How Poor Customer and User Technical Communication Hurts Business

How Poor Technical Communication Hurts Business reveals that firms regularly increase their customer service and marketing costs by sending inept letters, emails, technical instructions, and other communications to their customers and employees. It shows how they can increase profit by making these communications more user-centric.

Poor Technical Communication Hurts BusinessBanks, physicians, retailers, and many others routinely send poor instructional technical communications to their customers, resulting in high customer service costs, high return costs, high customer churn, and many related costs. These letters, emails, web pages, and other communications are produced by writers who show little insight into customers’ journeys that include the product or service.

The same problem occurs when firms communicate to their employees, and this results in employees’ anxiety and lost productivity (think about choosing your “benefits”) as well as HR staff time, IT staff time, management time, and employee dissatisfaction. It hurts the relationship that most employers try to develop with their employees.

In this post I am referring to communications that intend to help existing customers (employees) do something that involves technology or a complex product/offering. Having trained and mentored thousands of people, I have learned that learning is faster and more complete when people keep their minds open longer. Abstruse, confusing technobabble or legalese affects people like throwing them into cold water; their minds close, and their frustration spikes. In this post, I’ll discuss the scope of the problem before revealing an approach for turning it into an opportunity to increase profit.

Direct Costs of Poor Customer and User Communication

Firms regularly send their customers various communications that are “technical” in nature, and these are uniformly horrid. They read like they were written by engineers or lawyers who had no idea of customers’ mindsets. They are cold and unhelpful. Do you recognize some of these examples?

  1. Your bank has just completed a system upgrade, so you get a letter via email, snail mail, or text. It informs you about the upgrade (there’s usually a warning one a month before the cutover, then another when it happens) and what you must do to comply with it. Often your identify on the old system doesn’t survive, so some reconnecting is in order. The inane, and often inaccurate, instructions lead to a mandatory call to technical support, increasing customer service costs. The last I checked, that was ten dollars a pop if it is resolved with the first representative.
  2. The big day arrives, your tech gadget arrives or service is provisioned. Now all you have to do is configure it. Easy, right? Wrong! The paper or web linked instructions are incomprehensible or misleading, so you either: return the item or ring customer support, or both. And you may need another support call or escalation to a senior engineer, doubling the cost of the call (or more). If you return or cancel the item, that’s even more expensive for the seller. So these costs often occur together: customer service call, return/cancellation, and/or discounts offered to retain the customer (and avoid the return or cancellation of a service).
  3. Physicians and other healthcare providers often complain about patients’ noncompliance with medications and other treatments, but a quick look at the instructions that accompany the medications or treatments reveals that they are more appropriate for machine instruction than for guiding a person who is sick. This results in patients taking the wrong amount, misunderstanding side effects of combinations with other medications, etc. It means prolonged misery of the patient and her/his family. It means a call or calls to the nurse, or noncompliance. Noncompliance also costs the payer (insurance company) the cost of relapse and myriad other costs. It costs the physician the loss of the patient when s/he changes doctors.
  4. You purchase something “with some assembly required.” I don’t think I need say much more here as it is a popular joke (eye-roll). The poor assembly instructions often result in irritation or angst (and you thought you were good at this) or even outright frustration and your return of the item, the latter often after a support call.
  5. The app upgrade for your mobile device, watch, laptop, gadget, etc., is confusing, and it invariably happens at the wrong time. You try to use online help, but your situation isn’t included, so that means a call to technical support.

Indirect and Opportunity Costs of Poor Customer Communication

The above situations are a few off-the-cuff examples I’ve used from my own experience, and validated with some quick online research to gather others’ experiences. Those immediate costs already have serious impact on the bottom line, but additional costs of poor customer technical communications continue to pile up. For example:

  1. After one of the above experiences, you will probably think twice before ordering from that company/manufacturer/brand again. That hits customer lifetime value, hard.
  2. These experiences accumulate, and each person has a threshold. When experiences involve services like banking, you may switch banks. This increases churn, which leeches profit out of the business. When customers leave, revenue decreases, and marketing costs increase.
  3. You will probably tell friends and family about it, which increases marketing costs because these people now have a negative image of the firm. They don’t trust the firm to serve them well.
  4. People increasingly strike back through negative reviews on review sites as well as social media posts.

All these service and marketing costs consume resources that you could deploy in innovation and other growth initiatives that distinguish your company. Operational costs crowd out new investment. For example, in enterprise software, maintaining applications consumes most of the IT budget. Reducing operational costs frees more money for new application development.

Firms regularly send thousands or millions of these communications to their existing customers, and a large portion of them result in some of these direct and indirect costs. Let’s say the number one example, a bank system upgrade, has 10% of customer support calls. Multiply $10 by 10% and the number of customers to whom the bank sent the communication.

How to Fix Poor Customer Communications

  1. Technical writers and customer communications writers need to research customers at a new level: why and how do customers intend to use the service or product? What outcome (or “job”) do they have when they use the product? What kind of situation are they in when they try to use the instructions? Where are they physically when they receive the communication? When they try to use it? This research will enable you to understand customers’ contexts, so you can describe the change/product/service in a way that synchs with their situations. You can be more empathic, and this will increase their tolerance for the work they have to do and their motivation to do their part.
  2. Learn how customers think about the process/product, how they talk about it, and their past experiences with similar products and processes. This will enable you to incorporate customers’ language, thoughts, and expressions within the communication. Common language and expressions function like friends in common. They help people feel that you know them and understand them.
  3. Within the bounds of your brand voice, make the communications more personal. Many of them feel very cold and impersonal, or they are so cutesy that they come off as condescending or trite. This alienates customers—like a cold handshake.
  4. Use persona studies and journey maps to enable the communications to accommodate customers’ journeys, outcomes, and language to the extent you know them. Remember, much of this research can be reused. The ROI of the research will be improved each time you reuse it.
  5. Baseline your current costs before using the research to craft and send customer communications. Conduct A/B testing for various communications. This will enable you to measure the impact of each version.

Wrapping Up

  • As I wrote in Why Design Will Eat User Documentation, customers and users have less and less patience with products and services that are not designed for them, and design starts by developing empathy with their goals, desires, traits, and processes. That’s why things that are expressly designed for people are more successful. The “How to fix” suggestions are classic design approaches.
  • Technical communications can produce much higher ROI by incorporating user-centric research that focuses on users’ goals and journeys. It’s important to realize that their goals are not using the product/service; they usually relate to fixing pains in their lives, or acting on opportunities. They hope that, by using the product, they can reach their goals.
  • Agile Digital Ethnography is a lean user research process I have developed to give firms the insights they need to become much more user-focused.

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