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Casual Email Loses Customer for Caterer

Last week I learned about a caterer who had two sweet opportunities dropped in his lap through a referral. One was a wedding meal for 60; the other was the rehearsal dinner for 25.

He lost both opportunities because of poor email.

The bride to be is a friend of ours whom I'll call Annie. Annie contacted Mr. Caterer by email. In his reply to her first email, Mr. Caterer began by saying that he had had a busy weekend and was sorry for the delay in responding. He did not respond to most of her questions, and he made no congratulatory reference to her wedding. He said he would "hopefully put together something this evening and send you some information."

Mr. Caterer's next contact was an email about 24 hours later. He began by saying he had given Annie some incorrect information in his first email. Nevertheless, Annie liked the menu he proposed and replied that she wanted to hire him for the rehearsal dinner. She said she would call him the next day, and she invited him to call her if he wanted to talk sooner.

Apparently, they didn't connect by phone. Annie emailed Mr. Caterer asking a few questions, and he replied five days later. Once again he said, "Sorry for the delay." He went into unnecessary detail about how he paid his staff. Annie didn't need that information. Unfortunately, she didn't get the information she did need to feel confident about Mr. Caterer.

In the end, Annie decided Mr. Caterer was not a good fit for her wedding. His email presented him as late, casual, not focused on details, and not listening to his customer.

I am sorry Mr. Caterer couldn't communicate better in email. The chick pea salad, Spanish cheeses, Spanish olives, tortilla español, and sangria sounded wonderful.

Do you think Mr. Caterer's behavior is typical? Please share your experience.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “Casual Email Loses Customer for Caterer”

  • Lynn,

    Based on your post title, I expected to read about an experience where the language the caterer used in the email caused him to lose business. But in this instance it sounds like the issues this caterer has are deeper than just email problems.

    I’ll be candid and admit that I’ve lost business in the past by not responding promptly to potential new clients. My problem is that I simply took on more responsibilities than I had the time to manage and complete. I also did not delegate the responsibilities to others in my company as I should have.

    When you offer email as a communication method to your customers, you’re accepting an obligation to respond promptly since people expect electronic communication to occur swiftly. As business people, especially people involved in selling activities, we need to not only respond promptly but also in a professional manner.

    I’ve learned that most people understand the concept of being busy. I’ve also learned that if you simply tell people that and set a realistic expectation for when and how you will service them, most people will understand and work with you.

    I would suggest a reply similar to this:

    Dear Annie:

    Congratulations on your upcoming wedding! I appreciate you getting in touch with me. Please tell Suzie that I appreciate her recommending you to me. She has always been a pleasure to work with!

    Planning a wedding can be challenging, but you can count on me to make your meal planning the easiest part of the process.

    I’m working with several other brides this week. I want to be able to give you my full attention, so could we schedule an appointment on March 30, 2010 at 3:00 p.m. to discuss your wedding?

    You can call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx or reply via email to either confirm this time or suggest another time that might be more convenient for you.


    Mr. Caterer

  • Unfortunately, it is all too typical where I used to work. Everyone understands that other people are busy and are not sitting at their desks, waiting for your email. However, I found that if you cannot get to a person’s request right away, it’s better to send them a quick note along the lines of “I received your request and I’m delayed in responding to it fully”. A date/time of when you can respond helps.

    That all depends on the environment, however I’ve had too many instances of either people not reading my request (which, thanks to this site I bullet-point often) or a response that is several days, if not weeks, late along with the description of why they are late.

    Le sigh.

  • @Lynn: Excellent, but I would make one change to “I appreciate you getting in touch with me.” Always use the possessive pronoun with a gerund: I appreciate your getting in touch with me.

  • I like the way a contractor that I hired approached e-mail communication. She set an out-of-office message that thanked me for my e-mail, informed me that she was working at another job site at the moment, and promised to respond to my query within a day. She did respond the next day. I hired her.

  • Thanks, everyone, for your comments and examples.

    Jason, I especially appreciate your model response. I hope caterers (and others) will use your terrific example as a model. It sounds professional, efficient, courteous, and enthusiastic. Thank you for taking the time to compose and share it.


  • I agree with Jason. The caterer needs to delegate incoming correspondence. The higher you go up the food chain (pun intended) – the worse the response time one can expect in many instances.

  • Its interesting for me to read this post about that caterer’s two opportunities.Its a kind of a good example with this e mail.I think that caterer’s behavior might be typical.

  • Kevin, thanks for echoing Jason’s observation about delegating email. For those who may not yet be able to delegate–like Mr. Caterer–a quick, enthusiastic response by phone or email would do the job. Then the follow-up communication needs to be prompt and professional.


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