Between wildfires, hurricanes, police brutality, and civil unrest, the pandemic, the election, and um, Quibi, 2020 has been a lot. A lot of a lot.
Oh, did I mention the economy? You know what—it’s probably better I don’t.
How in the 2020 is a business supposed to function right now? Six months after the world went into lockdown mode, there’s still no clear answer. We’re all kind of just figuring it out as we go along, which is frankly a frustrating, demoralizing, exhausting experience. Personally, I’ve had plenty of days when I’d rather not get out of bed—and plenty of nights I couldn’t sleep. But then I remind myself:
“People are depending on you.”
Here at Ruby, we’re fortunate to have a clear and abiding purpose in the form of our mission, customers, and community. We know what we stand for. We’re dedicated to serving businesses like yours. We love our jobs, as well as the people we work with. In fact, everything we do—from our internal projects to our external conversations with customers, and their customers—is rooted in a commitment to serve people.
Our culture and values have carried us through good times and not-so-good times. We managed to not only survive but grow through the last major global crisis—the Great Recession—by focusing on people. It’s the reason why we’re able to answer the phone in a friendly, professional manner even when the world is literally on fire. No matter what, we’re here to help people.
All of which brings me to the reason why I wanted to write this article in the first place: customer communication.
Has customer communication ever been this challenging before?
With everything going on right now, it can feel impossible to strike the right tone in your interactions with customers, clients, and prospects.
- How do you stay positive without sounding oblivious or insensitive to what the other person may be going through?
- How do you demonstrate empathy and vulnerability without crossing boundaries?
- How can you navigate sensitive, highly-charged topics when society is so politically divided?
- How do you keep your messaging coherent and you make sure you’re not asking too much of someone?
These are just a few of the customer communication concerns companies are currently contending with. (Apologies for the audacious alliteration.)
I’ll level with you: it is hard. There’s no script or template for any of this. But there are a few tricks you can use—the same ones we use here at Ruby—to make it easier on yourself, and provide the best possible experience for your customers.
Here are seven ways to improve customer communication and make sure you’re hitting the right tone right now:
1. Be honest with yourself.
As our CMO Rebecca said in a recent interview, it’s okay to not be okay right now. If you’re finding it hard to remain totally focused, positive, and professional at all times, that’s okay. If you need to take a walk or scream into a pillow before you take another call—or if you need to turn your phone off for the day—that’s okay.
It’s okay to be tired. It’s okay to feel sad or irritable or on edge. The only way to really deal with these feelings is to acknowledge them and allow yourself to have them. Be honest with yourself, take care of your needs, and you’ll be better equipped to show up to conversations confidently and authentically.
2. Be honest with your customers.
Everyone who contacts your business—be they a customer, client, or prospect—wants two fundamental things: responsiveness and transparency. They want you to answer their call (or chat, email, DM, etc.) and be honest with them.
This doesn’t mean telling someone “honestly, I’m really depressed” or “honestly, I’m having a terrible day.” It means being honest about your ability to meet their needs. And it frequently comes down to sharing important rather than unnecessary details. What information does a customer need to know about you and your company at the moment?
Maybe you’re not working as quickly or efficiently as you used to. Your customer doesn’t need to know why that is, but they do need to know when they can expect to receive a service or product.
Or maybe you’ve been waking up later than you’d like because you’re having trouble sleeping. You don’t need to talk about your insomnia or apologize for anything, but you do need to let the customer know when they can expect to reach you. If you list your business hours as 8am–5pm, but aren’t getting to sleep until 4am, maybe it’s time to change those hours.
3. Know when to talk and when to listen.
Of course, you don’t have to hide the fact that you’re a person from your customers. Mentioning that you’ve been having trouble sleeping could actually humanize you and help you create a connection with the other person. But remember that it’s ultimately about them. They (probably) don’t want to hear about your melatonin routine or the video about the biggest fungus in the world you were watching to help you fall asleep.
Let your customers own the conversation. Give them the room to set their own boundaries and overshare if they need to. You’re there to help them and offer solutions, but primarily to listen. After all, you can only serve them effectively if you know who they are and what they want.
Keep in mind that listening doesn’t always mean staying silent. It means demonstrating awareness and sensitivity with verbal signals (e.g. “Oh, wow” or “I’m so sorry to hear that”), asking clarifying questions (“How long have you been experiencing this?”), and taking note of cues to move the conversation forward (“So, how can I help you today?”).
This is what’s known as active listening, and it’s one of the most powerful skills in customer service, especially right now.
To learn more about active listening and other ways to ways to make personal connections with callers and clients, check out our ebook.
4. Keep it respectful.
Mind the tone of your marketing and sales messages. What are you saying, what language are you using, and what mood are you setting? Make sure that on a basic level, your communication respects your customers. Use words and images that match their emotions, reflect their reality, and resonate with their lived experiences.
Some examples of what not to say are obvious. Phrases like “killer sale,” “these deals are on fire,” or “let’s make this video go viral” are not ideal through the lens of 2020. Other concerns—such as how to mention reopening plans (or lack thereof), or how to word a statement about your diversity, equity, and inclusion commitment—take significant care and planning.
But regardless of whether you’re crafting an email subject line or a statement about a social justice issue, start with respect for your audience. Respect their time, attention, and humanity. You’re asking for their time, and probably their money as well. Make it easy for them to trust you and to care about what you’re offering.
By the way, Square has an excellent guide on this topic, with a bunch of “do this/not that” examples of customer communications. Read “Are Your Current Marketing Communications Striking the Right Tone?”
5. Think beyond the immediate conversation.
You have more influence than you may think over the mindsets of the people who contact your business. And you can start creating positive emotions and sentiment around your company before they even pick up the phone.
Think about the many touchpoints a business might have with customers, clients, or prospects:
- search results
- social media presence
- marketing and advertising
- sales interactions
- products and/or services
- product/service delivery
- customer experience
- listings on marketplaces and review sites
All of these elements can work together to give people a favorable impression of your business. Thinking back to a few earlier tips, consider how you can use these kinds of channels to demonstrate your humanity, provide useful information, create welcoming spaces, and show respect.
People who visit a professional-looking website full of valuable content, for example, will develop certain expectations of your business that you can deliver on in phone calls, chats, and other forms of communication. If your product or service is outstanding, they’ll have plenty of reason to express their love for your business, even when they have a problem.
Equally important are the feelings you leave people with. A truly great phone call can set the tone for a lasting relationship with a customer, or turn them from simply a buyer into a passionate advocate for your business.
6. Spend your off-hours wisely.
This tip comes from a recent article in National Geographic about why people are biased toward negative, gloom-and-doom thinking. Psychologists, historians, and public health experts all agree that the stories we tell and take in have a profound effect on how we view the world, and how we communicate that world to others.
The catch is that stories are just that—stories. And we can control which ones we consume and pay attention to:
“Actively engaging in positive conversations with friends and family members can improve someone’s overall psychological state. By contrast, ‘lurking,’ or scrolling through updates posted by friends or strangers without engaging, tends to have negative psychological effects.
Psychologists say we may never see the present as perfect, but we can learn to control our biases. The first step is to acknowledge how the media we consume shifts our perceptions. It gives our panic-prone primate brains more reasons to feel stressed and more examples of the present to compare with our highly edited version of the past. When we are mindful of our thought patterns, we can take control of them, and give ourselves a reality check[.]”
In other words, be smart about your media habits. Think about what you read, watch, and listen to when you’re not at work, as it influences your attitude in communication with customers.
I’m not suggesting you tune out the news and watch It’s a Wonderful Life on repeat. Rather, take some time to read books, engage in conversations, and appreciate art that challenges your assumptions, sparks curiosity, and deepens your appreciation of the world. An open mind and an open heart are essential for customer service—and life in general, for that matter.
7. Have fun.
At the end of the day, we’ve all got to find joy where we can. Why not in customer communication?
A healthy amount of fun and humor will make your business stand out, cut through the negativity of our era, and cultivate meaningful connections with the people you serve.
Try it out for yourself. Next time you’re on the phone, crack a joke. You don’t need to be a comedic genius. Even if the only person you’re making laugh is yourself, that’s alright—happiness and enthusiasm are infectious, after all.
The good kind of infectious, I mean.
Oh boy, I should probably end the article while we’re ahead.
With Ruby’s live virtual receptionists and chat services, you’ll nail the tone and create meaningful connections with your customers, every time—24/7/365.
Heather is Head of Customer Marketing at Ruby and has been a marketer for over 14 years. Her experience spans business consulting, web design, education technology, and the non-profit sector.