How to Talk to Clients, Customers and Employees in 2017

Five Ways to Talk to Your Clients, Customers and Employees in 2017

Follow these guidelines for more effective communication in the digital age.

Coworkers using a laptop together while woking late at the office

by Andy Breen / Senior Vice President, Digital


Ask me the status of my professional relationships and I’d have to say, “It’s complicated.” The bigger a company gets, the more challenging it is to communicate with customers, intermediaries and employees. It’s a complex network of parties with widely differing needs, roles, interests and expectations.

How we communicate is a make-or-break component of our success. When we get it right, wins come quickly in the form of revenue increases, workplace happiness and business expansion. Communicate incorrectly, and the negative impact could be devastating. Communication is everything. One thing we value internally is transparency. Work in progress is circulated amongst our small work teams. If there is a miscommunication, a colleague will spot it early on and get everyone back on the same page. We’re human and fallible. We accommodate that reality in our process.

Like most businesses, my company communicates more these days through digital means than through traditional channels such as face-to-face meetings and telephone calls. And yet, access to more communications channels – like Slack and Yammer – can frustrate and even alienate the very people we’re trying to serve.

So, as you think about how you want to communicate with clients and colleagues, keep these rules of thumb in mind.

1. Communicate their way, not yours.

One of the biggest improvements we made to our communications with top customers and employees came simply from asking them how they wished to be contacted. So simple. Given that they are bombarded from every angle, knowing which channel they prefer gives us a real advantage. One thing I’ve learned is that people turn to different channels for different things. So while email may be fine for most occasions, a phone call or even a text is better when, in their opinion, issues are pressing. Learn what those issues are for each of your top customers and employee segments.

2. Make it easier for them, not cheaper for you.

In growing companies like mine, it becomes obvious early on that one-on-one communication has a considerable cost. It’s tempting to look at cutting those costs through one-to-many channels such as bulk emails and blog posts and with automated systems such as interactive telephone voice response and online chat bots. Yet none of these methods will make your customers feel individually served in every case, so be careful when and how you choose to apply them.

Relationships are expensive, but they’re worth the investment. Relationships are built over time on trust, which comes from feeling both served and respected. Sometimes you can do both with automated systems, but it’s wise to identify the situations in which you can’t and prepare for them. In the age of digital communication, you can systematize the everyday exchanges, but only if you’re willing to personalize the extraordinary ones.

“People want and expect efficient communication about low-stakes information, and they resent it when they’re forced to spend longer than it requires.”

3. Distinguish between information gathering and negotiation.

Most people are happier using less personal channels to exchange mundane information. (It’s much faster to text your parents the time you’re coming to dinner on Sunday than it is to call them up and also have to tell them all about your week.)

In business, the same principle applies: People want and expect efficient communication about low-stakes information, and they resent it when they’re forced to spend longer than it requires. On the other hand, there are high-stakes situations in which decisions that require some degree of negotiation must be made, which warrant a one-on-one conversation. We all know this intuitively, and companies can make their customer communications far more effective simply by determining which interventions are to gather information and which are to navigate through a decision.

4. Make human contact an immediate option.

Nothing in communication is static, and many situations that begin as mere information exchanges can rapidly escalate to other levels. (Consider the person who uses her online banking app to check a balance and then discovers that her account has been emptied without her knowledge or permission.) As parts of your corporate communication system become automated, be sure to spend time building in decision points where the system itself can trigger a human intervention.

For example, if someone is ordering your products online to ship to a country where you don’t normally deliver, don’t make them plod all the way through the process only to be told: “Order cannot be processed.” The second they pick an unserved location from the usual pop-up list of countries, your system should prompt one of your sales agents to jump online and work it out. This approach will, in fact, raise the customer’s trust of the intelligence built into your technology.

5. Remember, it really is about the relationships.

That means it’s not just about information. Within any productive relationship, there is a frequent need for information sharing, but the overarching priority must be to relate to your customers in ways that deepen the bonds between you. If you stick to that one rule, you won’t go wrong.

These five rules aren’t the only considerations for communicators in the modern age, but in my experience, they will help you remember how to treat your customers no matter what communications technology comes next.