In 2014, I produced a video for the American Society for Quality on “Delivering Psychic Pizza.” The basic concept is to provide information (or the pizza) just before the customer needs or gets around to ordering it.
While many organizations are now executing proactive communication and proactive service, in most cases it is a bunch of ad hoc actions addressing a few Moments of Truth (MOT). For example, airlines now provide text notifications of flight cancellations and gate changes. However, most companies push communications are a blend of both useful and irritating texts and emails because they have not created a systematic strategy and framework to manage this activity.
Further complicating these activities are is the emerging concept of onboarding new customers in a systematic fashion (see my six-step approach here). The difference between proactive communication and onboarding is that proactive communication should facilitate the ongoing relationship while onboarding should be setting expectations and educating on product use at the beginning of the customer journey. However, a number of the criteria for onboarding are also critical for proactive communication.
Deliver Actionable Relevance And Make Information Receipt Easy
A critical guide is that volume dilutes attention. Therefore, only provide relevant and useful communications that will result in the customer taking some sort of action. This requires discipline and often is counter to the marketing strategy of “throw it against the wall and see what sticks.”
Actionable relevance can be defined by three criteria; importance, level of knowledge/skill in the area and confidence in your service system.
- Relevance is directly proportional to the importance of the issue. If the delayed shipment is just going to inventory, it may not be very important. On the other hand, if it is a critical just-in-time shipment that will shut down a production line if more than four hours late, then it is very important.
- The level of knowledge/skill in the area will suggest the amount of detail you should provide as well as the approach to explaining the situation and your intended action. If the customer is experienced/sophisticated, you can assume a lot of knowledge. If this is their first time using a product, much more explanation, sans jargon, is appropriate.
- The customer’s confidence in your service system is often a function of their length of time as a customer and or their experience with how you’ve handled issues in the past. For instance, if, when flights have been canceled in the past, you always competently rebooked the passenger on a convenient alternative flight and even got them a better seat, then it may be that actionable relevance would solely be a message that your flight was canceled but we’ve covered you on Y flight at Z time. No more need be said as you have a track record.
Making information receipt easy requires one counterintuitive action – crank up self-service. For many minor and intermediate issues, e.g. “is my flight still on time?”, or “what has the market done to my IRA today?” the customer would often rather self-service. Therefore, the first of the six modes of proactive communication I discuss below is Easy Self-Service. The customer can check the Domino’s Pizza Tracker as often as they want with almost no effort — and no cost to you.
Pick Your Battles Across all Six Modes
More is NOT better in communicating with customers. Each function thinks its message is most important and is critical to send now! This cacophony of messages irritates the customer and often results in what I’ve done with several associations, political groups and airlines – opt out of all but key transactions. Step one is asking the customer which types of communications they want to receive and then the intensity of those communications.
Second, provide gradations of intensity communications and allow differentiation between different subjects – do not make decisions all or nothing. United Airlines required me to accept all their travel deals if I wanted to receive Mileage Plus communications. After being inundated with communications, I opted out of everything. Even Mckinsey & Co, the management consulting firm, only provided a couple of very broad options which resulted in daily emails, more than I wanted. Again, I opted out of everything when I would have liked to receive communications on a few specific topics.
Finally, tailor the communications to the customer segment. Rather than do detailed data mining to guess the segment, ask the customer. My favorite example is Avis, which asks if you like fancy cars with the latest technology, are a budget business traveler, or are Aunt Tilly on vacation. When you flag the segment you are most like, they know what is important to you.
Six Modes of Proactive Communication
There are six types of proactive communication:
Each is described in some detail below.
1. Facilitated self-service
Self-service significantly reduces status requests if the customer is assured that the tracker has up-to-date information. Customers can use a tracker as often as they like. Two examples are AARP’s Help Center Welcome Page and Dominos’ Pizza Tracker, shown below.
AARP’s Help Center starts off with the search function at the top including a type-ahead, AI-driven search that enhances the ability to find the topic the customer is looking for. The search is followed by top issues and transactions with all six service channels at the bottom.
2. Confirmation of transactions that notify of receipt of communications and orders as well as reminding customers of impending deliveries.
Confirmations reduce uncertainty – e.g., did you get my order?, is it coming when I expect it? Proactive confirmations can reduce status requests by well over 50%. They also enhance satisfaction by showing you really know what you are doing and are keeping track.
Additionally, confirmations provide an opportunity to assure the order is correct. Neiman Marcus eliminated many errors and miscommunications on engraving orders by highlighting, “This is what will be engraved — XXXX.” Marriott hotels send confirmations of arrival dates. On more than one occasion, I have found that I had entered the wrong arrival date and was able to correct it before I showed up to no room or paid for a day I didn’t need. We all make mistakes confirmations can catch.
Proactive service must strike a balance between providing helpful anticipated service and CX and being “creepy” where the customer is made aware of how much the company knows about the customer. For example, one hotel chain used records of previous minibar alcohol consumption to note that the customer always ran out of scotch and told the customer they had doubled the amount of scotch in the refrigerator. The customer was very upset that the company was tracking their alcohol consumption and distributing and acting on that information.
3. Proactive offering or notification of available/new products.
These messages are both traditional marketing messages for cross-selling as well as notification of relevant information on how products have changed. This category is the most problematic and most likely to be abused by marketing. You do not just dilute the rest of the messages, but you can actually create serious customer irritation leading to opting out of many other categories (as I noted above).
Separate critical product notifications from other categories to assure that the customer is made aware of important changes. Allow the customer to select categories of products or information they are interested in as well as the frequency of receipt. In many cases, you will be disappointed that they do not select more categories and a higher frequency but if you are delivering real value, as signified by a high open rate, you can offer more content in the future. The most prevalent mistake is forcing too much on the customer which leads to global opting out.
Targeting of communications can also be improved by asking who the customer is as well as their segment. Wolf Appliances’ website starts off asking if you are shopping for an appliance, an owner, a repairman, a homebuilder, or a dealer.
4. Preparing for delivery or installation
This type of message is sent the day before delivery or a visit to your home. Hughes Communications has a video on preparing for your installation and we need these three things ready to make this go smoothly. Hughes found that effectively educating customers was correlated with a 40% increase in satisfaction and a similar reduction in problems with the technology.
Tesla provides over 20 minutes of videos on how to drive your new electric vehicle and use the controls. They break up the videos into 1-3 minute chunks to enhance viewership. Also, they create incentives to watch the videos by suggesting you will have problems if you don’t ( scaring the customer into getting educated).
Three keys to success are to tailor messages to the skill level of the customer, motivating the customer to want to get educated by scaring, bribing, or cajoling them, and keeping each educational segment short. See my article on Six Steps to Onboarding New Customers.
5. Advance notification of bad news
The objective of this communication is to revise customer expectations, e.g., your flight has been cancelled. Ideally, the company should also provide the reason for the situation — the plane was taken out of service for an engine problem. Many marketing executives dislike this category – I actually had one say, “Maybe they won’t notice the shipment is late.” Wishful thinking. Bad news does not get better with age.
Customers appreciate as much notice of any change as possible. In B2B environments, where the customer may have many shipments in process, there may need to be standards for what changes are communicated and what channel is used. For example, one Houston chemical shipping terminal would send an email if a tanker was going to be arriving two hours late, but it would send a text to the supply chain manager’s cell phone if it was four hours late and would call the supply chain manager’s cell phone if it was more than six hours late because that serious of a delay could impact the production operations of the entire manufacturing facility.
6. Proactive notice of problem resolution.
This communication notifies the customer of a problem but then quickly reassures them that the company has taken action to rectify the situation. It then asks the customer to confirm that the suggested solution is acceptable as well as provides a channel for rapid access to service if the solution is not acceptable. For example: “Your flight is canceled and we’ve rebooked you on this alternative which will get you to your destination 70 minutes later. To explore other alternatives, click here.”
Decisions To Be Made in Building a Proactive Strategy
Answer these questions to build a proactive strategy.
What are the key Moments of Truth (MOT) that deserve basic proactive communication?
Pick only three or four MOT – remember how you react when buried in emails or texts from a company. Tailor them to the priority of each customer segment.
What are the standards we apply to those MOTs?
Provide the customer with only a few messages along with the option to both increase and decrease frequency. Daily, twice a week, biweekly and monthly are a good first set of options. Also, for certain categories, provide Never as an option. That shows you respect the customer’s time. Also, ask which channels are appropriate for messages of different severity. Does customer segment data suggest a special tone or level of detail? Some customers want very brief texts while others want detailed explanations.
How do we allow the customer to modify our basic communication strategy?
End each message with a link labeled, “Modify your messaging options.” Again, offer options for frequency, channel, and detail.
Are we measuring whether our strategy is providing value or alienating customers?
If a customer has opted out of any campaign or type of messaging, ask “why?”, providing basic categories like too many and not interested as well as an open-ended option. Anytime a customer modifies their communications options, it is a strong flag that they either like or dislike something you’re doing. Always ask what and why.
Proactive communication requires strategy and discipline. When both are effectively implemented, reactive contact volumes decline while satisfaction increases. Remember more is not better, allow the customer to shape and personalize your strategy to fit their needs and measure and evaluate on an ongoing basis.