improving-customer-communicationThere was a time when this question would have been incredibly simple to answer, mostly because there was only one way to do it: face to face. Then along came technology and messed all that up. Now we’re confronted with a barrage of options, and endless unwritten laws about how each one should be used – or not used as the case may be.

In business, communication is no less of a minefield than it is in personal relationships. And even if you graduated with a business major in communication you’re probably just as confused as the rest of us.

So what is the best way to keep those lines of communication with your clients flowing freely? The answer is – you’re not going to like this – it depends. Horses for courses and all that. The type of message, its level of importance and the way it needs to be delivered all have sway on the method or medium used. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t set the lead in how you communicate with clients. There will be exceptions but nine times out of 10 you have a choice – choose wisely.

Let’s consider some common communication tools in business and review the pros and cons of each.

The Phone

The shoe-phone, the bat-phone the dog-and-bone – whatever you call it the phone is made for people who love to talk. Friends can yabba to each other for hours. Even guys have been known to talk for extended periods of time on the phone when a sweetheart is involved (guilty). But talking has its downsides; it’s time-consuming and details get missed (or forgotten). Let’s compare.

Good Not so good
Personal touch
Convey emotion
Real
Instant
Time-consuming
Costly
Inconvenient
No paper trail
Details get forgotten
Disorganised
Demanding (think ringing phone)

Of course, sometimes a phone call is required but keep in mind the cost, and I’m not just talking about the bill you get from the telco at the end of the month.

Social Media

Love it or hate it, it’s hear to stay. Pandora is out of the box and not going away anytime soon. Of course it may change shape, colour and size over the years as different social media platforms wrestle for supremacy but the concept is stuck. In communication terms some saw it as the panacea for the complicated IVRs (Interactive Voice Response systems, more commonly known as call centre hell) that many companies were hiding behind. Social media would revolutionise everything by removing the layers between customer and the retailer.

Well there’s no doubt customers felt social media gave them a voice and many used it to air their grievances (and often got a much faster response than complaining privately) but the layers were still there. Often the person managing the company’s social media was someone who had no authority to do anything other than say ‘thanks, we’ll pass that on…’. Not quite the resolution you might have been looking for.

Good Not so good
Easy
Accessible
Recorded
Immediate
Larger audience
Less formal
Invasive
Potential trolling
Embarrassing mistakes

Social media is not suitable for all businesses (particularly B2B) but can work well for companies that are interested in building brand loyalty and growing a fan base but it takes work – it’s a 2-way street and you have to be prepared to deal with both the good and bad that will come your way.

Email

Despite what some have said email is not dead. Far from it. Smart businesses (that have figured out how to manage email flow effectively) are enjoying the advantages it offers in this new age of electronic communication.

Unfortunately there are still businesses out there giving it a bad name.

Case in point: I emailed a simple question to NZ Transport Agency and received a reply almost a month later, ironically the reason given was that their call centre was being overloaded – perhaps if they were a bit more responsive with their emails they’d reduce call volumes … just a thought.

If you don’t mind your business getting swamped with phone calls and ticking off customers that prefer electronic communication then fine, carry on ignoring emails or taking a good four weeks to reply. But at least take a minute to consider what you’re missing out on.

Good Not so good
Recorded (paper trail)
Archived
Searchable
Convenient
Organised
Structured
Easy to ignore
Challenging for complex issues
Tone/emotion difficult to get right
Delivery issues (spam, bad address)

Despite the benefits of email there are still customers that prefer the phone. Whether it’s force of habit or nervousness about the legitimacy of electronic communication you can help them transition across.

How to get them to use email
If you’re a business owner and would like to encourage customers to send emails instead of calling here are some ways to grease the wheels and make email more appealing.

  • Respond to emails as quickly as possible (within 24 hours at a minimum) – and we don’t just mean setting up an auto-response (if you have to use one, check out some tips on making them less annoying).
  • Make your emails as helpful as possible; try to understand what they’re really after and be comprehensive.
  • Get customers used to digital communication by trialling new methods such as live chat on your website, like one of clients recently set up.
  • During a phone call encourage them to repeat the gist of their request in an email so you both have a record of the work order.
  • On your voicemail suggest email as an alternative.
  • Pay attention to the professionalism of your emails – avoid sland, use correct grammar and spelling and write clearly.
  • Use emails in tandem with your website. For example, are you getting common queries about setting up your product? Add a how-to page on your website and include a link to it in your email.

All said and done, individual customers will continue to have their personal preference for communicating with you. Customers working in an open plan office may avoid the phone whereas an older person may be more comfortable talking to you. You can’t change them (nor should you want to) but you can set up your business to encourage the behaviour you prefer (as many businesses do by offering discounts for doing things online).

It’s up to you – if you have a preferred communication medium you can end up influencing your customers so it’s their favourite too!

How to communicate with your clients
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