Improving Customer Communication: Nebulous Term or Primary Driver of Improved Customer Experience?
Given that the cause of most customer service issues stem from misaligned expectations, and that customer-first companies both manage expectations and keep their customers informed, you might have concluded (correctly) that the successes or failures of your customer experience efforts depend largely on communication.
In our experience, the third most overused, yet completely empty buzzword you’ll hear uttered repeatedly in business. Third only to the similarly meaningless buzzwords, accountability and culture.
“We need to improve our customer communication.”
Yes, you probably do. However, the word is so nebulous – and nearly always voiced without any thought to the execution – that nothing will improve. We wrote improve instead of change to emphasize the fact that when executives issue edicts about improving communication, accountability, or culture without providing roadmaps to actual solutions, the issues only become more pervasive. This happens because the genius who told everyone that something needs to improve believes that’s all it takes.
They think their job is done. The team is just going to move forward with their new marching orders, and everything will be great. (Of course, we all know it won’t, right? We’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends.)
In the last post, everything about keeping customers informed required communication with the customer – either via frontline employees (the restaurant server, for example) or technology (Amazon, Uber, et al.). However, because communication is such a vague word in business, a CEO simply stating from on high, “We need to do a better job of communicating with our customers,” will yield nothing positive without that same CEO creating checkpoints to ensure his or her pronouncement is generating the desired outcomes. In this case, turning your organization into a CX juggernaut.
Solutions are Simple
For nearly every customer communication breakdown you’ll investigate, you’ll discover the solution will be both blatantly obvious and ridiculously simple to implement. So, why do companies continue to fail at this obvious and simple step?
Because they don’t really care about the customer.
As we wrote in an earlier post, competitors fail when trying to copy the customer experience success of Chick-fil-A, Ritz-Carlton, and Zappos because they don’t make it easy to do business with them, they don’t put the customer first, and they don’t care from top to bottom. Let us give you three recent examples of customer communication failures that will emphasize these missing attributes.
The first example comes from Steve and a recent visit to a restaurant known for having a very good wine list. The plain white paper listed about 50 very nice reds, and after reviewing the list, he narrowed his choices to two similar bottles. When the server approached to take the drink orders, he asked for a bottle of what he assumed would be his favorite.
She immediately informed him, “I am sorry sir, but we are out of that one.” He explained it wasn’t a problem and ordered his second choice. She took the rest of the drink orders and left.
When she returned a little later with most everyone else’s drinks, though without the bottle of wine, she explained, “I am sorry sir, but that bottle is out of stock as well. May I recommend something else?”
While they allegedly had another 48 or so different bottles of red wine, Steve chose instead to just have water. There were two others at the table who were planning to drink wine; one of them also chose to have water, the other chose a soft drink.
The difference in cost between two bottles of wine (Steve and the others likely would’ve ordered a second bottle if they enjoyed the first one) and a single soft drink was more than $80. The restaurant lost that revenue (and some future business, we’re sure) because they couldn’t take the blatantly obvious and ridiculously simple step of keeping their wine list up to date. Additionally, the server lost almost $20 (given Steve tipped about 25% of the total bill).
Again, the wine list was printed on plain white paper, in fact, it was probably printed in the back office of the restaurant. It would have been, say it with us, ridiculously simple to print an updated list (or at the very least, to mark out those bottles no longer available).
They didn’t make it easy to do business with them – in this case, ordering wine. They didn’t put the customer first. And they didn’t care enough about their customers to print an up-to-date wine list. While you might find this inconvenience trivial – and it was – the restaurant’s inability to manage customer expectations put a trivial damper on what was an otherwise wonderful evening.
The second example comes from a Delta Airlines flight where the Wi-Fi wasn’t working (back when Delta charged a hefty monthly sum for Wi-Fi usage). Working Wi-Fi isn’t a guarantee, so on flights without working Wi-Fi, people make other plans for how to occupy their time in the air. On this three-hour flight, Steve was planning to return some emails that needed quick replies, and then complete some less important tasks online.
When the plane reached 10,000 feet, the flight attendant announced that the Wi-Fi wasn’t working. He also apologized for any inconvenience, blah, blah, blah.
While the attendant was taking Steve’s drink order, Steve asked him casually when they knew the Wi-Fi was not working on this plane. The flight attendant explained it had been out for some time on this aircraft, and the crew had known before the flight departed.
Surprised, Steve asked why no one announced this before takeoff. (You see, had they communicated this to the passengers while the plane was still on the ground, Steve could’ve quickly dashed off the required email responses, reset his expectations for what he was planning to do during flight, let his team know he would be out of reach for the next three hours, and settled in.)
The flight attendant replied honestly, “Oh, I guess we just didn’t think about that.”
They didn’t make it easy to do business with them – in this case, using a service Steve was paying for. They didn’t put the customer first. And they didn’t care enough about their customers to make one simple pre-flight announcement. (That is, they didn’t manage expectations or keep their customers informed.)
The third example, from Conner, unfortunately is something many readers have experienced firsthand – poor communication from their medical provider.
Conner arrived at his primary care physician’s office ten minutes before the appointed time and was called back to the examination rooms promptly after that. After a quick temperature and blood pressure check, the nurse shared their usual, “The doctor will be right with you.”
Conner understood at this doctor’s office, as with virtually all others he’d visited, that “right with you” could mean anything from ten minutes to a half hour. So, he settled in and waited.
He patiently (pun intended) waited in the examination room for over an hour – 85 minutes to be exact.
Over the 85-minute wait, there were moments he was sure they’d forgotten he was there; moments he wondered if everyone had gone to lunch. Because his cell reception was poor, he filled the time reading and rereading the posters and charts on the walls. Had they hung a few more posters, he was pretty sure he could diagnose and treat the next patients himself.
Eighty-five minutes after the nurse promised him a “right with you,” the door opened. Surely, it was the doctor. It was not. It was the nurse checking in for the first time. She explained the doctor was backed up, though would be with him “shortly.” Luckily, this time “shortly” amounted to about ten minutes. After another ten minutes with the doctor, Conner was on his way nearly two hours after his arrival.
Conner, as is true for most patients at a doctor’s or dentist’s office prone to this level of miscommunication, was frustrated and a little angry. Interestingly, this wasn’t due to how long the visit took (he had nothing else scheduled that morning), this was caused by the lack of ridiculously simple communication that would’ve managed his expectations and kept him informed.
If the nurse had told him when he arrived that it could be an hour or more before the doctor could see him, he would’ve settled in and watched one of the movies he had downloaded to his phone. The wait time would’ve been meaningless. At the very least, had she just regularly checked-in and provided a more accurate or updated timeline, she would’ve reset his Customer Clock. The wait might still be a little frustrating, but not to the level of causing anger.
These examples of poor customer experiences could have been non-events if the businesses had just communicated better with their customers. The restaurant lost revenue that evening, and Steve has not returned. Delta (because of this and multiple similar non-caring moments) has lost Steve as a frequent flier. While he will still fly Delta, it’s only when they are both the cheapest and most convenient option. The doctor continues to be Conner’s primary care physician; however, their office did receive a nasty online review from an anonymous patient, and he is actively looking for a new doctor.
Sometimes Technology Might Help
While the issues above could’ve been resolved without the need for improved technology (other than having working Wi-Fi on the plane, of course), not all customer experience concerns can be easily mitigated with a simple, personal advanced warning.
For example, a recent customer communication breakdown between Steve and US Bank could’ve been avoided had the company invested just a little in their technology that manages location closures. (To be sure, they may have these systems in place, yet their team just doesn’t use them.)
Steve’s regular US Bank branch was closed on a Monday due to staffing issues. This was in 2022, and during a time when staffing issues were plaguing most companies in America. No worries, these things happen. Of course, had US Bank done something to communicate this branch closing unexpectedly either internally or externally, we wouldn’t be writing about this experience.
He arrived at the branch around lunchtime and noticed all the drive-through lanes were closed. He pulled into the parking lot and hopped on his phone to determine (1) if today was a bank holiday or (2) if this branch was still open on Mondays. (They had been open on Mondays in the past, though US Bank had also changed some days and hours of operation throughout the pandemic.)
There was no bank holiday, Google Maps showed they were open, and both the US Bank website and US Bank mobile app showed this branch was open.
So, Steve called the branch. After navigating through several prompts, the phone began ringing – we assume it was ringing in the branch. No answer.
He called US Bank national number. After navigating through several prompts again, he reached a customer service agent who told him the branch was open. He explained he was outside the branch, and it was closed. (She had no idea; she explained her computer was showing the branch was open.) He asked if she could direct him to the closest US Bank branch to his location that was indeed open for business.
The customer service agent asked for his Zip Code, then told him the branch he was parked in front of was the closest branch that was indeed open. Ugh.
To shorten what became a very long story, the agent directed Steve to a branch she showed as open but warned him to call ahead to make sure they were indeed open. She didn’t connect his call to the branch; she didn’t call the branch herself; she told Steve to call the branch. Of course, she was willing to give Steve their number.
US Bank didn’t make it easy to do business with them, they didn’t put their customers first, and they clearly didn’t care about the customer – including their internal customers.
Imagine if the manager of the closed branch alerted someone at US Bank. (They probably did alert someone, but that person didn’t bother to update any of the bank’s internal systems to ensure those answering phones for US Bank would be armed with this information.)
Imagine if the phones were automatically transferred from the closed branch to another branch nearby. (We don’t know of a single business phone system – even those installed decades ago – that doesn’t offer this functionality standard.)
Imagine if US Bank had a mechanism in place to allow their customer service reps to see real-time branch information. (They probably have this, yet no one updated the closure at that branch.)
Imagine if US Bank sent a quick email to regular customers of the branch alerting them to the closure. (Customers typically receive multiple emails each week from their banks, US Bank included. They know where you bank, where you created your accounts, your home address, etc. Sending a mass email to all customers who live in Zip Codes potentially impacted by this closure would likely have taken one person less than fifteen minutes.)
Imagine if that email contained the location of the three nearest branches that were open and their operating hours. (Customers could make informed decisions about where to bank – or whether to bank at all – on a given day.)
Imagine if US Bank updated the branch’s hours on Google Maps (Google Business Profile) and their own website.
If any of these communications had occurred, the experience wouldn’t have been perfect, but customer expectations would’ve been managed. And to be clear, US Bank likely needed no additional technology in place to utilize any of these – that’s why this section was titled “Sometimes Technology Might Help.”
To further the point that avoiding poor customer experiences can have little to do with technology, the easiest, cheapest, and most effective customer communication tools we’ve seen deployed are what we call traffic signs.
For drivers, traffic signs tell you the speed limit, warn you of potential hazards, and generally direct travel. Your city, county, or state government employs these signs to ensure your drive through their jurisdiction is safe and free of bad experiences – like an accident.
In business, traffic signs have similar goals. Of course, traffic signs in business are most often created by frontline employees who either care deeply about the customer experience or are simply tired of having to explain your company’s idiotic policies or continued technological misfires.
Our favorite traffic sign is the plastic grocery bag over the handle on the gas pump. (Is there any customer communication tool more ridiculously simple?)
From the comfort of your vehicle, the gas station is managing your expectations and keeping you informed. They are communicating in the crudest, least technological manner possible; and they are eliminating potential customer service issues before they occur. (Remember: Great customer service means never having to say you’re sorry.)
Imagine if the frontline employees at the gas station did nothing? Would you be happy with your experience if you got out of your vehicle, removed your vehicle’s gas cap, repeatedly slid your credit card in the slot, and eventually walked into the station only to learn that pump was out of service?
A non-working gas pump is what we call a miniature hassle. (As was the case with the out-of-stock wines, the non-working Wi-Fi, the long doctor’s office wait time, and the closed bank branch.) Every business has miniature hassles; though how they communicate these can make or break the customer experience.
In addition to miniature hassles, many businesses also have what we call tiny hurdles. While miniature hassles are caused inadvertently by equipment breakdowns, staffing issues, and supply chain disruptions, tiny hurdles are intentionally caused by the business itself. Properly used, traffic signs can warn your customers of these tiny hurdles and miniature hassles in advance, ensuring a better customer experience.
Is your company guilty of creating tiny hurdles your customers must navigate to do business with you? If so, how would you know?
If you and your team completed the exercises from the chapter titled “Your Customers’ Eyes” in Ridiculously Simple Customer Experience, then you may have uncovered some tiny hurdles you’re putting in front of customers. You may not have identified these as customer experience issues, however.
Of course, since you know customer-first companies make “it” easy, you should work to eliminate these tiny hurdles (if you haven’t already done so). Where these are truly necessary (safety concerns, for example), your next step is to find ways to communicate these in advance to your customers. This is where traffic signs can help.
For example, if you’re one of those antiquated retailers who still wants to see a customer’s driver’s license when they use a credit card, then make a small, professional-looking sign near your credit card machine that reads something like this:
To protect our customers from fraud, we ask that you present your identification with your credit card. Thank you in advance for helping us keep your purchase safe.
Contrast the experience described above with what usually happens in these instances. That is, after you’ve removed your card from the machine and put it back in your wallet, the cashier asks, “Can I see your credit card and your ID, please?”
Instead of managing your expectations with a traffic sign, this retailer’s tiny hurdle created an annoyance for you. This minor inconvenience will unnecessarily create a below-average customer experience for some patrons.
Used properly, traffic signs improve the customer experience by helping you avoid potentially negative situations.
For example, if a bar, restaurant, or other retailer requires identification when purchasing alcohol – regardless of how old a customer looks – using a traffic sign to briefly explain the policy prepares customers by resetting their expectations. Similarly, we’ve seen traffic signs at clusters of self-checkout stands clearly indicating which ones are credit/debit only and which ones accept cash.
These are tiny hurdles that these businesses believe are necessary, though they manage customer expectations by communicating these in advance with traffic signs.
Traffic signs, and other uncomplicated forms of customer communication, are often all it takes to avoid poor customer experiences with your miniature hassles and tiny hurdles. It’s really that ridiculously simple.
This is the seventh post in a series of excerpts from Ridiculously Simple Customer Experience, a book written for everyone in any organization that has customers. That is, it was written for those in both the public and private sector; and for everyone in these organizations. From the frontline, customer-facing employees to the CEO and board of directors.
Each chapter in Ridiculously Simple Customer Experience concludes with Key Learnings and Chapter Exercises to make certain you and your team take the efficient path to becoming Customer-First. As you’ll learn in this ridiculously short book, building and maintaining a CX juggernaut isn’t hard… in fact, it’s ridiculously simple. Buy it now on Amazon!