According to some estimates, only five percent of all business communications are now conducted by phone. This is due to both sociological and technological changes. In terms of the former, this is the first time in human history, the majority of the world’s population is literate –and thus able to participate in written communication. Added to this, are technological advancements: namely the huge proliferation of digital devices and broadband across the world.
One of the results of so many other channels of communications (email, texting, Twitter, Facebook etc.) now being available is that telephone calls have come to be seen as slower and more labour-intensive than their digital media counterparts. In addition to this, some in the corporate sector also believe that their Millennial customer base, so called digital natives, are social media addicts who find real human contact intrusive and prefer to interact with brands online.
The latter point sounds plausible, but in fact studies have shown it not to be true. A recent survey of over 1,000 Millennials found that young people still find person-to-person interactions preferable to being treated like an anonymous username on the other end of a screen. It seems that what such younger customers actually want is to feel corporations understand and respect their unique humanity and idiosyncratic lives. This is especially important when trying to access customer services or deal with a problem. In their questionnaire, the company Mattersight found that only 1% of Millennials would choose to contact a brand via social media, if there was the option of a person-to-person customer service. As one respondent said, in describing her frustration: “They didn’t offer an option to call and talk to someone. It was Web only, and my problem wasn’t featured among troubleshooting options.”
This trend seems to hold true for the rest of the population as well. Another survey asked more than 24,000 consumers and 1, 000 businesses about the balance between digital and human customer service. Again, it found the overwhelming majority of respondents see personal interaction as a vitally important part of their relationship with brands. In fact, eighty percent of all consumers polled said they want direct personal contact to remain part of customer service and 83 percent said that talking to a customer service representative on the phone or in store will always be important.
In short customers want to be able to connect to a live human being who can address specific questions and make them feel their call is important. As a result phone calls and systems are still an essential means of communication with customers, and clearly offer the human touch that digital options cannot. Let us look at the benefits that phone calls and human to human interaction can offer:
Immediacy and efficiency: a clear advantage of phone calls is that if the receiver is free to speak, issues can be addressed and even resolved, there and then. Also, if a customer service representative can clarify the issue with the client while they’re on the phone, it can eliminate the need for multiple interactions. This is not true with digital forms of communication, such as texting or email, not least because there is no guarantee those messages have arrived or will be responded to. The presence of spam filters, and the sheer volume of digital communication means your carefully worded message might never make it to the recipient. Phone calls however have a contingency option in the form of voice mail. The caller can leave a detailed voice message, which can give personality and warmth to a communication.
Addressing Complexity: Contact with customers over the phone allows for a fluid conversation that can develop more organically than those that happen over email or other digital channels. It also means the complexity of customer concerns, ones that aren’t addressed in a FAQ, can be addressed, with follow-up questions and clarifications in real time. In fact, surveys have shown the more complex a service request is, the more consumers prefer human interaction over digital channels. Fully resolving a detailed enquiry in a telephone call is an excellent way to build customer confidence in a company and even foster brand loyalty.
The importance of tone: an influential 1967 study, called Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels, found three factors that result in effective communications: body language (55%), the tone of voice (38%) and the actual verbal content (7%). Obviously in person, these elements can all be maximised to ensure a message is well received or an interaction is fruitful. On the telephone, voice tone becomes very important as it gives emotional colour to speech, and indicates such crucial factors as openness, warmth, sincerity and positivity etc. Furthermore, although body language obviously can’t be seen during a call, such actions as smiling while talking, or maintaining an open posture, do impact voice tone. However none of this is available through digital communications: the tone of texts, emails and Tweets are left open to interpretation by the receiver, and can notoriously be misread and derail a conversation.
Building trust and brand image: this human touch becomes particularly significant when it comes to more sensitive communications involving condolences, disciplinary issues, confidential matters or when helping customers make potentially risky decisions. In such situations an impersonal text or email could comes across as inappropriately informal, cold or blasé. Taking the time to make a phone call can build a sense of personal connection and trust with your client or customer. A recent article by the Harvard Business Review titled, “Your Customers Still Want to Talk to a Human Being,” states, “When making a significant decision, like applying for a first-time mortgage or exploring a potential bathroom remodel, most consumers want to talk to a qualified human expert.” Being available to your customers to answer all of their questions can also help build your brand image.
Teleconferencing: with budgets stretched and climate change now a serious concern, teleconferencing calls are increasingly seen as one way forward. In terms of efficiency and economy, they save both money and time on travel and hiring meeting facilities and can bring people together from all over the organization, at a fraction of the cost. They also help companies meet their corporate social responsibility targets by cutting their carbon footprint. Attendees can phone in using a toll-free number and access code to join a virtual conference room where members can interact with the moderator and other members. Conference calls can be used in conjunction with video conferencing to view presentations, ask questions via the Internet and discuss answers with all attendees.
Bluetooth technology: Making phone calls with a handset while driving is not recommended, but Bluetooth technology has made hands-free dialling and safe conversations possible. This means that the daily commute or business travel is now an ideal time to take and make those important calls. However, texting and emailing while driving remain dangerous and, in some countries, against the law.
Live and recorded call monitoring: Ensuring your customer service is the best it can be involves measuring staff performance and outcomes. Most new phone systems allow you to record and listen to live and recorded client calls. This helps a manager ensure their employees are following scripts, procedures and successfully addressing client needs. This can be an invaluable tool to track progress and help a team become as effective as possible at handling phone leads. With email and digital forms of communication, this sort of monitoring is a more labour intensive and difficult process, and as tone is open to customer interpretation, how or where the conversation went off the rails is harder to track.
As odd as it sounds, it is easy for companies to become overly focused on digital prowess and lose sight of how important it is to be human centred. In a world increasingly driven by data it can become all too easy to forget the vital relational aspect of marketing and business. But as many surveys show, when customers are given a choice they still prefer to talk to other human beings over social media, email, trouble-shooting options or even webchat. This holds especially true when it comes to resolving complex issues or making important or expensive decisions in which trusting a product or a service is paramount to closing the deal. Companies would do well to bear this in mind and begin the process of delivering real, human interactions as part of their customer service. Otherwise, we might end up in a world in which rather than machines replicating humanity, our clients and customers start to regard the business sector as too faceless and impersonal.