Communication – the forgotten element in customer experience

This week, customer experience expert Ian Golding announced the results of an independent survey asking people which brands were getting customer experience right. I’ll leave you to read Ian’s excellent article to find out who made the Top Ten, but yet again, it shows that what you do is trumped – comprehensively – by how you do it.

Here are the Top 13 attributes from Ian’s survey:

16% – Corporate attitude

15% – Easy to do business with

11% – Helpful when I have a problem

9% – The attitude of their people

8% – Personalisation

8% – The product or service

8% – Consistency

6% – The way it makes me feel

5% – The way they treat me

4% – Reliability

4% – Doing what they promise

3% – They’re quick

2% – Technical knowledge of their people

As someone who specialises in helping businesses communicate with their customers, one thing stands out – very clearly indeed – from those results…

70% of the attributes in Ian’s survey are communication-dependent.

The only way you can convey your corporate attitude to customers is through how you communicate, in writing and face to face. The only way you can be easy to do business with is if customers understand how to do business with you (and that includes ongoing business). Communication again.

At the same time, it’s also very clear how differently organisations value communicating with customers. Some see it as a key channel; once someone has bought, communications are clear, easy to understand, make the customer feel valued and have huge care put into them. Others don’t think about it at all.

Communication in customer experience matters

The fascinating thing – for me at least – is how differently organisations perceive communications from their customers. Most organisations think they’re doing a decent enough job. Their customers think differently.


Think of it as the difference between ‘intended’ and ‘unintended’ communications; basically, what’s said by the business and what’s understood by the customer. Here’s an example…

Look at this communication from one of John Lewis’ Partnership card new customer welcome packs:

john lewis customer communication 1

The ‘intended’ communication is pretty clear – it’s explaining what to do now you have your new card. The unintended communication is just as clear – “you don’t care enough about me to communicate with me in a way that’s clear, engaging or that lives up to your brand promises or even your brand look and feel”. It’s communications like this that cost businesses thousands of pounds answering customer query calls that could have been so easily prevented.

Because (from our research) customers spend less than 12 seconds opening, unfolding and reading written material, you need to make sure they understand what you’re telling them – fast.  In fact, as they only spend 4 of those 12 seconds reading, your material has to be almost instantly comprehensible.  It’s even more important online where customers spend less then 2 seconds scanning.

You need to use language that’s customer-centric, not compliance or operations-centric.  Terms like “…a re-advice of your existing PIN will be sent…”  Customers have no idea what a re-advice is – and even though they could probably work it out, they’ll simply shut down and not spend the time.  Using the passive voice (“…will be sent…” rather than “…we will send…”) makes it even harder to understand.  Primary cardholder?  What (or who) is that?  Customers won’t know instantly – and if they don’t understand instantly they pick up the phone and call you, tying up agents and costing you money unnecessarily.

I realise that it’s heresy to criticise John Lewis’ customer service (and also that they feature in Ian’s Top Ten), but if anyone understands that on first reading, I’ll buy you lunch.

I’ll bet the team that put it together didn’t ever test it out on a customer to find out if they understood it – let alone how it made them feel. And that’s key, because customer experience is about how you make customers feel. In fact, Ian mentioned “feel” 14 times in his article – it’s central.

Every communication that goes to a customer either adds to their feeling that you care or that you don’t. There’s no middle ground. And that’s every communication – statements, admin emails, welcome packs, debt chasers, receipts, standard paras… all the everyday stuff.

Ian’s report talks about the importance of putting people before profits and non-human automation – yet how many communications sound more like a corporate report than a human to human interaction?

The report talks about being “Easy to do business with” and “finding it simple to get information, purchase and use a product”. Yet how often do things like admin letters or website instructions baffle customers to the point where they give up and have to call you (more expense) in frustration? Or worse, they give up and don’t call at all?

There’s no point in communication without the systems, processes and culture behind 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.

Of course, every business communicates, all day every day. 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 specialist area, it’s transformational. It changes customers’ hearts and minds, drives loyalty, decreases cost and positively delights.

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