Image: ID 96660940 © Nipon Temsakun | Dreamstime.com
Words can be powerful. Nowhere is this more apparent to me than in Belgium, where I’m on the hunt for a new assignment. It’s proving challenging, but not because I lack the expert skills and experience of a transformation professional. Pas du tout!
In this tiny country, being trilingual is the norm. There are even secondary school education programmes where scientific subjects are taught in English, history in French and Maths in Dutch. Geweldig! I’ll wager good money that the average Belgian teenager speaks English and Dutch better than their UK counterparts.
It may sound like a cliche but Britons are the worst at learning other languages. In a recent survey by ESOL, 62% of people in the UK speak only English, and only 38% can make themselves understood in another tongue. Compare this to the 56% of Europeans who speak one other language, and the 28% who speak two! Half of EU citizens can hold a conversation in English.
At my level of seniority English is usually the business language of choice. Still, I feel at a disadvantage if I cannot express myself in fluent Dutch or French. I spent 6 months learning Dutch and practicing it as often as I can. It’s not perfect, but after 2 years I can describe what I do and how I do it and I’ve got to the point where Flemish Belgians do not switch automatically to English when they hear me speak, though they do make fun of my accent. I’m following an evening class in photography and make presentations in Dutch, so ‘ik spreek nederlands’. French is another story.
All of this has got me thinking about how important language is. Of course it’s possible to create cross-cultural rapport without the benefit of bilingualism, but somehow putting yourself in someone else’s shoes by being able to communicate in more than one language goes a long way – both personally and professionally. Shared vocabulary makes for greater connection, which is much needed in the digital echo-chamber we call work.
On the high-speed up to London this week – a totally hilarious announcement from the train operating company. ‘We apologise for the lack of available seating on the train this morning. This is due to excess passenger loading’. What on earth!? Apart from loud guffaws and wry smiles from the passengers, this maladroit message got me thinking about the importance of corporate language.
In advertising speak it is called ‘tone of voice’ but in an increasingly connected world, what you say to customers is just as important as how you say it. A badly worded customer message is as likely to be trending on Twitter as a bake-off recipe – only the results are probably not as tasty. So how can companies get it right?
Know your customer!
Yep, this is pretty obvious, right? In retail it’s key that your ‘message’ is consistent across all customer touch points whether in the real world or the virtual one. Increasingly this means that organisations are reliant on robust customer data. The rise of Omni-channel retailing is challenging CMOs everywhere to think carefully about how they spend their budget in order to improve the bottom line. Continuing to bombard your customers with those annoying internet adverts long after they’ve purchased the actual item in question can be detrimental to your brand, and will disengage your target market. So data is a vital ingredient in keeping the message fresh and relevant.
Integrate, then innovate!
In the absence of a complete, accurate view of your customer base across your sales, CRM, campaign management and delivery mechanisms, you are simply keeping fingers crossed and hoping that the right message is getting through at the right time. The stats I’ve seen estimate that 20-30% of operational expenses are directly related to bad data. This is because poor data quality drives bad market intelligence, which in turn magnifies the inaccuracies of your strategic marketing decisions. Having a marketing strategy with data quality at it’s cornerstone, and a business plan that integrates IT and creativity, can mean better customer information, and a more finely focused way of engaging and delighting your audience. No point in spending big bucks on advertising if the message is wrong. You will just annoy, instead of inspire.
Customers are the lifeblood of any retail organisation. So what you say is as important as how you say it. In the words of Michael leBoeuf : ‘A satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all!’
It could just be me, but I’m beginning to notice an alarming retail trend. Smartphones may have revolutionised communication, but I’m not so sure about the inexorable rise of the SMS notification when you’ve ordered something online. On one hand, it’s hard to object to this type of customer interaction. Today’s tech-savvy shoppers are far more demanding. It’s a rapid reassurance that what you’ve ordered has been acknowledged, and is on it’s way. Deployed correctly, it can help to build trust in the brand and connect the dots between internal operational systems and customer touchpoints.
Online grocer, Ocado have this down to a fine art – I know exactly when the monthly shop I’ve ordered will arrive, the colour of the delivery van and the name of the driver. SMS has other uses too. Having my bank statement texted to me every week helps serves as a timely reminder to help me keep track of my spending. So too, knowing well in advance that the Dover:Calais ferry has been delayed allows me to adjust travel plans accordingly.
So far, so good… That is until it all goes awry. I was sharply reminded of the pitfalls of technology when I unexpected received an SMS giving me notification that my ‘goods’ were going to be delivered on Monday. Said goods were actually a champagne ‘thank you’ from a colleague and were of course, intended to be a surprise. Well, surprise spoiled by SMS! Hmmm… Within minutes another SMS saying the goods were definitely going to be arriving on Monday – this time from the logistics company despatching the order. Hmmm… Of course, they didn’t, much to the annoyance of my colleague who had paid a premium for a ‘named day delivery’.
Net result. A new customer who is angry and disappointed. A potential customer who waited in on delivery day while her champagne languished in a depot in Ashford! And, a complete lack of trust in the company who supplied the goods. And no follow up from the company, even when they realised something had gone wrong. This is the reason why machines will never rule the world! Nevertheless I’m amazed by the number of times this keeps happening. As sites like Etsy and Notonthehighstreet.com make online commerce more accessible to small entrepreneurs and their client base, automatic notification systems are multiplying like topsy. Logistics companies are particular culprits!
The inherent flaw is that if you are reliant on a third party to despatch and deliver your goods, you have no control over how and when these reach your customer. So having customer-centric systems is a vital element to this particular type of supply chain. Getting it wrong can damage your brand, and seriously affect your bottom line – critical if you are a small retailer, just as important if you are a large one. Technology might facilitate e-commerce, but it’s human beings that make the world turn.