling me she understands how this process can be frustrating. She could refer me to someone else who could walk me through this and make the necessary adjustments to Zeek’s plan so that it doesn’t happen again.

This entire phone call would take 3-5 minutes and would make me feel great about my decision to switch to ADP.

Option 2 – Schedule a phone call (Better)

When a customer requests a phone call and I am not able to call them within a reasonable timeframe, I respond quickly with an email.

Kelly could have emailed me to let me know that she is not able to call me right away. She could have suggested a time to speak within the next 48 hours. When I requested a phone call from Kelly, I sincerely requested it at her earliest convenience. Here is a possible response she could have sent:


Thank you for your email. I am not available today, but I am happy to jump on a call tomorrow. Are you available at 11:00am PT? If you prefer to speak to someone sooner, the client services team is available 24 hours a day.


This response would take less than 60 seconds to write. This is probably the same time that Kelly spent writing her email.

Option 3 – Email with a personal touch (Good)

This is my least favorite option, but it is still better than the cold email I received from Kelly. She could have written a warmer email clarifying my needs so that she could route me to the right resource. Try this on for size:


Thank you for reaching out. I am always happy to jump on a call, but in order to expedite your request, I want to take a moment to understand your needs. Would you mind letting me know your question? That way, I can quickly route you to the right person to get your question answered quickly.


See how the tone is warmer? I communicated the same content, but my email feels more polite. Using language like “would you mind…” shows some common courtesy and will be much better received. Had I received this email instead of hers, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.

This response would take less than 60 seconds to write.

What happened next?

Once I received Kelly’s email, I contacted my main representative, Veronica Celis. I am using her real name because Veronica is the kind of person you want on your team. She understands customer service and has treated me with personal attention since I switched to ADP. She returns phone calls, she has a great attention to detail and she follows through on her promises.

I called Veronica and explained the situation. She sympathized and told me that she would follow up and find someone that could help me. Veronica doesn’t personally handle retirement services, otherwise I know she would have taken the time to explain it to me.

I then received an email from Kelly explaining that she was only my implementation manager and that any and all requests moving forward will be handled by client services. I can’t say that I feel much better, but at least I understand who NOT to contact moving forward.

Since that email, 2 other people have followed up with me explaining that my request has been escalated and that they are scheduling someone to walk me through this. The emails were lengthy and somewhat apologetic. Because my situation was escalated, I assume these 2 resources were pulled away from other tasks. This never needed to happen. Kelly’s response caused a ripple effect within ADP and they have burned hours as a result.

Smaller organizations are not afforded the same luxury

ADP has options. They are a large organization with many people available to handle specific client needs. If one person isn’t the right fit for a client, they can quickly slot in another. I was able to call Veronica and get this settled. But a small business doesn’t have the same options.

Be careful how you respond to email. Email communication is permanent – the recipient has a written record of your communication. With this in mind, it is important to take a moment to think about how your email will be perceived. Put yourself in the shoes of the recipient and think about what your reaction would be. If the email is critical (a proposal, a client emergency, etc), you may want to pass the email by a colleague to get a second opinion. I’ll let you in on a secret: we do this all the time at Zeek.

A single bad communication can sink a relationship with a client. All of the trust capital you have built can be wiped clean with one email. Small organizations and freelancers don’t have other resources that they can slot in when they are not the right fit. You may be the single resource, so be careful out there.

My own takeaway

Looking back, I could have been more explicit in my initial email to Kelly. Using my own techniques, I could have taken a few more moments to explain my needs up front. That being said, I don’t know that the outcome would have been any different.