Over the last several years, I’ve seen an increasing number of B2B service organizations buy into the idea that communication, a soft skill, is an essential ingredient in delivering exceptional customer experiences and in turn, hard business results such as repeat business and word of mouth referrals.
I think they are on the right track. We have analyzed over 200,000 B2B customer follow-up interviews we have performed on service experiences, and found communication is on a very short list of critical customer loyalty drivers. Moreover, we also see evidence that if the communication with a customer is effective then they will give you the benefit of any doubt if other aspects of the experience are not up-to-par!
So, communication matters. Now, what? That is a common question I hear from service managers and customer experience managers. The list below is an attempt to help answer that question using a manageable number of simple points, to help make excellent communication a habit, as opposed to a one-off training event.
Key Communication Principles
There communications axioms that we have all heard and are essential to keeping more customers. Some of the most important are:
- Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. If you were in the customer’s situation what communication would you wish to receive from a provider?
- Return all communications from a customer promptly, usually within 24 hours. This means phone calls, text messages, emails, etc.
- Under-promise and over-deliver.
- When in doubt, communicate more frequently, not less.
- When in doubt, communicate more detail, not less.
Key Communication Process Steps
While standard communication principles are often understood (if not always followed) what is less well understood is the process of communicating with a customer. Consider for example the key process elements:
- When the first customer interaction happens, make certain clear expectations are set. For example:
- What will you do/deliver to the customer?
- How long will it take to get the product, deliver the service, or receive the part?
- How much will it cost? Even if the final price is not entirely known, it is critical to set expectations from the outset as to what the potential cost might be.
- What contingencies might change what is to be delivered, when it is to be delivered, and how much it will cost? For example, you are repairing a major component, and you will not know the full cost and completion date until after detailed analysis is completed. Customers need to be aware of these contingencies wherever possible.
- Give status updates to customers. A customer likes to know things are on schedule even if nothing has changed. Amazon has learned this, which is why they send an email or text notifications regarding shipment status to reassure customers. It is reaffirming that the original expectation regarding delivery is still valid.
- Reset Expectations when things change. In the business-to-business environment, whether it is items purchased or services delivered, cost, complexity, and time are typically significant. Below are some process recommendations to follow:
- Contact the customer as soon as you know that the scope, timing, cost or other aspect of the original expectations have changed. The longer you wait, the harder the conversation becomes. It is far better to tell the customer bad news sooner than later. Customers may not like bad news sooner, but they will like it even less later!
- Explain what has happened to the customer and provide options and For example, I recently had a warranty problem on my RV. The problem is not major, but it is very annoying. Since I will be traveling a good deal this fall I wanted to get it fixed but the local dealer simply had no time (plus their service is pretty bad). The service department of the manufacturer (Newmar) got involved and found some options to get the coach fixed. Aside from the concern shown by the customer support people, I also liked that they gave me options to solve the problem.
- If the customer is frustrated, let them vent without becoming defensive. Do it in a respectful manner and not like it is something you learned in segment two of a customer service training class.
There is nothing easy about communicating effectively in any environment but it is especially challenging when delivering services to your customers. Remember it is critical to 1.) establish initial expectations, 2.) update the customer during the service process, and 3.) reset expectations when changes occur.
The final step, though sometimes overlooked but of great importance, is to contact the customer when the service is complete to ensure satisfaction and to address any questions or concerns, and, most importantly, to say thank you.
Note: Special thanks to Doug Fowler of The Daniel Group for his help on this blog.