Saturday, August 28, 2010

Corporate communications: Talk to the hand

An old joke among my fellow engineers goes something like this: A man goes up in a hot air balloon on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Soon he gets caught in a big gust of wind and becomes completely lost. Seeing a person on the ground, he descends and calls out to her, "Where am I?" She responds, "You are in a hot air balloon." He replies, "You must be an engineer, because you just gave me an answer that is technically correct, but completely useless."

Now, here is my own hot air balloon story. Recently, an over-the-counter medication that my wife and I use regularly went completely AWOL. We could not find it in any store, and every major online retailer was mysteriously out of stock as well. But we hadn't heard anything about it being discontinued, so I e-mailed the company.

The response I received did note that "we are aware of the problem," but the rest of it was corporate twaddle about how they "appreciate the time I have taken to contact them" and "would be happy to assist me in the future." I will not reprint it here, to protect the guilty, but I will translate it into plain English: We are too stupid to know when, where, or if you can purchase our products, or to even acknowledge you directly.

Shortly before that, I called another large company after discovering the PFFFTTT of a broken inner seal on their orange juice. This time I was subjected to a lengthy interrogation – including being asked no less than three times if I really, really didn't have an alternate contact number – and was then ordered to keep the product in my refrigerator until I received a letter from them. This week I finally received the letter, which magnanimously informed me that I was now free to discard my own orange juice.

The lesson in both stories? Most organizations don't realize there is a simple way to turn their customers into raving fans, sitting right under their noses: change the scripts they use to deal with the public.

The word "script" strikes fear into the hearts of many customer advocates. But to me, there is great joy in good scripts. Back when I was director of customer services for a large NASDAQ software firm, great scripts that used people's names, paraphrased their concerns, and used solution-oriented language formed the bedrock upon which we built high service ratings and strong sales growth. Unfortunately, most organizations use robotic scripts that sound like they could care less, like the ones above.

Another important reason for good scripts: your own front line people. When someone like me, who is unfailingly polite, comes away feeling annoyed by transactions like these, I can just imagine how customers with lower EQs react. This is probably why your staff sound like robots who would rather be doing their taxes than working for you.

Let's close with a rare good example. A few months ago, some goof managed to hack my Apple iTunes account and charge themselves a gift certificate. When I finally figured out how to e-mail Apple (which is like trying to call the Pope), I received a response that began, " I understand you are concerned about purchases that were made with your iTunes Store account without your permission or knowledge. I realize how upsetting this can be for you. Thank you very much for reporting this to us." Wow. Perfect. And probably being cut-and-pasted just like all the other corporate responses I get. See what a difference the right words make?

(P.S. Shameless plug department: Do you want corporate communications that help your customers adore you, your employees love coming to work, and your sales go through the roof? Connect with me (gallagher -at- for a nice no-sales-pressure-whatsoever chat, anytime!)

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