Communicate Care for Positive Online Customer Experience

Communicate Care for Positive Online Customer Experience

Creating a positive online customer experience has been catapulted into top priority status by the pandemic. We have written lately about a recent survey-based study titled “The New Reality: Understanding the Retail Consumer Experience During a Pandemic.” In it, Wharton Marketing Professor Thomas Robertson finds “about a 10% increase in problems from before the pandemic to the middle of May, with some decrease in loyalty. As the percentage of online sales was going up, many retailers weren’t ready for the onslaught and had trouble coping with it.”

Business can seize this opportunity to improve online customer experience to stand out in their field.

Online (dis)Engagement and Empathy

Communicating empathy is a fairly simple and extremely powerful way to improve online customer experience. In an article titled “How Should Companies Talk to Customers Online,” in MITSloan Management Review’s Creating Great Online Customer Experiences, marketing researchers Brent McFerran, Sarah Moore, and Grant Packard point out the shifting nature of business’ opportunity to interface with customers.

More and more consumers are engaging with customer service through digital channels, including websites, email, texts, live chat, and social media. In 2017, only half of customer experiences with companies involved face-to-face or live-voice-based interactions, and digital interactions are expected to represent two-thirds of customer experiences within the next few years. The vast majority of customer service interactions around the world begins in online channels. Despite the convenience and speed of such interactions, they lack some of the most important aspects of off-line customer service. In-person interactions are rich in nonverbal expressions and gestures, which can signal deep engagement, and an agent’s tone of voice can convey empathy and focus in phone conversations. Over time, these interpersonal touches help companies build and sustain relationships with customers.

The Research

Customer service scripts tend to emphasize the use of “we” (as in, “We–the company–are happy to help you!”) and “you” (as in, “We’re sorry you are experiencing difficulties.) To test whether this language is actually helpful, the authors surveyed over 500 customer service managers or agents, analyzed more than 1,000 customer service emails from 41 of the top 100 global online retailers, and conducted controlled experiments with 2,819 North American adult participants.

“You” Know Who “We” Are (and When We’re Lying)

Findings suggest something basically intuitive but alarmingly easy to lose sight of: customers are people. We’re wired for social interactions. Most of us instinctively understand–and strongly dislike–when communication is insincere.

In all cases, our modified responses with “I” pronouns significantly outperformed the “we” pronouns that real service agents were using. Relative to using “we,” the benefit of using “I” stems from the fact that customers perceive the employee to be (a) more empathetic and (b) more agentic, or acting on the customer’s behalf.

When two people are communicating with each other, “I” suggests a personal focus on the issue at hand. Specifically, our research on customer service finds that saying “I” signals that the agent is feeling and acting on the customer’s behalf. For example, telling a customer “I am working on that” conveys a greater sense of ownership than “We are working on that,” which can imply a diffusion of responsibility. Similarly, “I understand the issue” shows more empathy than “We understand the issue.”

Ultimately, customers need to know that the agents with whom they are interacting care and are working on their behalf. Research has consistently shown that customer perceptions of empathy and agency drive satisfaction, sales, and profits,9 and our studies show that “I” fosters these perceptions to a significantly greater degree than “we.

We also resent feeling like we’re being blamed. The use of “you” can backfire.

Sometimes, using the word “you” can actually have a negative effect on company and customer outcomes. For example, we found that saying to a customer, “Sorry your product was defective,” rather than “Sorry the product was defective,” resulted in decreased satisfaction and purchase intentions. This result was driven in part by perceptions that the employee wasn’t being accountable (that is, lacked agency), potentially shifting the responsibility or blame toward the customer.

Key Lessons

The takeaway: service employees should be coached to communicate from a personal perspective that implies real, live, human care. “There are simple language changes that any company can implement,” conclude McFerran, Moore, and Packard. “By making these changes to customer service language, organizations can create more meaningful interactions with their customers — and improve the bottom line.”