Imagine this scenario: You arrive home from work, click your garage door buzzer, and then…nothing. Something’s up with the door mechanism, so you call Monarch Garage Door and ask them to diagnose the problem.
Michael Trenwith, manager of the Quakertown, Pa.-based company, asks you a few questions and eventually narrows the issue down to a torsion spring. But that, says Trenwith, is a problem. There are dozens of different springs of varying lengths, weights, and fittings. Usually, this means Trenwith has to dispatch an engineer just to figure out what part they need, but with respect to time, you ask if it would be possible to simply text him a picture of the door—Trenwith agrees.
After studying the image with one of his engineers, they work out exactly what sort of tension spring you need. Within a few hours, an engineer arrives to fix your door.
You might brush this off as an imaginary story, but it’s not. In fact, according to Trenwith, this sort of interaction happens quite a bit.
Starting a few years ago, Trenwith noticed his customers asking about using new communication channels. They’d ask to contact the office via social media or receive updates through WhatsApp. Not only that but they were using existing channels in new ways. They’d ignore phone calls entirely and then send an SMS response when they had a free five minutes.
Trenwith felt like a new era of customer communication was arriving at Monarch—and he was right.
But Monarch’s communication revolution was just one piece of the global puzzle. All across the world, people are abandoning old communication channels and are migrating to new, more convenient alternatives. They’re booking haircuts via Apple Messages, getting medical updates via SMS, and transferring files via WhatsApp. It’s a new communication paradigm and businesses that adapt will thrive. Those that don’t will die away.
This guide explores a changing communication landscape, discovering how the technology we use—and how we use it—is radically changing. First, we’ll examine the impact of communication trends on customer experience. Then we’ll unpack the communication challenges facing innovative businesses. Finally, we’ll jump forward in time to see how these new trends and technology have played out.
1. Changing Communication Landscape
Communication is ephemeral. Thirty years ago, communication was dominated by landline phones and pagers. Twenty years ago, we had email and a burgeoning new technology called SMS—what we now know as texting.
Today, we have something much more intricate and varied.
Instead of being dominated by specific channels, today’s communications are driven by one consumer trend—time. “Whether that’s a soccer mom juggling different kids’ schedules or a business professional going to different meetings,” Anthony Lucci, Director of Marketing at Jack Williams Tire Company in Pennsylvania, told Podium, “people are always short on time.”
With cramped schedules and dozens of competing demands, old communication channels don’t make sense. “Our patients have busy lives,” said Brent Kell, CEO of the Oregon-based urgent-care facility, Valley Immediate Care. “They have all different schedules and getting on the phone between eight and five isn’t an easy thing.”
Perhaps most importantly, today’s customers aren’t willing to put up with that inconvenience. Instead, they demand communication on their terms: their channel, their schedule, and their purpose. So when someone texts a business at midnight, they expect an answer—fast. According to PwC, 43% of consumers are even prepared to pay more for a convenient service.
This trend towards convenience is driving significant technological change. People are moving away from painstaking, synchronous communication channels that dictate both when and how the conversation takes place.
Consider a phone call: Unless they’re prescheduled, phone calls are disruptive. The phone rings, interrupting whatever you are doing, and alerts you that someone wants to talk to you. If you’re in the middle of an important piece of work, too bad.
Then there are the demands a phone call puts on the involved parties. For a phone call to take place, both parties must be present and alert throughout the conversation. If either party runs out of time— if they run up against another meeting or encount- er an urgent interruption—that’s the end of the conversation.
For years, using voice calls as our default communication channel made sense. Phones were common, minutes were cheap, and cell coverage was good. But now, there are dozens of viable alternatives. The proliferation of the smartphone and development of mobile internet have created new, asynchronous channels. These channels—SMS, digital messaging apps, social media, and so on— allow consumers to dip in and out of conversations whenever they have time. Consumers are migrating to new services in droves—Facebook Messenger alone has 109 million monthly active users.
Until recently, these new channels were the preserve of consumers’ personal lives. They messaged their family on WhatsApp and chatted with friends on Instagram. But now, that’s changing. People are blurring the line between professional and personal communication channels, demanding that the brands they follow and interact with be as easy to reach as their parents or best friends.
Instead of setting aside 20 minutes for a long tech support phone call, customers can fit their conversation around their everyday life. They can send a message while they’re walking to their car, read the response while waiting in line at a coffee shop, and type out a quick response riding the elevator at their office. “Texting and multimedia messaging are the future,” Trenwith told Podium. “They’re just more convenient.”
2. Modern Customer Experience
Today’s consumer expects communication that’s immediate, convenient, and tailored to their individual preferences. As consumers come to expect this experience, businesses must adapt. If they don’t, they risk missing communications and alienating customers.
Tina Tasche, customer relations manager at Plymouth, Wisconsin-based Van Horn Automotive Group, experienced this firsthand. Tasche has managed Van Horn’s customer communications since 2016, overseeing all communication systems across 15 dealerships. In her role, she talks to dozens of customers a week, gleaning valuable qualitative input about their experience with the company.
A few years ago, Tasche recognized a trend in her interactions—customers often said they wanted to text the business rather than calling, which they found time-consuming and disruptive. So she decided to test how many customers were already texting the business. Without telling her customers, Tasche made a handful of dealership phones textable and sat back to watch the inboxes. Almost from the first hour, text messages flooded in. “It was crazy after we made the change,” Tasche told Podium. “The number of messages we didn’t realize that we weren’t getting from our customers was astonishing.”
The experiment was interesting. According to new research, 39% of businesses are already texting their customers. Tasche learned that her customers assumed Van Horn was part of the 39% and were already texting her landline numbers. By not adapting, Tasche was actually damaging the experience her customers had with the business. The results convinced Tasche that change was needed and she rolled out textable phone numbers to all 15 Van Horn dealerships. Now, SMS plays a cornerstone role in Van Horn’s communication system, helping Tasche deliver a much more convenient experience to her customers.
Tasche discovered something else through her SMS experiment. Customers who texted Van Horn seemed to develop a much stronger relationship with the brand, a trend that’s mirrored in other organizations.
When Brent Kell’s company, Valley Immediate Care, was small and treating just 20 patients a day, his employees could cultivate direct personal relationships with each customer. But sustained growth in the business made that more and more difficult. Valley now treats around 73,000 patients per year, which makes it impossible for its doctors and nurses to get to know every patient. Faced with this challenge, Kell found a solution in a most unusual place—conversational communication channels.
Conversational channels such as SMS and social media tear down the corporate facade and create a much stronger bond between brands and customers. “I think a lot of patients look at texting as being a very personal, open, and friendly communication,” Kell said. “They’re used to texting their friends and their family, not businesses.” Indeed, Kell recalled patients stopping him in one of his practices and saying, “You guys can text me my results—it’s so cool!”
The modern customer experience is built on convenience. If a business forces them to use unintuitive or unwanted communication channels, it’s likely that they’ll go elsewhere.
03. Challenges and Obstacles
At this point, you might be tempted to dump your outdated communication systems and start from scratch. But that would be a mistake. Great ideas still face challenges, and if you ignore them, you could do your business more harm than good.
In this chapter, we’ll explore a few of the most common problems faced by organizations when they overhaul their customer communication systems. We’ll also look at some businesses that have already made the switch to learn how they overcame certain challenges.
Implementation and Training
Think back to the story of Monarch Garage Doors. After Trenwith realized that his customers wanted to use different communication channels, he began researching new technologies and systems. Feeling confident about the communication possibilities, he landed on Podium and pitched the platform to his boss. But the response from Monarch’s management was lukewarm.
Trenwith’s boss was old school and simply didn’t see the value in a new customer communication system. “He would use pen and paper and filing cabinets and Manila folders for the rest of his life if he could,” Trenwith explained. His boss believed Monarch’s current system was still working and denied that there was a need to introduce something radically different. Trenwith, however, knew better.
Over the next few months, he developed his case. He gathered feedback from his customers and kept pitching the new platform to his boss. It wasn’t easy but he eventually began to gain ground.
I had to drag him kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Sometimes that meant debates, arguments, begging, pleading, or all of the above. – Michael Trenwith, Manager Monarch Garage Door
Eventually, Trenwith’s boss agreed to trial Podium and, after a few weeks, there was enough data to justify the experiment. “It’s been a couple of years since we’ve had Podium,” Trenwith said, “and he sees the merit and the benefits of implementation of technology.”
Monarch’s story may sound familiar. Internal pushback is common in most businesses, especially if you are overhauling a long-standing system.
At Valley Immediate Care, for example, Kell admitted he struggled to keep staff bought into new technologies. In his case, Kell said he mitigated pushback by focusing on the wins and improvements. “We’ve had enough successes,” Kell said. “I think for the most part, they’re buying in. They say, ‘Yeah, let’s try this.’” To follow Kell’s lead, businesses should start small and experiment by implementing smaller systems to start. Only when they have proven that innovation works should they look to overhaul large business systems.
Whether large or small, traditional or agile, all businesses have behavioral inertia. Employees are resistant to change and reluctant to scrap systems that seem, on the surface, to be working. In order to implement a new customer communication system, you must overcome these concerns. If you don’t, your employees simply won’t use the technology and customers won’t receive any benefit.
Van Horn’s Tasche says the biggest challenge she faces is response time. The goal is to respond to every lead that comes into the dealership within 15 minutes. Tasche’s goal isn’t even that extreme. According to researchers, businesses need to respond to leads in five minutes or less—or risk losing them forever.
“If you aren’t doing that, the guy next door probably is,” she says. “And if they’re quicker than you, they’re going to get the sale.”
Ten years ago, a consumer would have happily called a car dealership, enquired about a particular model, and then waited a few hours for a sales rep to call them back. But year by year, reps attempted to outdo one another by delivering a faster service. As the average response rate improved, consumers learned to expect faster responses. These two trends created a feedback loop and modern consumers now expect near-instantaneous communication from organizations.
This trend is not restricted to the automotive industry, either.
First-response time, which CMO Council described as the most important attribute to customer service, has improved across most companies. Wait times and resolution times have both also fallen dramatically. Again, customers have become used to faster responses, that’s become the expectation. Nowadays, customers expect lightning-fast replies, regardless of the size of an organization—and they’ll go elsewhere if you don’t deliver it.
There was a time when offering a customer service phone number was enough. But these days, customers are shying away from voice-based communication in favor of a fractured array of competing for messaging channels— WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, SMS, Apple Messages, Viber, Telegram, live website chat, and LINE to name but a few. Understanding which channels to promote means first understanding which channels your customers use.
For the last decade, Angel Manzano has opened every single email that arrived in the San Jose, California-based company’s inbox. Just about every click, he told Podium, represented a waste of his time. “We only got sales calls through there,” Manzano said. “There wasn’t a lot of actual business coming through. It was a lot of people trying to sell us stuff.”
After a decade opening nothing but spam emails, Manzano knew his customers weren’t using the communication channel. When he redesigned the company’s communication system, he decided to ditch email entirely. “A lot of people think we’re crazy,” Manzano said, “but we’re concentrating on mining our text messaging numbers—and it’s been working.”
By aligning R & J Jewelry and Loan’s customer communication to the channels his customers were using, Manzano was able to filter out the noise and focus in on the real messages. “Once I installed Podium, all of a sudden, I’m getting all these messages—and they’re real messages,” Manzano said. “People could send me pictures of items they want to sell us and it just made things easy.”
The toughest customer communication isn’t winning over older staff m embers, responding quick enough, or offering the right communication channels. The toughest challenge comes from somewhere quite unexpected: Amazon.
In the next chapter, we’ll dive into how the eCommerce giant is upping the customer experience game and piling on the pressure. We’ll also learn about how companies just like yours are fighting back.
04. Your Competition Isn’t Who You Think It Is
“Over the last few years, I’ve said that our competition isn’t mom-and-pop stores or even top-100 retailers,” Jordan Barrick, general manager of a furniture retailer, Quality Furniture, told Podium. ‘Our competition is Amazon.”
Barrick took up the reins of the Texas-based furniture store in July 2011. Right from his first day in the office, he battled intense competition from local small and medium-sized businesses. But Barrick wasn’t fazed by pressure from other similarly-sized stores. In fact, he was convinced SMBs were a distraction from his real competition.
Whereas SMBs jog along slowly, roughly keeping pace with Quality Furniture, Amazon sprints ahead, ruthlessly innovating and improving.
Consider Amazon’s customer service. The eCommerce giant offers around-the-clock availability, instantaneous response times, highly-trained support staff, and a myriad of other features and benefits. Customers experience that outstanding serviceeverysingletimetheyinteract with Amazon. Over the years, the interactions mount up and Amazon’s service became their base expectation from all businesses.
Sometimes organizations can match the high standards Amazon sets. At Van Horn, for example, Tasche installed a Buy Now button under every car listed on its website. When a customer clicks the button—even if it is at midnight when all Van Horn’s dealerships are closed—they initiate the shopping process. “The long-term dream is that the customer never comes to the showroom,” Tasche says. They research the car online, buy it via the website, and Tasche arranges a curbside delivery. While they can’t match Amazon’s levels of convenience just yet, Tasche is confident they’ll get there soon.
But while businesses can match Amazon in some areas like availability, there are others where it is practically impossible.
One of Amazon’s key selling points is its aggressive delivery offers. More than 20 years ago, Amazon revolutionized eCommerce shipping with its free Super Saver Delivery option. Ten years ago, it upped the game again with Amazon Prime, offering free next-day shipping for a small monthly subscription. And recently, they tore up the rule book once more, offering two-hour deliveries on a selection of items
Customers see Amazon’s outstanding delivery schedules and learn to expect that from everyone. But for regular businesses without a global network of bleeding-edge distribution centers, two-hour deliveries are impossible.
Companies that don’t respond to Amazon’s challenge will be left behind. But businesses must be careful about where they invest their limited resources. “Where I’m finding success is when we are the forefront,” Barrick said. “If we’re alpha testers or beta testers, we’re able to be on the front-end of new technologies.” Organizations need to follow Barrick’s lead. They must analyze what Amazon is doing, work out where they can best compete, and get there faster.
05. The Future of Communication
Both technology and customer behavior evolve incredibly fast. Email developed from a technical experiment into a cornerstone communication channel in a handful of years. Businesses that adapted to the advent of email improved their customer service and reaped the rewards—increased customer loyalty, improved customer retention, and, ultimately, higher revenue.
The same will be true for today’s customer communication revolution. Organizations that integrate advanced functionality into their communication systems will improve their service and push ahead of their competitors.
Consider again the interaction we described in the introduction of this guide. There was a problem with a customer’s garage door, they sent a photo of the issue via SMS, and Monarch’s engineers were able to successfully diagnose the issue without making a house call. Not only did Monarch allow the customer to use their preferred communication channel, but doing so helped expedite the actual service. If the customer’s garage door failed again, they would almost surely go back to Monarch because they had a positive experience.
Now, imagine the interaction if Monarch used a legacy system. The garage door failed and the customer contacted Monarch. But this time, Michael Trenwith insisted the customer describe the issue over the phone as the legacy system can’t receive texts. Since the customer is non-technical, it’s unlikely he or she will be able to diagnose the problem. Without the diagnosis shortcut, the whole service would take longer and alienate the customer as they can’t use their preferred communication channel. It’s a bad customer experience and in this situation, it’s unlikely the customer will return.
While adapting to the communication revolution is important now, the urgency is accelerating. As more people migrate away from phone and email, message volume will continue to increase. Organizations that rely on legacy systems won’t survive the massive influx of new communications.
To survive and thrive, organizations need a platform to manage their customer interactions. These platforms augment human agents, allowing them to efficiently tackle mountains of questions, queries, and complaints. They allow businesses to not only deliver better customer service, but also create more scalable processes.