Up until a few years ago, it was slow and expensive to contact a customer because you could only call them, email them, or send a letter. In addition, you guarantee reaching the customer as call screening and spam filters started to become norms. As a result, physical mail was probably the most common form of outbound contact for invoices and other time-insensitive communications.1
Now the world has changed, with the acceptance, speed, and low cost of test messaging and alerts on apps or portals unlocking the potential of making high-impact “pre-emptive” contacts. Organizations today can use a range of inexpensive mechanisms such as texts, social media messages, notifications, and email. These mechanisms mean that organizations can change from being a reactive inbound contact model to proactive outbound contact and collaboration. As a result, organizations can use pre-emptive strategies to keep customers informed, prompt customers to action, and manage customers’ expectations when things go wrong — whether caused by the organization or outside forces such as climate emergencies. Pre-empt strategies can be used to make customers feel better about bad situations and reduce their impact. For example, a utility uses text messaging with customers when an outage is underway because it helps customers by:
- Showing that the business is aware of the problem, thus preventing a glut of inbound calls.
- Setting expectations on the extent of the inconvenience and estimated restoration time.
- Helping the customer plan around the problem.
- Freeing up internal resources to work on the problem, rather than call handling.
Pre-emptive strategies are a win-win because they prevent costly inbound contacts and because they put the customer in control. However, the plethora of phishing and fraud is already moving some countries to regulate these mechanisms. Therefore, it is important to use pre-emptive communications wisely and in ways that help customers. Badly targeted text messages and campaigns erode credibility and make these mechanisms ineffective. For example, an insurance firm sent to their customers a badly worded message without a clear call to action; as a result, over 70% of message recipients called the contact center seeking an explanation, thereby flooding the operation with work that blew out wait times.
Let’s explore seven scenarios where pre-emptive strategies apply and then review key techniques to make them work.
When and where does it make the most sense to be pre-emptive?
From the research leading up to our recent book2 we identified seven scenarios where pre-emptive contact helps:
- Customer expectations need to be managed, particularly when an agreed timetable or commitment can’t be met, for example, a delayed delivery. Amazon used to consider customer orders placed as “promises”, leading to “missed promise alerts” to provide time for customers to attempt to find the item elsewhere.
- Events or issues that are not known (yet) to all customers, such as software bugs or incompatibilities with new releases. Astute customers who inform the company, therefore, become “the canary in the coal mine”, triggering alerts to all other customers with the same issue or version and enabling the company to investigate root causes and fix the problems.
- Long-running processes with variable timetables that customers want to track or understand, such as insurance claims or job applications. Customers often forget the terms and conditions of their contracts, so pre-emptive contacts can keep them updated.
- Future events like dental or delivery appointments to remind customers ahead of time so that they are prepared or, if needed, change the appointment.
- Upcoming expirations or auto-renewals such as monthly streaming services or annual mobile telephone or insurance contracts, perhaps offering discounts for early renewal.
- Early health checks and interventions so that customers can take advantage of them without having to remember.
- Business operation updates such as new hours, different terms and conditions, or new offers.
Organizations of any size can do this. Many small health practices like dentists and vets send booking reminders to patients, a clear win-win: Customers get a timely reminder, and the practice gets notified if there are schedule gaps to fill. Ironically, when businesses get behind with work they often stop communicating when the opposite is needed. For example, if an area falls into backlog and processing times are delayed, it’s far better to tell customers proactively than take all those “Where is my X?” calls.
Select best pre-empt actions
The great thing about some of these mechanisms is that they not only inform the customer, but they also get information back from them. Other pre-empt messages can be used to provide choices or capture missing information. For example, an airline can contact frequent flyers to offer them alternatives when delays occur. Another possible pre-emptive mechanism might prompt a conversation because that is what the organization needs. For example, if a customer is on the wrong mobile plan or is no longer using a feature that costs more money, the business needs to prompt a conversation to discuss alternatives. The best actions also include selecting the right channel or mix of channels. For example, many airlines now provide both text and email warnings of delays.
As companies migrate to apps and portals, these can be used in combination with other mechanisms. Customers can be warned via email or text that messages are waiting for them within an app where more sensitive or timely data is provided. This also reduces the risk that messages will be perceived as spam and ignored. However, this needs to be done sparingly or else messages will lose their impact. Mobile apps are using app notifications as a more secure mechanism but it’s a delicate balancing act between expecting customers to log in regularly and notifying them that messages are waiting.
Fine tune techniques
The other advantage of using pre-emptive actions is fine-tuning the timing and the content. Organizations can pilot different mechanisms with small groups of customers and refine subject lines and text. In a world full of fraudsters and spam, companies need wording to prove messages are legitimate. Banks do this by including parts of account numbers, for example, “For your account ending in xxxx” to make it clear they are genuine but without risking privacy. Some companies are also allowing customers to control how and when they are contacted so that they can customize the information flow.
Pre-emptive communications don’t fix or eliminate problems, but they are a great way to prevent unwanted contact and help customers navigate their products and services. While there is a risk that some customers will react negatively to “too many contacts,” when used judiciously pre-empt is a powerful ingredient to deliver great customer experiences with less effort.
1 This article is updated from an original by Bill’s co-author David Jaffe called Pre-emptive strikes published by Limebridge Australia in September 2022.
2 The Frictionless Organization: Deliver Great Customer Experiences with Less Effort, Bill Price & David Jaffe, Barrett-Kohler, June 2022.