Why your marketing doesn’t need fixing

Marketing communications are the least of most companies’ problems. They hire agencies and pay their fees to research and write their sales material. Most marketing communication is, by and large, OK. The problem comes once the customer has bought and falls into the communications slough of ‘Customer Services’.

Sales and marketing material is usually written by agencies. But who writes the customer service communications? The scripts (may your god help you) for the call centre operators to parrot? Who designs the account statements? It’s Sherillee, that middle manager in Customer Services, isn’t it? Go on – admit it. Your marketing budget runs to six figures – yet the job of retaining that customer you fought so, so hard for is delegated to Sherillee.

Sherillee’s a top administrator; she cares a lot about customer retention. But she knows less than the square root of nothing about communications. Worse than that, if you’re a plc, you’ve probably passed her letter through three or four senior managers, a couple of product managers and finally, the compliance department. What started out as a badly written, somewhat convoluted letter is now a dense mass of sub-clauses, riders, disclaimers and faux-Dickensian English.

Your customer will not read beyond line two and if she does, she’ll think you’re useless.

Why should that bother you? So what if Mrs Buggins from Leamington doesn’t read the letter that Sherillee has so carefully crafted? Because Mrs Buggins is going to get a whole lot of other stuff, from other companies, that want to sell her something. Creative agencies will have spent hours trying to poach her from you with neat, well-written, propositional direct mail offers. They’ll have invested time, money and effort in taking her away from you – and you’re relying on Sherillee’s misbegotten, malcrafted standard letters, statements and scripts to keep her.

OK, I’m over-personalising to make a point, but most businesses – even plcs – spend a fraction of the time they should on their customer service communications. And this applies just as much if it’s ISAs you’re selling, insurance or pony nuts – Mrs Buggins wants to be treated like she matters.

Of course, my mythical Sherillee isn’t that dreadful. She can sling a few words together and make a (usually) literate sentence. Problem is, that’s not enough anymore – people don’t have time to wade through dense prose to find the meaning buried in paragraph three.

When they’re not writing faux-Dickens (“…we trust this is of assistance to you.”) corporate scribblers seem to have dug deep for their words in the bullshit heap. This note from BT turned up in yesterday’s post. “At BT, we’re committed to giving you a high quality service so that you can concentrate on meeting the ever increasing needs of your customers, which is why we have introduced BT Business Plan.” Sorry chaps, I know you’re actually concerned with whacking your share price as high as it can go. You won’t give a minute more to spend on my clients, so don’t try to kid me you will. The writer of this flowery, irrelevant, poorly thought-through tosh was selling snake oil. And if BT is committed to giving me a high quality service, how come all their operators are always ‘busy on other calls’ when I ring?

This raises another point. Don’t lie to your customers. They know when you’re lying because they’re not stupid and they’ve already bought from you. You need to be honest when you communicate, or at the very least you need to manage expectations. It would make a world of difference if BT said, “When you ring us, you may have to wait a little while before an operator can pick up your call.” But no, they’re too busy drafting customer letters with more puff than magic dragon soup.

The Sherillee Syndrome doesn’t just apply to customer letters. In most businesses, the communications aspects of customer retention hardly get thought about. How many times have you had to fill in an app form where you’ve had to write the same information three times? Or used a website where, once you’re a customer, you can’t find out anything useful? Or tried to call the customer telephone number where you’re kept in eternal ‘on-hold’ hell?

It’s so simple for customers to walk away nowadays. They’re used to finding deals; they know its part of the process. They know they get a better price if they’re promiscuous. They’ve got the whole web to look around. They’ve got your competitors bashing on their door asking for a chance. So you need to keep them. That means investing as much time (although not necessarily money) in communicating clearly to your customers. It means making their lives easier – not harder – when they’ve bought from you. For most businesses that’s not newsletters and fancy stuff, it’s just getting the basics right.

Spend some time and money on sorting out your client letters, your application forms and your call centre scripts.

After all, are you really happy leaving your customers to be looked after by Sherillee?

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