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In customer care, silence is not golden

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Customer: Do you have that item in stock?
Assistant: No, but let me call the factory and see if they can make it for you. I’ll call you back tomorrow and let you know.
Customer: Thank you very much.

One week later:

Customer: I’ve been waiting for your call!
Assistant: They haven’t said anything yet so there was no reason to call…

There is a certain perverse logic in the exchange above, which I overheard recently. Why call to say nothing? Surely you should call when there’s good news, right – when you can tell the customer something is ready for collection? You can’t just call to say it hasn’t come…

You can, and absolutely should.

So many people labour under the delusion that customers should only be told good news. That if there’s nothing to report, just stay silent. Call them when you actually have what they need, not to tell them stories…they’ll just get annoyed.

That’s not how relationships are forged and sustained, though. Does your child or spouse or friend only talk to you when there’s something good to share? Cold silence at all other times? Is that a relationship that will survive?

If you are serious about using the word ‘relationship’ when it comes to your customers, then you have to understand it properly. A proper relationship requires truth; and it requires frequent communication. Otherwise it is fake, and everyone knows it.

Here’s how that call-back should have gone:

Assistant: I’m so sorry, the factory is overwhelmed at the moment so they can’t produce your order immediately. I’m very sorry about that, I know you’re in a hurry. But they have promised to have it ready in one week’s time. Can you wait that long? I’m on it and will keep the pressure on. If they are going to take longer than that I’ll be the first to tell you so that you can look elsewhere.
Customer: OK, I guess I can wait another week…thanks for the update.

See the key differences? The assistant has been honest (message: you can trust me); has apologised and empathised (message: I feel your pain); has promised to act on the customer’s behalf (message: I’m on your team); promised more updates (message: I won’t leave you hanging); and is willing to free the customer up to go elsewhere (message: you come first).

That there is relationship talk. And it works, because the customer respects truth and appreciates the connection being made. Crucially, though, it can’t just be empty talk. There is no point in promising another week if that isn’t the truth; no point promising to follow up if you really won’t; no point in conniving to keep the customer trapped while promising release.

Organisations often resort to high-falutin’ customer experience strategies involving customer data mining and touchpoints and user journeys, when they can’t even get the basics right. The first fundamental is this: do you actually want relationships, or just lucrative transactions? There’s a big difference. The former is lifelong, involves mutual trust, and doesn’t always pay off immediately. The latter is a hit-and-run, involves mutual suspicion, and maximises the current deal.

Which one is your business actually interested in?

The second fundamental, before you even do anything more complicated: just get the etiquette right. That means teaching the people who deal with your customers some simple essentials: smile at customers; be cheerful and attentive; be honest and authentic; show energy and concern in your dealings; don’t make promises you can’t keep; keep communicating, never fall silent.

That sounds easy, but it isn’t. It’s simple, which is a different thing. You will have to recruit customer-facing staff very carefully – your surly relative won’t cut it. You will have to create conditions in which those staff are actually happy – you can’t fake cheerfulness. You will have to lead by example in telling the truth – if you’re a liar, your staff will mimic you. And you will have to set and enforce standards in responsiveness and communication etiquette – this one doesn’t just happen, it has to be made to happen.

Can you do that? If you can’t, I don’t know why you read this far. Get back to old-fashioned transaction management, in which your staff are mere resources to be utilised and your customers are suckers to be tricked.

(Sunday Nation, 19 May 2019)

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