In the early 2000s, companies invested heavily to ensure their communications with consumers were ‘on-brand’.
For airlines, banks, retailers, telcos, utilities and others this culture went far beyond advertising and marketing copy as tone of voice, style, conversation and dialogue guides instructed employees on how to address customers in writing and verbally.
In call centres, assistants were given tips for properly addressing different customers, for instance staff might have been advised to be formal with over 35’s by using Mr, Mrs, Miss and Ms, but to be informal with younger customers by using first names.
When corresponding by email and letter about a complaint, employees may have been told to apologise at the beginning or end of the message. Micro-behaviour guides and customer charters provided more direction to employees. Specified opportunities were highlighted to break out of the standard script in order to build rapport.
Some organisations implemented behavioural economics techniques in their style guides to improve outcomes in dialogue between customers and frontline employees. Using the bandwagon effect, customers are persuaded with phrases like, “Most of our clients are happy with this solution”, or in the case of helping to drive compliance, “95% of customers have paid their taxes on time”.
Controlling dialogue across new communication channels in the 2010s
The emergence of new channels such as text, social media, messaging, chatbots and even picture-based comms (Instagram) has precipitated an explosion in the variety of communication styles possible, so setting a single core communication style has become more challenging. And the person delivering the message might have changed too.
Today for many brands the delivery driver, who arrives parcel in hand on your doorstep, now offers the most likely opportunity for verbal dialogue in a customer journey. However these drivers often don’t work for the brand so won’t be familiar with a particular brand’s style and may not even have one for their own employer. Yet our global research for Avaya shows that 80% of consumers would like to be able to engage with them.
Changing social norms also impact dialogue. The wider trend in B2C channel usage is towards more messaging based dialogue. With social media interactions, informality should be balanced with the need for accuracy, clarity and meeting regulatory requirements. If consumers can get beyond, “Can you DM us?”, then much of this communication is there for all to see.
Freshening dialogue with an Emoji
Emojis have the potential to freshen up the tired, overly formal or intense dialogue that occurs in service interactions today. Some timely research from Xueni (Shirley) Li, Kimmy Wa Chan and Sara Kim, Service With Emoticons: How Customers Interpret Employee Use of Emoticons in Online Service Encounters, gives some good ideas about how emojis could be used. This Hong Kong research suggests, “Despite the prevalence of emoticons in business practices, the use of emoticons in marketing and service activities is not always successful”.
The Service with Emoticons model emphasises ‘warmth’ and ‘competence’ in service encounters. While emoticons can deliver warmth, they can have a negative effect on the perceived competence of the agent and business. The extent of the impact depends on how the customer perceives their relationship with the business and of course situational factors such as the reason for the interaction whether it is a complaint, a query, a purchase, etc.
It should be noted that the research sample was limited to younger people, so brands need to think carefully about how these findings apply to older consumers as they embrace digital life.
What are the implications for business?
Overall, many organisations need to modernise and freshen up their verbal and written dialogue in service and sales interactions. Specifically:
- Style manuals are still relevant but need to be more comprehensive to encompass new communication channels. This needs to encompass outsourcers and delivery drivers.
- Style manuals should be updated regularly to keep communication fresh and consistent, to be relevant in terms of formality, structure, length and to adhere to current legal and regulation requirements.
- Communication preferences are personal and situational. Brands need to continually research their own customers’ communication preferences.
- New communication styles such as including emojis, need to be implemented with care and planning with the decision to use them rooted in research.
- Behavioural techniques such as ‘nudges’ and phrases should be included to get better outcomes for customers. Then maybe as customers we’ll be asked a more original question than, ‘Is everything alright with your meal?’ each time we eat at a restaurant!
About Marcus Hickman
Customer research, data analysis and business decisions consultant working in B2C CX and B2B marketing. Set up Davies Hickman Partners in 2007. Was MD of The Henley Centre (now Kantar Futures), part of WPP. BEc, MBA, CIM, MMRS (LinkedIn). Judge Institute of Customer Service Awards.