Sending the Wrong Email can be an Opportunity to do the Right Thing

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We all get them every day. Emails that we delete without reading. Yet companies invest countless hours in developing email campaigns and messaging to try and catch our attention or interest just for us to ignore them. My wife and I were discussing recently the top email subject headers that means we will automatically delete a marketing email.

My wife’s top flag was anything that gave her an order to do something. Yesterday’s winner in that category was an email she received from a company that shouted “This is important information you need – Don’t Delete!” – The first thing she did? Deleted that email.

My pet peeve is over friendly emails from people I’ve never met, like this example from yesterday, “Reminder – Hey Alan, did you have a chance to review my email?” My response, check the company on the email address, not someone I do business with, then hit the Delete button.

Then there’s the emails from companies that you do interact with on a regular basis, but when you read it you think “How did I end up on that mailing list?” You delete it and don’t give it much thought beyond it ramping up an annoyance factor with the company that can eventually impact your overall customer experience.

But great brands and customer-aware companies can use a well-defined customer communications management strategy to turn that “How did I end up on this list?” moment into a positive experience rather than a negative one.

A case in point. Our car.

Although my family changes cars on a pretty regular basis we are pretty brand loyal. At any given time you can bet that someone in the family is driving an example from this particular brand’s line up. At the moment it’s my wife. It’s the eleventh example of the brand we’ve owned.

So imagine my surprise to receive an email from the company that was headed “We’re sorry to see you go.” It continued along the lines that the company had heard we had sold the car and wanted to ask a few questions of our experience with the brand, and why we’d moved on. Looking out the window I could still see the car sitting on the driveway. Yep, definitely on the wrong mailing list. I deleted the note, and didn’t think any more of it.

Until two days later.

A follow-up email arrived from the car company apologizing for the wrong email being sent. There was a well- worded message along the lines of “we know that you still own your car, and thanks for being a loyal customer.” This was followed with a note that by way of apology a small gift was in the mail (which arrived the next day).

There was also an additional follow-up that laid out our ownership of the current car, and a note that as a token of thanks for our loyalty if we headed to our local dealer within the next thirty days they would upgrade us from our current model to the equivalent latest model at a stated lower APR rate.

One mistake = good follow up + bonus gift + acknowledgement of my customer loyalty + upsell offer.

That’s good customer communications management, it helps strengthen relationships, develops good customer experience, and promotes more value and revenue across the customer lifecycle.

While we’re not ready to take up that trade-in offer just yet, but when it does come time to change the car again, guess which company will once again be top of our list?

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We Can’t Predict the Future, But We Can Prepare

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Growing up in England in the ’60s, I was fascinated by a series of action-adventure TV shows produced by Century 21 Productions. The shows featured machines that traveled in space, underwater, underground and performed fantastic feats or flew at tremendous speeds.

Then in the late ’60s I came across a show called “Star Trek” — and I’ve been thinking about the future ever since.

My first job out of college was working on the Concorde supersonic passenger jet, and I also was tangentially involved with a project to design a hyper-sonic space plane.

Now here we are in the 21st century and none of that happened! 

Who Can Predict the Future?

I love living in the future, although it’s not the one I was expecting.

We may not have flying cars and jet packs, but look at what we do have.

We all walk around with a pocket sized device that connects us to the greatest repository of human knowledge in history. We can have instantaneous conversations across continents, and use that same device to take photos, watch TV and movies, store and read a library of books, access the world’s news organizations, socialize with millions of people around the world — and maybe even make the occasional phone call.

It’s a technology that no one saw coming, yet in the space of less than a decade the smart phone has changed the way we live, the way we communicate and the way we do business.

The Times They Are a Changin’

As content professionals how can we possibly predict and prepare for a change like that? The answer is that we probably can’t.

In the words of America’s newest Nobel Prize winner, Bob Dylan (and who would have predicted that?), “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

But we can look at where today’s trends and activities are heading and extrapolate.

One of the greatest moments of realization for me around how people interacted with content was watching my then 15-year old daughter doing a homework assignment on Pearl Harbor. When I passed her a book on World War II from my history bookcase she ignored the table of contents and index and instead flicked through the pages until she found a photo she knew related to the subject she was studying. Only then did she start to read around it.

She was doing a visual search and then browsing the book like it was the web. At that point I realized that the traditional book paradigm no longer produced the user experience her generation needed.

Find the Opportunities in Developing Trends

So what’s happening now that will impact the near future? For the last decade I’ve been a big proponent of Augmented Reality (AR) as a way to communicate, engage and inform. I believe it has great potential to deliver as yet unexplored customer experiences. I think AR will win over Virtual Reality as the latter is too immersive and isolating (but I could be wrong — the future will decide).

Look at what technologies are developing and how new generations are using them. Extrapolate, and think how that will impact your business.

Don’t look for potential threats, but look for potential opportunities. It’s not about chasing the current hot gadget, the future is about recognizing change. Look outside your industry, outside your area of expertise. We need to get comfortable about being uncomfortable about new technology and trends. Study across many fields: technology, psychology, sociology, story-telling, movie-making and more.

So how do we address the challenge of mapping the future? First, learn to recognize the future, and then be prepared to adjust when the jet pack turns out to be an iPhone instead.

 

So What’s in a Name? – Everything!

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All I wanted to do was give a business some money. Yet they seemed determined to make it as difficult as possible for me to pay my bill. We had received our first invoice from them as a paper bill in the mail (How 20th Century!), but as we pay all but two of our regular bills online we decided to go on-line and pay that way.
Two steps into the website process it asked for our Account Number; which was not printed anywhere on the paper bill, nor on the covering letter. A few clicks and we
managed to find our account profile online. Still nothing labelled as “Account Number” anywhere. OK we’ll pay by check this time around just to make sure it
gets there. Then we saw the following note on the payment instructions: “Please include your account number on the check.”
You mean the “Account Number” that you haven’t told us?
A few more clicks around the website and we eventually found an email address to send a question about how we found this elusive number. The response was “ Oh we get asked that a lot. You just go to your Account profile and combine the abbreviation from Box with the number from Box 5 so the account number looks something like ABC1245.”
As I ran this frustrating scenario back through my mind (after I had managed to pay the bill) it raised several Customer experience questions:
1. If you have customers repeatedly asking the same question about a part of your process, then that part of your process is broken. You need to fix it. And not in a way that makes it easier for you, but in a way that it makes it easier for the customer to complete their task, like giving you money on time!
2. If there’s a vital identifying piece of information that customers need to be able to interact with your business processes, then make sure it’s included on any, and all, customer correspondence or interaction, be they physical or digital.
3. Names are important. Thin k about what you call something. Don’t expect the customers to know the terms you use internally. Pick names that the customer will recognize and use it consistently.
As a further example of this last point, I once worked with a company where one of its product lines was known internally by its engineering name. No-one outside the company used that term to describe that sort of product. No-one in the industry, and certainly none of the company’s customers or prospects did. But the engineering name was embedded throughout the company’s processes and even used on the website.
No-one ever searched for that name and as a result it never came up in search results and on-line lead generation for that product line was almost non-existence.
After a lot of discussion we eventually got the product people to agree to using the more common name on the website – i.e. the term that customers and prospects used when searching. In a week the relevant webpages started popping up in the top 10 search results. In a year the lead generation increased exponentially with a resultant growth in product revenue.
The customers were also happier, and support costs dropped, because they could now find the information they needed quickly and easily.
Think about the names you use, and the processes you use them in – then think about them again from the customer’s perspective.

So What Exactly is OmniChannel?

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An angry man with a delivery van redefined my understanding of omni-channel customer experience.

Traditionally when I’ve referred to omni-channel delivery I’ve tended to think primarily in terms of content; it’s all about making sure that we deliver the right content or messaging across multiple digital platforms such as a website, tablet, or phone. Is it a consistent experience suitably tailored for each different device? Add in physical contact points through printed media, store-front, or call center interaction and then we might be talking about delivering an omni-channel customer experience.

Does it go further than that? What do we actually mean by omni-channel?

Let’s take a look at some of the formal definitions.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines omni-channel as denoting or relating to a type of retail that integrates the different methods of shopping available to consumers (e.g., online, in a physical store, or by phone).”

While Wikipedia broadens the scope as “a cross-channel business model that companies use to increase customer experience.” Which seems to fit in with what I’ve been discussing above.

But, let’s take a deeper look at the entomology, “omni” comes from the word omnis which can mean all or universal. If we say we are delivering an omni-channel experience are we really managing and delivering a good customer experience across EVERY channel that a customer can possibly interact with us? What about those channels outside our direct control that still add to the overall experience with our product, especially when it is sold, implemented, or supported through resellers, dealers, retail stores, third-parties, etc.

And it’s a two way process. We might be using every conceivable channel we can think of to deliver our message or communicate with our customers; but are we aware of every single channel that they are using to communicate with us? Over the years I’ve written letters to companies, phoned them up, sent emails, and these days I’m more than likely to post something on Twitter when I want to communicate both good and bad experiences. Many companies monitor these obvious channels of communication, but are they catching everything?

Which brings me back to the angry man with the van. What if one of your customers bought your product and was so unhappy with it that they painted their complaints on the side of it and used it as a mobile billboard to advertise their dissatisfaction and tell people not to buy your products? The man with the van did just that.

He made his van into part of the omni-channel by using it as a literal vehicle of communication back to the manufacturer concerned.

There is no way that we can anticipate this sort of outlier behavior, but such actions are usually a culmination of other interactions through monitored channels that have failed. Is it feasible to deliver a literal omni-channel experience? Probably not. But we can all strive to deliver the best continual connected customer experience across every channel, both outbound and inbound, that we manage.

10 Commandments of Storytelling Applied to Technical Content.

I originally wrote this blog post back in 2009, but as it’s come up a few times in various conference conversations during the past few weeks – I thought it might be worth an update and repost.

Anyone who reads this blog will know that I’m a strong advocate of storytelling in all forms of communications. I believe that it applies as much to technical or marketing communication as it does to your favorite novel or movie. So I decided to see if I could apply screenwriting guru, Robert McKee’s 10 Commandments of Storytelling to Technical Documentation.

1. Thou shalt not take the crisis or climax out of the protagonists hands. So who is the “protagonist” of your documentation? It could be your product, but the most likely candidate is that your “protagonist” is the person using your documentation. Your documentation should be written in such a way that your protagonist can use the information so that they feel that they have solved the crisis (or put more prosaically, overcome the problem they have) themselves based on the knowledge you have presented. Another story telling trick, often cited by screen-writer Todd Alcot, that is worth remembering – ask yourself “What does the protagonist want?”

2. Thou shalt not make life easy for the protagonist. This seems contrary to the very purpose of Technical Documentation. Isn’t it our job to make life easier? Yes it is. But in certain types of documentation, such as training materials, you may want to include challenges, and then guide the reader through them. This way you can build a sense of accomplishment as the reader progresses through the material.

3. Thou shalt not use false mystery or surprise. Don’t hold back anything that is integral to full understanding of the product or service you are writing about. But also make sure to reveal information in a logical manner that is considerate of the reader’s needs. Make sure they have the information they need to know, at the time they need it.

4. Thou shalt respect thine audience. The first rule of any sort of writing is “know your audience.” Know them, and respect their level of knowledge. If you are writing something for experts, then you may not need to include the basic information that you might use for a more general consumer market. The use of conditional text is a great way to handle different topics and statements designed for different audiences within a common documentation set.

5. Thou shalt have a god-like knowledge of your universe. A joke I often use is “What’s the definition of an ‘expert’?” – The answer is “it’s a person who has read two more pages in the manual than you have.” So what does that make the person who wrote the manual in the first place? We may not know everything about what we are documenting, but we should give the reader the confidence that we do.

6. Thou shall use complexity rather than complication. Most of what we write about in Tech Doc, is by its very nature, complex. We should take that complexity and break it down into logical steps and topics that can guide the reader. We should never use complexity as an excuse for making the documentation complicated.

7. Thou shalt take your character to the end of the line. We learn in grade school that every story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The same applies to documentation too. The narrative should guide the reader through the process, or information, in such a way that it flows logically, and that at the end they know more, or have achieved more, than when they started.

8. Thou shalt not write on the nose dialog. Wait, I hear you asking, there’s no dialog in Tech Doc – so how does this apply? Well the definition of “on the nose dialog” relates to the scene when a character says aloud, exactly what he is thinking or describes what is happening around him. So how does this apply to Tech Doc? Do you have sections of doc that are restating the obvious? Try reading your docs out aloud? Is it boring and repetitious? Try altering sentence lengths. Don’t think anyone ever listens to docs as if it was dialog? As a teenager I spent hours working under cars while a buddy nearby would read the steps from the manual for me to follow. How about a visually impaired customer using a reading device?

9. Thou shalt dramatize thine exposition. Put simply “show don’t tell.” In prose this means have your characters reacting to an event, not talking about it. But isn’t our job to tell people how to do something? Yes it is, but the key word is “how.” Replace long descriptive texts on operational theory with a few active steps the user can take themselves, that demonstrates the product, and they will gain a quicker understanding. People learn more by doing than they do by being told.

10. Thou shalt rewrite. Do I need to explain this one? Plan your schedule with time to write, have someone else review, and rewrite. Best of all scenarios is to write, have someone actually use your draft to accomplish the tasks you have written about, get feedback. Better yet, watch them try to use your docs. Then go back and rewrite based on your observations. They say that any good piece of art is never finished. Writing is art, even Tech Writing. You can always improve on what you’ve done.

Color me this…

The following are a few extracts from my latest feature cover article for INTERCOM magazine on Communicating with Color

 

My red shoes went viral on the Internet thanks to a photograph taken at the Intelligent Content Conference in Palm Springs back in February. Over the last couple of years I’ve developed a bit of an obsession with Converse sneakers, and as of today have nine pairs in different colors, usually worn to match whatever shirt or jacket I’m wearing. The red ones always seem to draw comments or, it seems, the occasional photograph.
However my interest in color goes beyond my choice of sartorial footwear, as I’ve long been interested in the use of color as a design element in communications and storytelling.
Color has always been around us, used by both man and nature as a means to communicate.  The bright plumage of a bird, or the striped fur of a Tiger are not an accident, they are an integral part of the way that the animals interact with each other and their surroundings. The same goes for the human species. We have long used color to communicate with each other and as a part of various cultural traditions. So why not use color as part of our technical communications toolbox as well?
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Of course adding color to your technical communications deliverables isn’t as simple as just picking a few crayons from the box and coloring in between the lines. The use of color takes a lot of thought, and a new set of skills that need to be considered. In fact the color theory knowledge and experience of an individual can make a big impact.   
….
Think about the colors you see around you everyday and how they are used. Red for Stop or Danger. Green for Go etc. Your company probably already has some color standards overseen by the marketing group on how the company colors can be used. Think about how they can be incorporated in to your technical documentation. Even take a look at the colors used in the product you are writing about. How can they be used?

The full article is available in the print edition of the STC INTERCOM magazine, or on-line here.

Every Presentation, Ever: A Communication Failure?

I have spent, and continue to spend, a lot of my professional life either giving, or sitting through presentations. I have seen every one of the communication failures parodied in this video.

After I’d watched the video and smiled in recognition, and even winced occasionally about things know I’ve done in the past. I started thinking about the title.

Is every presentation ever given an exercise in communications failure?

I would submit that the vast majority are – sure there are good ones (see the various TED talks for instance), but most presentations are simply a dry regurgitation of facts and ideas that could be better expressed in much more entertaining and different ways.

How?

By focusing on the speaker, not on the PowerPoint.

Think about the conference sessions you remember most – I bet it was the ones with the energtic, passionate, articulate speakers, rather than the ones with the prettiest slides. I have seen a growing trend amongst top rated speakers and presenters to just use single image slides acting as a backdrop to a particular point as a way of getting the audience to focus on them and the message they are delivering. I even have spoken to several other regular conference speakers about dropping the use of slides altogether, but conference organizers seem to get scared when you say you don’t have any slides.

During the course of the year I attend two distinct types of industry events, first there are the technical and business conferences, then as a pop-culture writer there are the the various conventions. For as long as I have been attending science-fiction and comics conventions the default way of communicating with the audience is to have a panel of guests discuss a particular topic in which they have a stated interest, or experience. No PowerPoints, just people discussing what they know and what they are passionate about. The results are invariably both enlightening and entertaining.

Yet business conferences are still dominated by the “person in front of a slide deck” model. – Why? Over the last couple of years I’ve been lucky enough to be invited in a few business conferences that have experimented with the panel approach (usually just one or two in a program dominated by presentations), and in every case they have been well received, and a joy to participate in.

But it doesn’t necessarily need a panel to get that same effect. I mentioned the TED talks earlier – many of the most viewed videos are of a single person on stage, just talking. Sharing ideas with a passion.

Of all the presentations I have ever sat through the most spell-binding was from graphic design guru Edward Tufte who spoke for a whole day on the subject of graphics, and never once used a PowerPoint slide.

Instead of “presenting” information and hiding behind slide decks we should be encouraging expression of ideas, conversations, and discussion. – That’s what communication is really about.