Why and how startups should talk to customers
I hear this all the time, from startups, emerging companies, and even F500 businesses: we don’t need to talk to our customers, they are happy with chat, email, or any one of our self-service options.
The continue by telling me that “phone calls don’t scale…we can’t figure out how to make it economical without affecting the customer’s experience, and that agents really hate it too.”
“Besides”, they tell me, “all the young people prefer chat, and Twitter. Why even bother with phones as an option of interacting with our customers?”
Wow. How did it come to this? How did we get to the point where our understanding of what people really want is so incredibly wrong? Turns out, most businesses don’t really understand the nuanced change that is rapidly occurring with consumers, and how their interpretations are completely off.
Let's go back to 1844, the date when the first public telegraph was demonstrated. It took a full 22 years from that point until the 1st permanent telegraph cable was laid across the Atlantic Ocean. Want to know when email was invented? 1971. But it wasn't for another full 20 years before it became a convention for business communications, and another 5 years before it fully hit its stride.
Throughout modern history, this 20-year span, from introduction to some semblance of popularity has been the norm for most innovative forms of communications.
Over the past 8 years we have gone from 0 to 60, from introduction to wide-spread user adoption, with the advent of smartphones, Facebook, location-based apps, tagging and sharing our pictures, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and a variety of messaging apps and bots.
And the results are remarkable: 1 in 4 people check their phones every 5 minutes. Younger people do this even more frequently. We don’t leave voice-mail, when calling friends or businesses. In fact, we send text messages and pre-arrange calls. We don’t watch live television as often, households are cutting the cord, yet video and rich content consumptions is exploding.
Simply stated, we are increasingly shifting to asynchronous interactions. And when we do need to engage in synchronous interactions, like meeting face-to-face, going to a concert, or talking on the phone, we wrap this with many layers of asynchronous touches. For example, we share photos and videos while attending a live ball game or show. We start a phone call with “Wow. Your Instagram pictures of Portland were awesome. Looks like you had fun.” We no longer need to start each call with deep discovery, as so much of our context is available through apps, streams, and graphs.
So it’s natural for businesses to want to invest in building great mobile apps. Amazing websites and mobile optimized web experiences. It’s understandable that they would see this a quick way to save money and avoid having to invest in real people to take incoming calls from people wanting to learn more about their products or services.
But it’s a colossal mistake.
Let’s look at the typical “consideration” phase for consumers visting a company’s website, to learn about a product or service they provide. In a recent survey conducted between August and September of 2013, over 700 participants were asked “how important is it to have the option of calling a company when you are considering buying from them?” The results: 21% said it was very important. But even more staggering: 31% stated that is was an absolute requirements. So if you decide to hide your phone number, making it harder for prospects to find it, or even remove it from your site, chances are that over 50% of your visitors will consider a competitor as a result of this decision.
Let’s look at another fallacy: if we offer chat we don’t need to offer phone calls. Using Google Consumer Surveys, between March and April of 2013, 200 people were asked to answer this question “when using my mobile phone to contact a business for customer service, my preference is to a) speak to an agent, using voice, or b) chat, using text entry.” Over 71% prefered talking to someone. Why? While chat is a great experience on desktop and laptop form-factors, its not ideal for mobile and smartphones. Also, the proliferation of smartphones and high-speed, pervasive online access has meant that we are increasingly on the go. Customer service through chat, while driving, riding your bike, or walking to work isn't an ideal experience.
So what is the solution? What can we do as business owners, as heads of sales or customer service, to give our customers what they want without losing margins?
Simply stated: design a great experience for your customers, and all will be good.
What does that mean? It means putting your customer at the center of your customer experience design. It means having a deep understanding of what they really want, and how to provide it for them.
When it comes to the phones, it also means avoiding some of the most annoying techniques that are unfortunately some of the most popular with businesses. When asked what business practice would make you consider a different vendor, respondents stated the following:
scripted greetings (having your agents read out a highly structured greeting and engagement script): 31%
hiding your phone number: 21%
asking for detailed contact information (“what is your name, account number, email” before even helping them): 20%
“But”, you say, “I must have a structured script. I must ask for detailed contact information? How else can I help the customer? How else can I update my systems?”
What if I told you that your attempt to “help” your prospect or customer, and the process you have created is actually hurting you, and that it doesn't need to be this way.
I learned this from my partner. In fact, I learned a couple of very important lessons from her, and they are directly related to this subject.
I remember having the TV on and watching Sports Center as she was talking to me. Every 10 or 15 seconds I would say “really. okay. wow. that’s interesting.” something to indicate that I was listening to her. In fact, I would quickly try to offer my “fix” or remedy for any situation she brought up, trying to shorten the conversation, thinking that I am actually being helpful. If she would stop me and ask “what did I just say?” I would successfully repeat the key points she made during the past few minutes.
But she would stop me, and say “you’re listening to me, but I am not being heard.”
What my partner wanted from me at that time, what your customers are wanting when they contact you is to be heard. Instead of quickly trying to solve their problem.