Customer calling – is anybody listening?

I tried a new way of getting help from my energy supplier this week, but ran into familiar hassles. I wanted to move from a standard tariff to a fixed tariff. Not so difficult, surely? I thought I’d try having a webchat. I found it a touch irritating that every other sentence was answered with “that’s fantastic, Fiona!” but a bigger problem lay ahead.

Absolutely no one could grasp the fact that my house used to go by a different address. It is still the same house, but its identity has changed. My chatmate gave up, and passed the buck. “I suggest you call customer services and explain your problem Fiona.” Could they call me, perhaps? “No Fiona I’m afraid not, they cannot make outbound calls.” OK, so the webchat was a waste of time. I continued my quest via email. Emails punctuated with “good news!” and the inevitable “bear with me” just went round in circles as the query was passed from assistant to assistant, with each new agent asking questions that had been answered earlier in the email trail. If the webchat was purgatory, the emails were surely customer-service hell.

Where’s the Customer Relations?

It grated because, in a previous life as a customer service agent, I enjoyed dealing with unusual queries, which I usually found myself able to solve. So why couldn’t anyone think outside the fusebox, and try to work with me, the customer? Eventually someone did have a brainwave (albeit to gain information I had already given) and the mystery address was ascertained. Now we can all move on and choose a better value tariff. Hooray! But why make it so hard for us?

It happens like this all the time. A while ago, when a package was lost (delivered to the wrong address, and then signed for) the courier, credit-card company and merchant all refused to accept responsibility. I didn’t get my package, or a refund, or an apology from anyone.

I’ve also met the webchat robot before. I once tried to cancel a subscription continued in error. Almost everything I typed was met with “that’s great!” even when I said things like, “Don’t you understand? This subscription should have been cancelled.”

Good complaint handling makes all the difference

If organisations did their research, they would discover that the three things that matter most to customers are that someone listens to their complaint, that someone takes responsibility, and that they make a genuine effort to solve the problem. Most of us aren’t after money.

Based on my recent experiences, I can give energy suppliers and other organisations a few simple tips:

1. Listen. Far too many customer-service agents seem only to read from scripts, and simply can’t give an honest reaction to a genuine query.

2. Don’t allow more than one agent to share an email account; this just causes duplication and frustration for the customer.

3. Don’t put people on the job whose English isn’t good enough. Some of our problems are hard enough to explain anyway.

4. Don’t use stock phrases. We can smell them a mile off, and we know they have nothing to do with our complaint.

If you value your corporate reputation, you can’t afford to make these elementary errors. We customers will tweet about you, we will tell our friends, we will tell the regulators; and one day we will destroy you.

Listen to us. And if you want to learn to use customer-friendly language, try talking to my colleagues at Clarity.

Accuracy matters

I came across this page: the other day. It’s a long list of instances where mistakes caused by single keystrokes in spreadsheets have caused losses of millions of pounds or, in the case of the 2012 Olympics, the selling of 10,000 non-existent tickets.

For anyone who wasn’t already convinced, this shows it’s worth having someone check your figures. But is the same true of words?

We at Clarity naturally think it is. And there’s plenty of evidence that spelling mistakes can cost money. Online selling relies on the written word. Misspellings reduce users’ trust in a website and put customers off. One online retailer doubled its sales after identifying and correcting a spelling mistake.

For marketing via email, correct spelling matters too. With so many phishing emails out there, you have to convince consumers that your communication is genuine before they decide whether it’s something they’re interested in. If your marketing email raises too many red flags, your customer will never even see it because it will go straight to the ‘Junk’ folder.

For more guidance on how to write good marketing emails, check out’s list of tips, tricks and secrets.

Getting the tone right

“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

People often tell me they get stick from colleagues for emails that are seen as too short, too direct or too brusque. I secretly cheer, but no, they want to know how to make them longer, softer, fluffier. This is a tricky one. However much you praise them for writing concisely and getting to the point, you can’t argue with the responses they’re getting, and you can’t just dismiss their concerns.

Meanwhile across the Channel, some non-native English speakers working for a British company in Europe delighted me by asking how to make their emails less polite, how to cut down on the “please could you kindly” and “I would be extremely grateful if you would be good enough to …” sort of thing. They don’t use such extravagant phrases in their own language, but they were dutifully emulating their British counterparts.

So how to arrive at a happy medium? How to be courteous without being unctuous? Here’s one approach: think about your reader and imagine you’re talking to them. Try to make a genuine personal connection, without frills or flounces, with a simple scene-setter and a warm sign-off. Sleep on the email. Show it to a friend. And finally, trust your own judgment and don’t lose your head while all around you are being fluffy.

False starts

Have you noticed a new trend in the way people are beginning their work emails? “I hope you are well”, they write. Or, ominously, “I hope all is well”. Or anxiously, “I do hope this finds you well”.

Well, it doesn’t. It finds me quite unwell. Why is the writer worrying about me? Do they know something I don’t? Is this a coded reminder to go for that check-up? A roundabout way of telling me I look terrible?

Then, in the next line, they’re on to something else, never to mention my health again. Aha. The penny drops. They don’t really care at all. It’s just a bit of waffle, a form of scene-setter to replace “Thank you for your email” or “Ben suggested I contact you.”

So why do I find it annoying? Because it’s cheesy, fake and irrelevant, and sets the wrong tone for a professional exchange.

I’m thinking of taking it literally next time: “Kind of you to ask, and no, I’m not. The doctors are pessimistic, and I’ve added you to the group email for my daily medical bulletin.”

Will that discourage the offenders? Or should I pick my battles?