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Why do we respond to customers like this?

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I was using the mobile app of a top-notch global newspaper I subscribe to, and noted a prominent new feedback button. It asked for any thoughts, insights or ideas about the user experience on the app. I clicked it and shot off a quick point: that their app (unlike their cutting-edge website) looks dated and clunky, and could do with a makeover.

Within a day I received the following email:

“Thank you for contacting (****) Customer Service. We sincerely appreciate you bringing this matter to our attention. (We are) actively working to improve service levels and your feedback has proved to be invaluable. Your comments and suggestions are appreciated and will be passed on to our Product team. Should you have any questions or require further assistance, then please do not hesitate to contact us.”

What’s wrong with that? On the surface, nothing at all. The company is inviting feedback, and making it easy for me to provide it; they responded promptly; they were polite and courteous and professional; and they seem to have taken my point seriously. It’s all good, isn’t it?

Or is it? Here’s the thing: if you contact any similar company and offer some feedback, the email recounted above is virtually the exact same response you will get. Pretty much word for word. Trust me – I monitor these things. Try it for yourself with any big business with an online presence.

So the reply I got may have been just fine; but if it is just a bland, automated, impersonal, homogeneous response – then it’s not fine at all. It is meaningless. Do they really “sincerely appreciate” my feedback – or do they say that to everyone? Are they “actively working” to improve service levels – or do they just need to sound like they are? Was my feedback truly “invaluable” – or do they use that term for even the most ridiculous, outlandish and bizarre suggestions?

Words are not just bits of coloured glass to be polished and put on display; they should say what you actually mean. Not what you need to pretend to mean. Did the business I’m referring to mean it? I don’t know. The language is too banal to tell. It says nothing real. If they actually meant it – that the feedback was indeed special – then they should have found the distinctive words to say so. Properly.

If you actually want feedback; if you actually find it valuable; if you actually intend to act on it; then set up a channel that actually does all those things for you. Don’t bat feedback away having pretended to listen to it.

The deeper issue is about sameness. Business success does not come from being like everyone else. It comes from cultivating distinctive advantages and making unique offerings that are hard to copy. The newspaper in question actually has a great product which is very different from the chasing crowd. It is one of the few in the world that has made a safe transition to the online world, precisely because its customers value it in special ways. So why does it need to sound exactly like everyone else when it comes to customer service and communication?

Partly because business leaders play safe and settle for the most acceptable form of words; partly because the same consultants and agencies go around beating the same communication truisms into everyone; partly because it’s easier to be like the crowd than it is to stick out.

This is a shame. As a customer I have little interest in consuming homogeneity; life is enriched by having a variety of experiences. If you are doing something special in the lives of your customers, then be special in all ways. Protect that specialness if you’ve achieved it; after all, so few do. Highlight it. Flaunt it. Revel in it.

Certainly there are certain rules of communication and language to follow – you can’t just throw everything out of the window. But there are relatively few. There is no rule that says you must sound just like the tedious drone out there. In fact, sounding exactly like your competitors should scare the hell out of you.

Try it and see. Ditch oft-repeated words like “kindly”, “sincerely”, “appreciate”, “invaluable”. Crack open a thesaurus. Branch out. Lighten up. Find your own unique way of expressing things. Don’t say what you don’t mean. Your bonds with your customers will deepen if they believe you mean what you say.

(Sunday Nation, 4 September 2016)

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