Everyone likes a good old chinwag. A chance to shoot the breeze, chew the fat or, I shiver to use the term, banter. Complex communication is what separates us from the birds and beasts and, though many of us choose to ignore the ‘complex’ part of this skill that has been evolved over a hundred thousand years, we are social creatures and dialogue is as important to us as oxygen… Well, nearly as important.
When it comes to the world of online business, it is good practice to make the interaction between you and your customer feel as natural and conversational as you can whilst steering them toward your ultimate goal of a purchase. In many cases, especially on social networks such as Twitter, these conversations are open to the world and any web surfer can settle down and listen in on these conversations between customer and company.
So, how can such conversations in the public domain help you in your business and what techniques can you employ to make the most of them?
What is an open conversation?
For the purposes of this article, any conversation that is recorded in the public domain is considered an open conversation. This can be anything from a few tweets between customer and company to threads in online forums.
Now, there are certainly some upsides to having all conversations behind metaphorical closed doors. For example, a business that is young and is still finding its feet might want to keep conversations private with its customers whilst it irons out any teething problems rather than having its fumbles revealed in the unflattering light of day.
Also, a business might be dealing with sensitive data. Private conversations are not only preferable in this case, but essential. Imagine seeing a tweet conversation between two accounts exchanging bank details in the open. This would not bode well for the professionalism or security of the business in question.
But, for the most part, open conversations can be used well to air non-sensitive information about products and services and, in some cases, provide an opportunity for a little fun exchange.
A chance for fun
Not everything should be serious when it comes to consumerism. Sometimes a miss-understanding or light-hearted exchange can brighten up someone’s day and, more importantly for us slightly more mercenary folks, get some free advertising. There are many examples of business/customer interactions that have gone viral, here are just a few from some of the biggest:
Sainsbury’s, after being contacted by a customer partial to a pun, decided to take the bait:
When a customer bit after Pizza Hut poked fun at the Leeds football team, Pizza Hut bit right back:
Riding the coattails of the remake of Stephen King’s IT, Burger King took the opportunity to poke a little fun at a competitor’s own clown:
Developing fun and spontaneous conversations with customers, or allowing them to initiate them, is an excellent way of gaining a positive association with your brand and exposing your better values.
When open conversations go bad…
Of course, there is the other side of this coin. The whole freedom of an open conversation and a forum for spontaneous creativity to occur is also very hard to police. Disgruntled customers have a very public platform on which to air their complaints or more negative feelings towards a product or business.
In these sorts of cases a very careful hand is needed to defuse the situation, calm down the accusing customer, and have a cup of tea and a chat… Metaphorically speaking.
This can happen for many reasons, issues with products, services, customer care. But whether it is a customer who is, correctly or incorrectly, pointing out issues with your latest release or some mean spirited troll who is simply out to rock the boat, you need to deal with it calmly, quickly and professionally.
Remember, you are on a stage for all to see, should they so wish to look. Responding promptly and politely to address the concerns of customers demonstrates that you are a brand to be trusted and, even if things do go wrong from time to time, you do your very best to resolve issues.
Other benefits of open conversations
Though it is not strictly necessary for business/customer conversations to be in the public domain, there are other benefits of engaging in such conversations which, in the long run, can improve your customer care and marketing goals.
By interacting directly with your customer, you are able to offer rapid solutions to their needs such as pointing them in the direction of help articles, special offers or new products. More importantly, it reduces the likelihood of existing customers looking elsewhere for solutions.
Understanding your customer
Market surveys and projected trends are all very well, but they pale in comparison with the amount of information that can be gleaned from direct conversations with your customers.
This also helps you refine products and documentation, for example: If forty-three customers tweet asking about the price of a new product you’ve recently added to your catalogue, let’s say a surfboard, then you can ascertain that either the price hasn’t been added to the webpage or that it isn’t an intuitive layout and customers are getting confused. Likewise, if customers engage with you about something they love, it shows what direction your business could do well to capitalise on.
By simply talking pleasantly and openly to your customers you are building trust. They want to know that you are there to provide solutions to their problems and there is no better way of showing prospective customers that you provide a good customer support experience than a series of tweets or posts answering these problems in a prompt, patient and, most importantly, personal way.
The thing is, you’re not just there for a fun chinwag, your business has to make the money. Once a customer is engaged in an open conversation which is held accountable by anyone who wishes to read it in the public domain, you can start to suggest new and better solutions.
Talk about town
Finally, it’s nice to be nice. Customers who are treated well and the people who observe such interactions are far more likely to think of your brand when recommending businesses to friends, family and colleagues. In some small way, your customer feels a kinship and partial ownership of your brand and by passing it on, they can take a little credit for your great products and services. Think of them as championing your brand… And you can have many of them.
Though open conversations with your customers can provide a platform to show off your expertise and your accessibility, it does come with drawbacks, especially for less experienced businesses whose products or services have not yet matured. But, there is no way around it, you have to be as accessible as you can be, offering a range of support options to your customers. If you are lacking the confidence to engage in a public forum, make a point of moving the query to a private conversation and take note of any trends in what people are asking of you. In this way, you can solve whatever perceived issue you are faced with as quickly as possible before the negative public posts have a chance to stack up.
Oliver Kennett is an author and freelance copywriter living in Bristol. A graduate in both law and engineering, he enjoys exploring science, technology and social impact through his writing. As well as clients in the technology, tourism, legal and lifestyle sectors, he has written extensively for charity. In his spare time he writes short stories and novels for children and adults in the horror, sci-fi, fantasy and humour genres.Read full profile