Follow Two Don’ts and Five Dos When Speaking With Today’s Customers

Little in life has changed as much as how we communicate, so the way we talk with customers has to change dramatically, too. Two don’ts and five dos will help you stay on top of your marketing game.

In the 1990s, email was hip, cell phones were a premium product for a privileged few, faxes were an everyday business tool, and landline telephones were a growth business, driven by the boom in dial-up internet connections. A burgeoning telemarketing industry sold long distance service [remember what that was?] and credit cards. International calling was dollars per minute. And moving large amounts of data around the country meant sending physical media by Fedex.

Today, email is stodgy, everyone has a cell phone and probably a smart phone, and U.S. cell-phone-only homes outnumber landline homes (see chart below: cell phones in blue and landlines in orange). Fax is an antique tool used mostly by doctors, DropBox moves gigabytes effortlessly, calling London costs 2¢/minute, and few have heard a dial-up modem sing its song for years.

Most U.S. households now have only cell phones.

Plus, trends and markets are increasingly defined by Millennials, a generation who grew up in this digital/broadband/mobile world with a set of communication preferences that is quite different from their elders.

So it’s no surprise that businesses need to rethink how they talk with their customers. First, the don’ts:

Don’t call customers’ telephones unless you already have a relationship with them. By “relationship” I mean there’s a good chance you’re in their contact file already. Consumers are rapidly moving to mobile phones and cutting the telephone cord. Mobile phones are harder to reach because they all have caller ID, mobile phone numbers are harder to acquire, and consumers are a more reluctant to answer if they are on the move or have to pay for airtime to listen to a sales pitch. Many people, including me, simply won’t answer calls that don’t match a contact in the phone, causing the contact name to appear on the screen; they let it go to voicemail and decide from the message if they will call back.

This situation worsened fast in the last couple of years, due to robo-calls and the election. People have learned that most unknown callers will be SPAM, and you don’t have to be polite to a robot, even a clever one that tries to seem human. If you do connect with a customer, you put your business in a class with the other persistent, robotic callers: bill collectors, IRS audit scams, credit card and electricity “deals”, and increasingly desperate public opinion surveys. This is not the road to success.

[Update, June 24, 2017: The FCC is seeking to impose a $120 million fine on Miami robo-caller Adrian Abramovich, who is alleged to have made 96 million robo-calls employing fake caller IDs: caller ID was spoofed to make the calls appear to come from local numbers, making their targets more likely to answer. The commission appears to understand how much consumers resent these calls. And the risk of a $120 million fine is a good reason to avoid this practice.]

Don’t expect email blasts to reach potential customers. There are probably some cases where email still works, especially if you have a hot deal or eye-catching visual content. But most people have a strong email filter today. Gmail does a great job of separating “important” emails, those that its algorithms determine you want to see, from all the rest. Microsoft Outlook has a similar feature. Add-on products like SaneBox are remarkably accurate, about 99% based on my experience with SaneBox. Most people who don’t use such products are skilled at skimming headers and ignoring the messages they don’t want to read.

New communication modes creates new opportunities, too. Hence the “Do’s”:

Use quality content on your website to bring customers to you. Internet traffic is driven by search to a remarkable extent: e.g., most of the traffic to this blog comes from Google. So generating traffic depends on putting up content that will rank high in Google searches. There is an entire industry that helps businesses primp for Google. The fundamentals are common sense, however. Content needs to be meaty, original, graphic, relevant to topics that are currently top of mind, and structured for search with key words and phrases up front where Google’s spider finds them best.

Weave your ad messages into content people want to consume. Ads on the edge of pages have shockingly low and declining response rates. Ads that are inserted into the flow of the content do much better, especially if they are relevant to the content. This contributes to the rise of product placement in television (why the NCIS:LA agents are seen driving Benz’s and Audis, not dull government pool cars) and the ever-rising price of professional sports broadcasting rights. Sports offer lots of logo placement opportunities and sports are usually viewed live, avoiding fast-forward thru ads. Facebook does a great job of working commercial content into its customers’ feeds and eliciting high response levels. They charge for this, naturally.

Reach millennials in the media they follow. As a general rule, they hate the telephone and like text chat, mostly on over-the-top platforms like Snap and Instagram rather than old-fashioned cellphone texts. This is not a good medium for brand messages or complex offers, but it can be good for quick promos and order follow ups. Millennials are also remarkably fond of YouTube, using it like a user-defined TV channel.

When you do have a customer’s attention, use it to build the relationship. While harder to reach than in the past, customers will call you, take your call, read your email, or even visit your internet or physical site if they are interested. This is a chance to sell something, but it’s also a chance to say something about the value you place on the customer. Don’t insult and annoy a customer by making him or her listen to a sales pitch before you will activate a new card you’ve just sent them. Make your site a destination and visiting it an experience. It’s not a surprise that successful upstart competitors feature café-like bank branches, longer hours, U.S.-based call centers, or service without a sales pitch as differentiators.

Organize your phone system so your calls to customers come from a recognizable number. Never use an 800 number for outbound calls: it makes you look like a telemarketer. Ideally the caller ID for an outbound call will be the number on your letterhead and/or business card. That maximizes the chance the customer will recognize the number and take the call.

Above all, treat the customer with respect. This seems obvious, but recent events at Uber, United Airlines, and Wells Fargo underscore how often it fails to happen. Recently, a friend had a bad claim experience with Liberty Mutual. She called the head office to complain and asked to speak to customer service, not expecting much. She was put through to a pleasant, mature woman who listened politely and sympathetically to her story. She did get a call back from a manager to follow up on the problem, but the main thing she wanted was to give Liberty feedback. They listened actively and respectfully, and my friend was ready to move on from the problem. Good listening and respect go a long way towards building loyalty: some things never change.

First posted @ blogs.forbes.com/toddhixon on June 21, 2017.

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