In an ideal world, every item description is written individually and each section of a business proposal is tailored specifically to the client. In the real world, however, that’s often just not practical, especially when you’re effectively saying the same thing multiple times. The solution? A generic piece of writing that can be used and re-used over and over, aka boilerplate.
But when is it appropriate to use boilerplate, and when should you bite that bullet and write a tailored response? If you do use boilerplate, is it okay if it’s obvious? Not surprisingly, the answers depend on the situation.
When is boilerplate appropriate?
It depends on the section. The section detailing your completely-custom solution to delivery shortages in the mountains? No boilerplate. Personalize the hell out of it, and show off how much you care about your client and that your proposal is tailored just for them. The section about road safety? Boilerplate. Go through and add some lines like “We know how important safety is to ClientName,” and “The mountains of SpecificRange can be treacherous, with their steep grades and sudden storms, which is why we will…” Take out whatever doesn’t apply to the specific proposal (heat stroke contingencies), add in anything special they requested information on (which local inspection agency you’ll be partnering with, your 24-hour response to bear attacks), and you’re golden.
The general rule of thumb is “Is this something we have (or should have) formal guidelines for?” You probably have formal guidelines written up somewhere for things like safety, environmental concerns, and choosing vendors. You probably don’t have formal guidelines for transporting live bees and honeycomb to mountain communes in bear-infested territory. Don’t think you can take something you wrote up about transporting ketchup and think you can just swap the words; it’ll read like the uncanny valley. Close to what they want, but not in a way that makes them feel unsettled and like you’re not really responding to them.
Responses to Customers
Okay with caveats. Customers hate receiving responses that look generic, but they also tend to send in the same questions as all your other customers.
The key point is to make your boilerplate look like something your customer representatives might actually have written. Write informally. Leave blanks for customization and make sure you train your reps on how to fill them appropriately. For example, if there’s a blank for the product name, don’t have them fill the blank with “#373 Namebrand Spin-n-Blend Processor (White).” Have them fill in the blank with “your new processor.”
It’s also crucial that your representatives match up your boilerplate to the question. “Close enough” is not close enough, it’s a one-way ticket to reviews saying your reps don’t listen and understand. If a customer says “I’m having this problem with the website, and I already tried clearing my cache,” don’t send them boilerplate that suggests they clear their cache, and definitely don’t send them boilerplate for dealing with the mobile app.
Your representatives must know what’s in the boilerplate, understand it thoroughly, and feel empowered to edit the boilerplate in the response as appropriate to give the customer the best service. Let them write, “The first step we usually suggest is clearing your cache, but since that didn’t work for you here are some other things that might work.” Boom! The customer feels like they’re been heard in a way just sending them a list of steps wouldn’t achieve.
Okay as long as the items you’re describing are sufficiently similar and you accompany the boilerplate with what makes this shirt different from that shirt (i.e., they’re both size large and cotton, but this one is green and that one is red polka dots). Also, assume that your customers will see more than one of your descriptions, so don’t assert on more than one shirt that “This is the best shirt ever!” Since you obviously can’t have more than one “best” shirt, it looks like you’re insulting your customers’ intelligence at best or lying at worst. You can, however, assert, that “This design is printed on our best shirt!” multiple times because now you’re saying you have one best shirt, and the listings are for specific, different designs on said shirt.
Unlike customer responses, it’s better to make it obvious where you’re using boilerplate in an item description so customers can quickly figure out which aspects of the items they’re looking at are the same and which aspects are different.
Use in small chunks. Everyone says you shouldn’t use the same cover letter for multiple job applications. I agree that it’s best to customize cover letters and resumes to the job listing, but you can save yourself some effort by boilerplating sections.
Let’s say you have skills in coffee making, scuba diving, babysitting, and playing poker. Write up a paragraph highlighting how great you are at each of those skills, citing accomplishments and relevant experience. Then, when the job you’re applying for calls for an experienced poker player, slot that paragraph into your cover letter with an opening sentence that reflects the specific job. “It’s crucial that a law accountant be an accomplished poker player, as there’s no better way to recover firm expenses.” Launch into your boilerplate after that. “During my time at Vegas Connections, I played poker twice a day, every day for five years and won a bajillion dollars…”
You can do the same thing with your resume. Have a few different variations depending on what you want to highlight of your past experience, then mix and match to the job listing.
Go for it. Everyone expects standardized text in the fine print. No reason to disappoint them. Just make sure to update it periodically to keep up with any company changes.
No. Don’t do it. You can certainly have a basic template or structure you re-use, but you really do have to write each essay individually. Not only are the topics going to be different enough boilerplate isn’t feasible anyway, but if you’re writing essays you’re probably submitting more than one to one teacher. Think they won’t notice you repeating yourself? Think again. That’s without even getting into the topic of plagiarization, which is what it starts to look like when your writing repeats over and over.