Is there an optimal way to carry out online customer support activities?
A lot has changed in the field of webcare over the past 6 years. Where, in the early days of webcare, there was mainly a lot of experimenting with different communication styles, today much more attention is being paid to substantiated theories for the most optimal use of webcare possible. Mustafa Akpinar is a lecturer and researcher at the University of applied sciences of Arnhem. He recently conducted research into the communication styles, both direct and indirect, within webcare, and their effect on brand evaluation. During an interesting and informative Clubhouse session, he shared with us his scientific view on webcare.
Shift from public channels to 1-to-1 communication
In recent years you’ve seen that many organisations are moving the public conversations to closed channels. Many organisations don’t want to have any interaction with the customer through public channels — it can be disastrous for their image and their reputation.
“Because conversations are generally conducted through closed channels, fear of reputation damage via social media has pretty much been contained in recent years,” said Mustafa Akpinar.
Mustafa Akpinar began to wonder how communication was going on behind these “closed doors”. As a communications scientist, he likes to take a closer look behind the scenes of large organisations that move conversations to closed channels. Along with his colleagues, he investigated the course of these conversations and the “sentiment development” during the conversation.
A warm approach to the conversation
Mustafa Akpinar’s research showed that a warm approach (= one which gives sympathy) is one of the most important pillars for a pleasant conversation, and satisfied customers. Customers want to be addressed and helped in a humane way. The conversational human voice will play an increasingly important role in webcare, especially with the arrival of more and more chatbots. So you’ll have to be able to find the sweet spot between high tech and high touch! This is a challenge for many organisations at the moment.
A conversational human voice is important in making customers feel good, but you’ll still need to keep the goal of customer service in mind! Ultimately, it’s not about making your customers feel good by being funny, personal or empathetic. You want the customer to be helped by solving a problem for them. Nowadays you can no longer distinguish yourself by just answering a message in a personal way. You distinguish yourself as an organisation by really helping your customers.
Empathy as an important pillar for successful communication
One way to add the human touch to a conversation is to be empathetic and to give some sympathy. Mustafa Akpinar researched the effect of sympathy on the outcome of a conversation. “From this research it could be concluded that sympathy is a very important predictor for a positive outcome to the conversation.”
In practice, sympathy can be given in different ways. For example, some service employees will express an empathetic feeling, but some also take responsibility and apologise. The research shows that the latter is most effective for satisfying customers. An example of this could be: “How unfortunate that the package has not yet been delivered. I’ll make sure that a new package is shipped today. Sorry for the inconvenience!”.
Humour is a hot topic
Another way to give the human touch to your communication is with the help of humour. However, this is a controversial remedy. In some cases, it can work well, provided that the customer’s problem actually is resolved. The informal nature of social media also works well for this. Of course, it needs to fit with your brand, service, or product. It goes without saying that humour suits organisations such as Bol.com and Cooblue better than, for example, insurance companies or transport services.
Direct versus indirect communication styles
A human approach is key for a positive outcome to the conversation. But this approach is difficult to put into a script because it’s different for everyone.
“In the Netherlands we find it quite normal to communicate fairly directly, but this isn’t necessarily the case in other cultures”, says Mustafa Akpinar.
Does our down-to-earth, direct communication style in the Netherlands have the intended effect on the way customers view organisations?
In direct communication the emphasis is mainly on the message itself, while in indirect communication the emphasis is mainly on the way the message is conveyed. Let’s illustrate this with an example; if a consumer asks if he can redeem his voucher, you could answer in two ways. “Unfortunately, that isn’t possible” or “Unfortunately, I have to disappoint you.” The first way is direct and the second is indirect.
In order to measure the difference in effect on brand evaluation, Mustafa Akpinar set up an experiment in which two different fictional communications, direct and indirect, were assessed by a group of respondents.
He concludes: “After seeing the indirect message, the brand was rated significantly better than after seeing the direct message. So, it certainly pays to communicate indirectly with the customer” — but please note: this is only if your organisation has not yet developed a Brand Voice.
Communicate in a way that suits your brand voice and business culture
An indirect communication style comes across slightly softer and more polite than the direct variant. Research shows that an indirect style is generally more beneficial for organisations. Should every organisation now adjust its webcare policy to make massive use of indirect communication styles? No, not necessarily. There are several elements that you need to fine-tune in order to provide the customer with the best possible service with regards to your communications. For some organisations, an indirect communication style doesn’t fit at all. It has to have just the right fit within your brand voice and business culture.
Take Tony Chocolonely for example. This organisation knows exactly what they stand for and they express it in clear, direct messages. Other organisations are expected to communicate as neutrally as possible, such as government agencies or healthcare institutions. An indirect approach is more appropriate in these instances.
Company culture also plays a role. In Germany it is assumed that organisations should communicate formally. That’s part of the established business culture. Even on social media, where you would expect more informal messages, the conversations mainly take place in a formal, indirect way.
A scientific formula for satisfied customers?
So, is there an ultimate way to operate webcare? Research shows that there are indeed communication styles that generally promote a more positive outcome with regards to the conversation. Indirect communication with human elements such as empathy and humour seem to work well. However, keep in mind that everyone is different. And what works for one organisation may not necessarily work for the other. Each target group has its own preferences, and the value of elements such as brand voice and corporate culture should never be underestimated.