High Stakes Customer Communications

It goes without saying that extra care is needed when you’re communicating with large groups of customers about sensitive issues. For example, the stakes are always high when letting them know about their bills, price rises, renewals, changes to terms and conditions or even regulatory messages etc.

The irony is that if you get it right nobody notices. But get it wrong and the damage is instant with large numbers of cancellations, customer complaints not to mention a costly increase in contacts to handle.

But what does extra care mean in practice? We work on high stakes communications from bills to renewals letters. Our approach is to design — taking into account both the needs of the business and consumer — and test our ideas with customers as we go. The result is that design decisions are continually validated. And if there’s a problem, it’s spotted early.

6 tips for getting it right.

1. Success criteria — Decide what the success criteria are in terms of outcomes (e.g. contact volume, renewal rates, CSat etc.). And contributory factors (readability, whether what’s most important is easy to find etc.). These should be based on what you’ve seen previously for something similar.

2. Decide what you need to say — Make a list of everything that you want to say. It’s worth breaking this down into must and nice to haves, just in case compromises need to be made further down the line.

3. Find out what customers want — This could be a qualitative (e.g. interviews) or quantitative (e.g. survey questions with defined answers) study with your existing customers. Or, just put yourself in their shoes and ask others what they think.

4. Design (how to say it) —  Sometimes your needs and those of customers are the same. When they’re not you’ll need to strike a balance. Customer focussed organisations compromise on their own needs. When it comes to creating the actual communication think graphic design, language, structure (what’s most important first) and written tone of voice. Some of these may be covered by your corporate identity manual and you’ll need to work within those guidelines. Our Cheshire CAT (CCAT) service writing rules are another useful guide.

5. Test — Try out what you’re thinking on small groups of consumers as you go. This approach is sometimes called ‘Fail Fast’. You’ll quickly pick up whether there’s anything major wrong and be able to correct it before too much time has been spent. When it comes to testing ‘Think, Feel and Do’ is a useful rule of thumb. Try and understand the logical thought processes of customers (Think), their emotions (Feel) and what the likely outcomes will be (Do). Groups of 6 – 12 people that represent your customer demographic are a good start. Going around the design and test loop 3 – 6 times is not unusual.

6. Validation — Once you have a final design proposal, a validation test is critical. The aim of this is to predict — with a greater degree of accuracy — what all your customers will do when they receive your communication. You can also validate contributory factors, such as readability and whether what’s most important is easy to find etc. Two types of validation to consider are:

• Real world — this may be harder to set up but will give the most accurate results. You’ll need to send the proposed communication, or a link, to a subset of your customers and measure the actual outcomes. You can also do a post contact survey to validate other factors.

• Simulated — this is easier to do but is less accurate. Sometimes it’s not possible to run a real world test for reasons of secrecy for example. With simulated tests you’re aiming to mimic real world conditions in so far as you can. Outcomes can be measured by asking what customers are likely to do. However, saying something and doing something are not the same. So, there’s a greater degree of uncertainty because of this.

For both types of tests the group sizes will need to be large enough to make your findings statistically significant. The acid test is whether what you find meets the success criteria you’ve set at the first stage.

How far you go with design and testing is going to depend on how much is at risk. But when just a 1% reduction in renewals or increase in contact could cost millions, the benefits of being able to understand the consequences far outweigh the cost.

Katie Waldeck