Genuinely satisfying customers today is hard.
As a starting point, 73% of global consumers bank on businesses being completely in touch with their specific wants and needs, and 71% expect not to have to repeat themselves to company employees – ever.
Like I said, satisfying customers is hard.
Plus, most of the time you don’t want to stop at satisfying customers –– you want to delight them; you want to be known as the go-to for your product or service.
That level of satisfaction is born out of customer relationships, which are built – or broken – with communication. Thus, becoming an expert in customer satisfaction means becoming an expert communicator.
But a decade-plus of rapid technological change and shifting global conditions have drastically altered the way we communicate with one another. And that has ushered in a new era of even greater expectations from customers when it comes to communicating with a business.
For example, more than three-quarters of consumers around the world now anticipate an immediate response when they reach out to a company –– no pressure.
In the midst of these never-higher standards, the risks of not bringing your A-level communication game are dire: Just one bad interaction with a business will send more than 61% of customers packing –– and hauling off to a competitor.
Read on to confront similar harsh realities, ensure you’re following today’s cardinal rules for best-in-class communication, and uncover expert tips that will help you leave a lasting impression on your customers in 2023.
Meet the archvillain of customer communication
Let’s say you own a doggy daycare and you’re on the phone confirming the services Bailey –– a first-time dog owner –– who wants to sign up her goldendoodle.
“Would you like Bailey to go on field trips?” You ask.
“What’s a field trip?” asks Bailey.
“It’s when the dogs go outside mid-day to run,” you explain.
“Oh, I thought that was part of the standard experience,” the customer responds.
“It is, but this is off-leash,” you continue.
“Isn’t everything off-leash?” she asks.
“Well, yea, but this is in an open park,” you add.
“Oh…isn’t it all in a park? I’m confused,” she confesses.
You’re confused, too: Why aren’t they picking up what you’re putting down?
But ultimately, you’re leaving out some important details. You know a dog field trip is when you take a bunch of the dogs to a nearby park –– with no fence –– to run around off-leash and take a walk on a trail. You also know this is an add-on service with an extra charge.
The customer doesn’t know any of that –– how would they? They’re a first-time dog owner contacting a doggy daycare with limited awareness of the details and terminology associated with this experience.
It’s in instances like this you’ve fallen prey to the archvillain of customer communication: the curse of knowledge.
The curse of knowledge is a phenomenon that occurs when the person communicating has more information than the person listening. That surplus of information can cause the communicator to inadvertently omit or fail to emphasize key details, thus stopping short of filling crucial knowledge gaps for the listener.
And the curse of knowledge isn’t the only enemy plotting against your best efforts to become an expert communicator. Consider these other potential offenders:
- Biases: Every person moves through life armed with their individual experiences and perspectives. If we don’t work to fine-tune our awareness of our resulting assumptions and prejudices, they can easily creep into our communication and behavior patterns, irreparably damaging our relationships.
- Mode overload: Let’s face it: There are a lot of modes of communication at play today. From the phone (which recently unseated email as the preferred channel for communicating with businesses) to social media to AI-powered chatbots –– the conversation is always happening somewhere and the overwhelm can feel truly paralyzing. (Fortunately, it all comes full circle –– modern tech solutions can help you tame the communication mode beast.)
- Hardware barriers: So much of our communication now happens when we’re physically separated. And that can mean having wrestling matches with your hardware when things like poor phone or internet connections rear their ugly heads.
- Noise and distractions: Remember the children who interrupted their dad’s live BBC News interview? Background noise and distractions abound. And sure, sometimes they’re endearing, but other times, they have a detrimental effect on your communication efforts.
- Overlooked accessibility and inclusivity considerations: Not only does discounting accessibility and inclusivity cause you to miss out on key customer relationships, it’s also just inhuman. Language barriers, disabilities, cultural practices, and time zone differences are just some of the communication considerations at hand.
- Body language, tone, and nonverbal cues: It’s no secret that nonverbal cues can heavily influence the way a listener interprets what’s being communicated to them. There’s plenty of nuance available here, providing fertile ground for communication missteps. Consider, too, that in a verbal conversation, 40% of a communicator’s attitude is portrayed through tone of voice and inflection.
- Internal continuity: Customer communication is a team sport. And with a full roster of players in the mix, it’s easy to slip up as you’re tag teaming a conversation. Don’t forget, 71% of consumers expect team members to share information in the background so they don’t have to become a broken record, repeating themselves to everyone along the way.
The list goes on.
But the good news? When practiced together, the rules that follow will help you claim victory against all the communication villains standing in your way –– and they’re your ticket to the world of next-level customer satisfaction.
Rule #1: Listen attentively.
“It’s like I’m talking to a brick wall!”
You’ve probably heard this line of dialogue before. Perhaps it was in a TV show or movie. But every customer trying to communicate with a business can probably relate to the frustration it conjures.
Everyone wants to feel heard. So, why does it so often feel like the person on the other end of the line isn’t actually listening?
Listening is a skill so obvious (and drilled into us so early) it’s often forgotten –– or half-assed.
But remember, almost three-quarters of modern global consumers expect businesses to be fully immersed in their unique needs and desires –– that’s up from 66% in 2020.
The best way to understand what your customers really want? You guessed it –– by simply listening to them.
Brush up on your active listening game by making sure you’re:
- Remaining neutral and non-judgmental: Avoid inserting yourself –– or your opinions –– into your customer’s story. Sure, it’s OK to relate when the conversation organically heads in that direction, but your job is to be an investigative journalist: Sit back and gather as many details as possible on their situation and expectations. React in a neutral fashion, even if they get heated. And put politics, religion, and other potentially divisive subjects aside –– unless they’re directly relevant to your product or service.
- Asking open-ended questions: “Yes” or “no” questions will yield one-word answers. Instead, use prompts that will fill your knowledge coffers so you can present customers with thoughtful, tailored solutions to their problems. “Tell me about a time when…” and “How would you describe…” are two productive ways to begin prompts.
- Showing you’re paying attention: If customers feel like they’re talking to a brick wall, they’ll walk away. Demonstrate you’re engaged by remembering names and details from previous conversations, asking relevant follow-up questions, and expressing that you’re invested in helping them navigate their specific situation.
In the world of stand-out customer service, listening –– specifically, active listening –– is low-hanging fruit and an untapped superpower.
At the end of every conversation, find out if there’s anything else your customer wants to share. You never know what valuable information they haven’t revealed yet, so ask one final question: “What question did I fail to ask you today?”
Opening this door shows a customer you’re listening to them, you care about getting the full picture, and you understand we all sometimes inadvertently fall down on the job of being as thorough as we intend to be because of one simple, universal truth: We’re all human.
Pro tip: Develop your active listening skills.
By recording your calls (with permission, of course), you can review customer conversations and assess how you or a member of your team can set the bar higher in the active listening department.
OpenPhone customers have call recording and listening functionality at their fingertips. This ever-growing library of recorded conversations allows any team member to evaluate their listening skills and identify ways to improve those skills –– thus, turning every employee into an active listening pro.
Rule #2: Connect emotionally.
When you call a business and you’re greeted with a phone menu recording, what do you usually do?
If you’re like most people, you probably press “0” repeatedly or shout “operator” into the phone until you get a real person.
After all, more often than not, you’re calling with a specific problem or challenge that’s laced with intricacies –– and a journey through the company’s poorly designed and utterly confusing phone tree simply won’t cut it.
But beyond that, we’re social beings; we crave human-to-human interaction. We want a real person on the other end of the line. We want to feel the humanity behind a business.
The results of a 2004 Carnegie Mellon University study –– documented in Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Don’t” –– demonstrated that people care more about what you’re communicating if you make them feel something.
The study tested whether people were more likely to make a charitable contribution when presented with a broad issue versus a specific person experiencing that issue. Unsurprisingly, the latter produced double the average donation of the former.
In fact, beyond donations, emotion has turned out to be the number one driver behind purchases, recommendations, forgiveness, and trust.
So, how can you facilitate an emotional connection? Start here:
- Emphasize benefits over functionality: Your customers aren’t sticking around strictly for your add-on services or fancy new product features. The fact is, they’re spoiled for choice and could easily jump ship to a competitor. They’re hooked on the emotional benefits your business provides. So, don’t sell them on the construction details of a house; help them envision the life they’ll build inside it.
- Appeal to identity over self-interest: As humans, we’re wired to favor and take action on things that speak to us. In fact, 80% of consumers say they’re more apt to purchase from brands that serve up personalized experiences. Consider the Coca-Cola campaign that put people’s names right on bottles, the social post you came across yesterday that couldn’t have been more tailored to your situation if you had written it, or the long-standing “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign that prompted state residents to stand up against littering by appealing to their Texan pride.
Top-tier communicators give the people what they want: an emotional connection.
Because after all, as Maya Angelou once stated, “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Rule #3: Speak simply.
“Just do it.”
“The happiest place on Earth.”
“That was easy.”
“I’m lovin’ it.”
Chances are you could instantly rattle off the brand associated with each of these slogans or taglines. Why? Because they’re simple –– and therefore, memorable.
According to the Heath brothers, simplicity is a requisite for a memorable idea. And failing to achieve memorability is a non-starter in the pursuit of customer satisfaction.
Research shows simple writing is associated with better business outcomes. After all, simple language requires a lower lift on the brain, so it’s easier to grasp the meaning behind a simple sentence than it is to break down a complex one.
But communicating simply doesn’t mean dumbing down ideas. Rather, it’s an urgent call to identify the essential theme of a concept, and then ruthlessly prioritize that theme throughout your communication.
The Heath brothers point to the golden rule (and other proverbs) as an example: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s a single sentence –– a concept that has been distilled down to its absolute core –– but it can serve as a straightforward foundation for a lifetime of choices.
On the flip side, complexity and abstract language diminishes comprehension, paves the way for decision paralysis, and provides a setup for failure. A whopping 85% of CEOs from failed companies blame complexity for their downfall.
Keep your communication simple by:
- Avoiding vague terminology: Leave the inside baseball and industry jargon behind; it will only yield confusion and could make it seem like you’re trying to hide something. Instead, use concrete language that’s accessible for a wide audience. Employ short sentences, active voice, and straightforward syntax.
- Finding common ground: Tap into common knowledge –– whether that’s knowledge your customers already have or something that’s widely understood beyond your customer base –– to explain new concepts. For example, a lime is easily explained if someone already knows what a lemon is. And memorizing “J FKFB INAT OUP SNA SAI RS” is infinitely harder than memorizing the same string of letters set up as a list of known acronyms: “JFK FBI NATO UPS NASA IRS.” Where possible, use existing knowledge to enhance comprehension.
Simplicity might be the cornerstone of all great communication, but it can’t exist without its close cousin: clarity.
Pro tip: Create an easily accessible template library for frequently used customer and client messages.
Whether you’re a team of one or a team of many, don’t waste time trying to memorize your simplified messages. Once you’ve ruthlessly prioritized the essential core messages you frequently send to customers and clients, keep them in a shared document that can be easily accessed later.
If you’re an OpenPhone customer, you can skip the shared document and take advantage of our Shared Snippets feature. This simple command enables everyone at your company to access commonly texted messages. Check out the support article on this topic to learn more.
Rule #4: Explain clearly.
Abstract lingo abounds, particularly in the business world. In fact, there’s an entire site dedicated to generating meaningless phrases jam-packed with corporate buzzwords, so that you too can “collaboratively embrace real-time processes.”
At the end of the day, if we sit in this land of vagueness and abstraction, we’ll lose our audience –– and their business.
Explaining things to customers in concrete terms –– by focusing on what they can hear, smell, see, touch, and feel –– drives quick understanding. On the other hand, abstractions and ambiguity force them to do off-putting mental gymnastics.
To truly check ourselves, the term “customer satisfaction” in the title of this piece is abstract. But if we describe a homeowner who had a leaky pipe, and the caring plumber who showed up early and fixed it quickly, the idea of a satisfied customer becomes much clearer.
And sure, internal folks probably need to have some understanding of less concrete, theoretical business-specific items like mission statements and company visions. But at the end of the day, if a customer doesn’t understand what your company does, history shows they’ll be quick to either assign minimal value to what you’re selling –– or ignore it altogether.
Instead, pursue clarity by:
- Focusing on outcomes: Don’t tell customers or clients what you’re going to do; tell them what will happen as a result of those actions. Use sensory language to build a clear vision of the world that’s waiting for them once they secure your product or service. To revisit the plumbing example, don’t say, “we’ll deliver top-notch customer service.” Instead, present the outcome: “You’ll be looking at a new, leak-free pipe within the hour.”
- Making use of analogies: Analogies help build clear associations and concrete mental pictures. You’ll probably recall this famous analogy from the movie “Forrest Gump”: “Life is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re gonna get.” It’s simple, and delivers instant clarity.
Clarity indicates to listeners and readers that you want them to understand what you’re trying to communicate. And that indication goes a long way in building trust.
Rule #5: Demonstrate credibility.
Whether you know a piece of information is rooted in truth or not, credibility isn’t automatic. The human brain wants proof it should trust what it’s processing.
But don’t worry –– that proof is easier to provide than you might think. You just have to know how to demonstrate credibility. (Spoiler alert: It’s not always about stacking your arguments with hard facts and data.)
Take another example from “Made to Stick”: the 1986 Darth Vader toothbrush experiment.
In this test, researchers presented jurors with transcripts from a fake trial. These jurors were tasked with determining whether a woman named Mrs. Johnson was equipped to care for her 7-year-old son.
The transcripts presented 16 arguments: eight for Mrs. Johnson and eight against her. Two different trials were held –– one version offered exquisite details in the transcripts that supported Mrs. Johnson’s fitness as a mother, while the other trial presented the same level of detail in the transcripts that argued against her.
Those details were things like the fact Mrs. Johnson had her son brush his teeth every night with “a ‘Star Wars’ toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader.” The opposing transcripts described the boy going to school with a scraped arm and a school nurse who had stained her uniform red with spilled Mercurochrome while cleaning up his injury.
The details were all unrelated to the quality of care Mrs. Johnson was providing for her son. Nevertheless, they moved the needle and convinced more of the jurors to take one side or the other depending on which transcript they had been given.
Why? Because the concrete descriptions (remember rule #4?) –– the clear mental pictures those details offered –– lent credibility.
Providing easy-to-picture details is just one way to help your argument win trust. Consider these other methods for boosting perceived credibility:
- Contextualize numbers: When you’re presenting facts and figures, don’t let them exist as abstract details. Break statistics down into everyday terms so your audience can immediately grasp their impact. For example, describing something as 500 yards is very different from saying it’s the length of five football fields. Similarly, learning that a certain carpet costs $2 per square foot doesn’t deliver the same instant understanding as receiving a customized price quote based on the dimensions of your living room.
- Drop familiar names: Associating what you’re communicating with specific people can also lend credibility. Consider getting a hotel recommendation from your best friend versus a faceless brand –– which one are you more likely to book? Similarly, a simple, “[Insert name] recommended I reach out to you,” can produce immediate trust.
If you’re going to earn – and retain – your customers’ attention, ongoing credibility is crucial.
Plus, establishing a foundation of trust puts you in an ideal position to take action on the next commandment of breakthrough communication: orchestrating welcome disruptions in expectations.
Pro tip: Drive customer trust through stand-out internal communication.
To secure full customer trust, and avoid requiring customers to do one of the many things they’re sick and tired of doing (repeat themselves), you’ll need to keep your internal team coordinated.
OpenPhone customers are one step ahead in this department because they have access to a business communication platform that features internal threads and mentions.
Learn more about how this functionality makes it easier than ever to drive visibility across customer conversations, keep your team on the same page, and say goodbye to redundant customer questions for good.
Rule #6: Break expectations.
A flower delivery from a Chewy employee after a customer’s pet passed away, a flight attendant who raps the Southwest Airlines safety briefing, a get-well-soon Kleenex kit showing up at the door after an innocent social media post about being sick –– you can probably think of quite a few ways businesses have disrupted expectations and made customers say, “wow.”
The efficacy of these attention-earners is, in many ways, unparalleled.
It makes sense. After all, these actions follow almost all the rules of best-in-class customer communication up to this point: They’re simple and clear, intended to drive emotional connections, and they prove the internal team is listening – actively.
Test the waters with these tactics:
- Surprise and delight in small ways: You don’t have to launch a massive campaign to break customer expectations. The little things truly do go a long way. Remember the prompt and proficient plumber? What if that plumbing company sent you a text message the day of your scheduled service sharing a picture of the plumber, letting you know they’re on the way, and adding a fun fact about them? This small action serves as a jumping off point for the customer to form a genuine bond with someone they’d normally forget about by the end of the day.
- Make people feel smart: Customers enter into many business interactions feeling like they’re on the back foot –– they expect to be staring down an impossibly steep learning curve. Turn these expectations on their head by helping customers feel equipped with the knowledge they need to make sound decisions. Consider mortgage company Guaranteed Rate. They help customers feel like they know what they’re doing as they go to buy or sell a home by sending them text messages with links to educational resources relevant to where they are in the process.
Want to make your customers sit up in their seats? Learn their expectations, then find opportunities to break ‘em.
It’s almost guaranteed they’ll tell anyone who’ll listen how much you impressed them.
Pro tip: Deliver customer messages when it makes the most sense.
Support your efforts to break customer expectations by sending relevant messages at times that make sense. You can easily coordinate all this communication by taking advantage of scheduled and automated messages.
Fortunately, if you’re an OpenPhone customer, you already have this feature available to you. Check out this article for more information and to get started.
Rule #7: Tell stories.
Getting organized, landing a dream job, losing weight: We’re bombarded by stories of folks who have “been there, done that” –– and lived to tell the tale.
These stories often come from –– you guessed it –– businesses pedaling products or services that claim to help you reach the same goals.
And we eat them up, because true stories from real people are powerful. They offer inspiration, outline the steps you might need to take to achieve a similar result, and serve up insider tips from someone with direct experience.
Stories peel back the curtain on how to turn our dreams into reality, and make us feel like we. can. do. this.
Tap into the power of storytelling by:
- Gathering testimonials and case studies: The weight customer voices carry –– and the fact that the human brain takes naturally to information delivered in a story format –– is well documented. You’ve likely long been applying this rule in your own business, and will continue to harness all the obvious benefits of customer stories.
5 practical ways to apply the cardinal rules of communication
Now that we’ve done a deep dive on the rules of the road, let’s take them for a test drive on your business phone system.
Here, Sul curated his top five suggestions for practicing elements of breakthrough customer and client communication using today’s technology.
Suggestion from Sul #1: Never miss a chance to connect.
You’ll only need to hearken back to the beginning of this guide to revisit the fact that 76% of consumers around the world expect to communicate with someone immediately when they get in touch with a business.
So, what if a customer contacts you but you’re in the middle of a conversation with another client, or eating dinner with your family? It’s virtually impossible for any real person to be available on demand 24/7.
Enter auto-replies, a feature of your business phone system that takes some of the pressure off while continuing to meet your customers’ expectations.
Auto-replies allow you to automatically send a text message when you miss a call and the caller doesn’t leave a voicemail, or when someone calls outside business hours.
Take it a step further by including a link to your appointment calendar in your response so the caller can book a time slot that works for both of you –– and won’t go knocking on a competitor’s door.
Suggestion from Sul #2: Avoid awkward automated messaging mishaps.
When it comes to meeting customer expectations, automated text messages have obvious benefits. But there are a few potential missteps that could present make-or-break moments, especially given the level of service customers expect today.
Remember, 73% of consumers demand that companies are fully on top of their individual needs –– and this figure has only been increasing (up from 66% in 2020).
Business phone providers now typically offer scheduled messaging, which gives companies the opportunity to send messages when it makes sense for the customer. For example, when it isn’t the middle of the night on their end.
While this offers a level of sensitivity and personalization, if a customer happens to reply first and then the scheduled message continues to go out, a pretty uncomfortable situation can ensue.
Remedy this by attaching an “unless they message first” condition to your scheduled messages. Then, if the customer unexpectedly follows up first, your scheduled message will be canceled –– and you won’t be left to deal with the awkward aftermath.
Suggestion from Sul #3: Collaborate as a team behind the scenes.
To deliver next-level customer support, your team has to be on the same page behind the scenes. A lack of internal coordination will be immediately apparent externally.
And in a world where 83% of customers expect to work through their challenges in a straightforward fashion with just one person at a company, putting callers on hold or transferring them around will only lead to lost business.
So, stay in sync as a team. Your business phone solution can help with features like shared phone numbers and inboxes as well as internal conversation threads that allow you to work collaboratively in a single workspace –– and ultimately make it all look seamless to the customer.
Suggestion from Sul #4: Maintain business continuity when someone is OOO.
Customers can tell when internal collaboration just isn’t there –– and they won’t stand for it. In fact, 83% of them note their loyalty to a company is higher if they’re met with an experience that suggests there’s internal consistency across departments.
Orchestrate this consistent experience –– and avoid any breaks in communication caused by someone being out of office –– by using the tagging functionality in your business phone system.
Keep a customer conversation moving by tagging the team member who’s covering for their coworker in an internal thread, and assigning them the responsibility of following up.
Suggestion from Sul #5: Give everyone the VIP treatment.
Beyond simple tagging across internal threads, OpenPhone offers full visibility of the entire conversation history with a contact.
Yes, it’s a business phone system, but it’s also a lightweight CRM that keeps your team aligned and offers custom tracking opportunities that guarantee customers won’t have to repeat themselves (something 71% of consumers say they expect to avoid) to multiple members of your organization.
In the case of Coterie Insurance, that meant tagging all contacts with their insurance claim numbers so team members never had to ask for them.
A communication system like this helps you give everyone who interacts with your business a high-end experience.
Help your team communicate more effectively with OpenPhone
Every interaction you have with another person speaks volumes about you –– and the business you represent. These are high-stakes, make-or-break moments –– but they’re also opportunities to wow the person on the other end of the line.
By upping your listening game, forming emotional connections, speaking simply, explaining clearly, demonstrating credibility, breaking expectations, and telling stories, you’ll free yourself from the shackles of subpar (or even adequate) communication –– and take the podium as a business known for a stand-out customer experience.
And once you’ve reached that level, prepare for the (many) payoffs: stronger customer relationships, increased sales, lower churn, positive buzz, valuable feedback, and more.
OpenPhone’s modern business phone system can help you follow all seven rules of breakthrough customer communication in 2023. Sign up for a free trial today.
Melisse is a writer, editor, and content marketing professional who firmly believes in the power of words. She’s spent 17 years in the content space across media, tech, travel, and education. Melisse is now the president and managing director of her agency, Evergreen Media.