Customer communication: you’re doing it wrong

Whether a private limited company or a publicly listed organisation, you have the same goal: to turn a healthy profit. Realising conversion opportunities is paramount to your success.

The internet has made it easier than ever for consumers to find the products they want, at a price they like, from virtually anywhere in the world. This ability to scour the whole world creates two problems:

1. Customers can find you as easily as all of your competitors – including the ones you didn’t even know exist.

2. Consumers aren’t suckered by the lowest prices any more.

But the ultimate truth is this: your products and services are almost certainly not unique. If your customers can get the same product from somewhere else, why should they pick you? You need something else to help your business stand out from the crowd: exceptional service.

60% of customers have spent more with a company because of a history of good service experiences. The implications are obvious — if you can deliver better service, you can make more money. And the quality of your service interwines with the quality of your customer communication.

So, what are the current customer communication challenges?

No one wants to talk to you (until they have to anyway)

In the age of online self-service, customers have become skilled at finding the information they need to complete most of the buying cycle unaided. They travel through the enormous wilds of the internet looking for a killer balance of products and customer service.

Buyers navigate at least the top third and, at most, the first two-thirds of the sales cycle without sales. This creates a paradox; it is impossible for you to boost service levels if customers are doing so much of the pre-purchase process themselves.

Worse still, online shoppers not only need assistance to complete purchases, they demand to receive it almost immediately. And even though they make themselves responsible for the majority of the purchasing process, customers also believe that the standard of service they receive from businesses is falling.

The trouble with telephones

When it comes to instant contact, the telephone remains the most popular with customer communication channel. For everything but the most basic issues, customers prefer to pick up the phone. One-third of customers prefer speaking with a ‘real’ person for customer service issues.

Although customers express this preference, a number of problems remain:

– Switching from web to phone involves a disconnect, providing customers with a good excuse to abandon your site.

– Telephone operators can only handle one customer issue at a time, increasing your support costs

– When dealing with a global customer base, you may need to provide multi-language 24x7x365 support to accommodate customers.

Call centres have a bad reputation with customers, making them the communication channel of last resort.

– Keeping accurate records of customer calls relies on taking great notes, or keeping actual recordings to which you can refer back. This builds delays into your support provisions.

– Customers hate automated telephone systems.

With telephone support, the cost/benefit ratio tilts heavily away from your business. And customers hate your automated call centres anyway.

Email fail

Email is the second most popular customer communication channel with consumers wanting to contact brands. Sending a quick email makes perfect sense in a fire-and-forget situation, but does it really make sense for urgent requests?

Email is preferable for your brand because you can manage several customer queries simultaneously. In effect, pre- and post-purchase support becomes much cheaper to administer as fewer staff can cover more customer requests.

This preference presents a number of problems for you and your customers:

– There is always a delay between sending an email and receiving a meaningful response. This kind of delay could see your customers heading off to a competitor’s site.

– The disconnected nature of email makes it harder to ‘seal the deal’, and prevents impulse buys.

– The chances of resolving a client issue on the first contact are low – particularly if the client’s initial message lacks key information.

– You still need to provide sufficient human resources to answer email queries quickly. Customers will not wait 72 hours for a response, particularly when making a buying decision.

Customers now expect businesses to respond to their emails in just one hour. 14.5% expect a response within 15 minutes. The reality is that most businesses are much slower than their customers expect, a fact that can only lead to disappointment for your buyers. In fact, 66% of companies currently take 1 day or more to respond.

To ensure maximum conversion rates, you need to make the entire checkout process as seamless as possible. Email might be cost-effective and relatively efficient, but it still introduces an unhelpful lag in the buying process. Plus, you’re unlikely to be able to respond within the timeframes your customers expect.

Struggling with social

With customers almost constantly connected to at least one social media platform, many businesses are trying to find a way to use the available tools to provide support and advice. Easy to use and simple to administer, social media should work flawlessly with the following caveats:

– Initial contact between customer and brand is almost always public, potentially creating PR problems in the case of a complaint.

– Certain limitations, like the 140-character limit of Twitter, make it hard to obtain the relevant information required to resolve issues quickly.

– Social customers expect a response to any query within 15 minutes, regardless of working hours, weekends or public holidays.

– Like email, social media requires customers to switch focus away from your site, introducing a disconnect that will potentially kill a sale.

– With so many available social channels, your resources will stretch thin if you try to cover them all, resulting in lower levels of service.

32% of customers expect a social response within a 30-minute window. To add to the pressure, 24% expect a reply within 30 minutes regardless of when they made contact — meaning they expect the same response time outside of standard business hours.

It’s also important to note that social media remains relatively unpopular as a customer communication channel. In countries like the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia, support usage rates stand at just 25% or less. This may be because 80% of social media users receive the answer they need only ‘sometimes’.

These expectations may be unrealistic, but they also show that customers are looking for a channel through which to connect with you in real time. Unfortunately, social media is disconnected by design.

Connecting with chat

In between the personal interaction of phone calls and the simplicity of email is live chat. Rapidly gaining in popularity, live chat systems provide an additional customer communication channel by which both parties can communicate.

– Customers can connect directly with a real human who can answer their questions in real time.

– Pre- and post-sales issues can be resolved in a single session – the Holy Grail of customer support for you and your customers.

– Your support agents can handle multiple queries simultaneously, reducing overall support costs.

– Live chat can be embedded at any point of the pre-sales process to ensure customers get the information they need, when they need it, reducing the friction that could otherwise lead to abandoned baskets.

– Because live chat solutions can be used for multiple business functions, the potential return on investment is far greater than for a dedicated pre-sales channel.

63% of customers report a high degree of satisfaction with the support received via live chat. This is easily explained as once a customer is able to connect with an agent, the customer’s question or interaction is most often fully addressed.

Always-on marketplace

In an always-on, always-connected global marketplace, customers expect to be able to get hold of someone at your business at all times. When ecommerce was in its infancy, customers would wait (impatiently) for up to 72 hours for a response to their email queries. The advent of cost-effective next/same day delivery services, however, means that they now expect an instant answer to their pre- and post-purchase questions.

Although email and telephone remain relatively effective, they increase the cost of supporting customers. Businesses and consumers need another option to help improve the speed of query resolution. (And to lower the cost of providing such services.)

The importance of the personal touch should not be underestimated; NM Incite research suggests that customers value a speedy response more than the correct response. Knowing that someone is looking into an issue is seen as more valuable than getting an immediate answer to a query.

Flexibility and visibility

The social media obsessed, tech-savvy populace still values human-to-human contact. It is this environment in which live chat solutions can provide the competitive advantage businesses need to stand out from the crowd. The old adage that ‘people buy from people’ remains true to this day.

It is also clear that consumers appreciate a range of available customer communication options. Email may be convenient for fire-and-forget queries of low importance, but the phone remains crucial for urgent or complicated requests. For businesses keen to extend their appeal, adding social media and live chat are likely to be worthwhile investments, increasing choice, flexibility and visibility.

Ultimately, live chat is an essential customer communication channel. It can be used to streamline pre-purchase processes, and later to provide cost-effective, efficient support to existing customers. This dual purpose use ensures a greater return on investment and could be the key differentiating factor between you and your competitors.

Useful links

Live chat and your customer portal: a match made in heaven

Accessible customer service: is your business open?

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