Need to improve your customer experience? There are worse places to start than your customer communication

I was talking to a fellow delegate at this year’s European Customer Experience World. We were discussing how a brand delivers its message to the customer, and she said “We don’t really do a lot with content – we’re more about the processes and measurement. There’s not a lot of time left for what we actually say to our customers.”.

This comment got me thinking of how content is often overlooked as we focus on mechanisms such as Social Media. It’s easy in a business world to talk about process, and method – but the content of the message is possibly more important than the manner of its delivery.

It’s easy enough. There’s no point in content without the systems, processes and culture to deliver it. But equally, there’s no point in having the finest customer management system in the world if it simply sends out stuff that customers don’t understand or that alienates them.

Also, in large organisations, there’s a tendency to focus on systematisation and process, sometimes at the expense of content. That’s the fault of people like me – we should be shouting louder about how vitally important content – the communications side of customer experience – really is.

Content can make many processes and systems redundant. That’s because a significant proportion of customer management systems are designed to answer questions. How about if we make things clear and simple enough that those questions simply don’t arise in the first place?

After all, produce a statement customers can understand and suddenly you don’t need a process that deals with so many statement queries. Use a bit of behavioural psychology in the way you collect debt and you need to chase less. Rather than just one level of communication, introduce a process that escalates tone of voice and content.

Direction – which way are you facing?

“In order for XXXX to meet its contractual liabilities over the forseeable future, the Board has again confirmed that any increases in policy values or the enhancement for capital distribution will be made in non-guaranteed form…”

That’s from an annual statement that dropped on my doormat this morning. I wonder if anyone thought about the non-specialist customers (that’ll be 98% of them) who’d receive it. Which direction was the writer facing – in or out? Don’t – whatever you do – face the out, towards the customer.

After all, if you’re facing the customer, you’re inside the organisation, looking out. You need to get outside – in the customer’s shoes – and look in. It’s only when you change the direction you’re facing that you’ll see things as your customers do.

Language – which one are you speaking?

Most organisations know about Plain English. Plenty use it too. But it’s not enough – not nearly enough. Your business has a brand tone. If it’s to be properly consistent, and not waste the budget you’ve invested in it, it needs to run through your customer service material as well as your ads.

It’s worth looking at how your language stacks up against transactional analysis tools too. Do you sound like a parent telling off her child? Are the words you use more reminiscent of a tax form than your brand tone of voice?

What’s your tone of voice? Does everyone in the organisation know how you sound as well as what you say?

This is an area where subtle changes make huge impacts and, in our experience, it is one of the hardest things for organisations to grasp.

Structure – helping or hindering?

Wouldn’t it be great if customers waited eagerly for every communication we send? If they looked forward with open hearts to hearing from us. Dream on. Unless you work for the National Lottery, most of your communications will get around 12 seconds of attention – and 8 of those are spent opening the envelope and getting out the contents. As much as it hurts to say it, we all create peripheral media; stuff people interact with as little as possible. That means we need to use structure to help them understand quickly.

People read a piece of material three times – often in just a few seconds. There’s a first scan for context and structure to see if it’s relevant, then a quick scan for meaning and a final detailed read. It’s worth structuring your stuff explicitly to reflect this three-pass structure.

Authenticity – can they smell a rat?

Customers are cynical. Generally, most organisations don’t write to them to say ‘thank you’, there’s a commercial imperative behind the communication. So be up-front with it and make it clear. By ‘clear’, I mean ‘authentic’. If you’re changing terms and conditions, tell people why, explain which ones are changing and what it means for them. If you’re putting the price up, say why and don’t hide behind ‘price changes’. Why? Because it chips away at trust, something in sadly short supply at the moment. And customers who don’t trust your message won’t respond to it.

It’s also authentic to acknowledge what your customers think and feel now. Acknowledge their concerns, address them and only then start to move them towards your message.

Of course, everyone communicates, all day everyday. That’s what makes it so easy to take for granted. But we’ve found that when businesses see communication – the content of customer experience material – as a business asset, it’s transformational. It changes customers’ hearts and minds, drives loyalty, decreases cost and positively delights. And it does it for a fraction of the cost of another new system.

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