Finding your (non-)voice — the move to a written customer experience

March 7, 2019

I’ll make this short: The thing you’re doing now, reading prose on a screen, is going out of fashion.

An article on the New York Times opens with these words. The irony isn’t lost on us.

The article argues that text and the written word are dying, and Audio and Video will be our new overlords from now on. Or something to that effect: the king is dead, long live the king.
Haven’t read something so wrong in years. Words are great at being words. Or, to paraphrase the writer Douglas Adams: Words are sharks.

Adams once described books as sharks. Sharks were swimming the oceans before there were dinosaurs, and “the reason sharks are still in the ocean is that nothing is better at being a shark than a shark.” Books, he argued, are sharks, too. The right size. Never run out of charge, don’t break, don’t crash. Great UX: ridiculously user-friendly.

Words are sharks, too.

Nothing is better at being words than words. They are universal. They are easy and practical and cheap. They’re quick. You can make words out of nearly anything. Some words have lasted thousands of years. Some words might — what with these millennial and their internet — last forever.

The words Fuck the police sprayed on a wall will give you a pretty clear message. Clearer than, for example, walking into an art gallery to look at pieces that explore the yoke of power authorities in our modern, consumerist society. Sure, we love gifs and emojis — but we’re not going to end up teaching them to kids in pre-school. You can quote me on that.

Facebook bots are a good example of this.

Enter the first 11,000 Bots

When Facebook launched its chatbots for Messenger, it gave the public access to thousands of new bots. This was big news.

You probably remember the bot race. Overnight, every company, startup and agency scrambled to get their own bots live. You didn’t want to be that one company without a bot. 3 months after the Facebook launch, there were 11,000 active chatbots on Facebook.

This was more than just a hype, a bandwagon, or a fad. In theory, they were good for customer support. They were good for sales. They served everybody the same way. At the same time. The bots were even good for clients, who could find support immediately, at any hour of the day. And they weren’t particularly expensive to deploy.

The appeal of these bots, although most people didn’t realize it at the time, was the power of non-voice.

In fact, non-voice channels seem to be exactly what the customer is looking for. According to data from the 2017 Aspect Consumer Experience Index, customer interactions through voice channels have decreased 10% in the past 2 years, and 59% of consumers prefer customer service that doesn’t involve talking.

In short, non-voice — whether we’re talking about bots, live chat, or other channels — is good for business.

Finding your (non-)voice — the move to a written customer experience

The thing about voice…

… it’s expensive.

Deploying the human voice in your business is really expensive. If the company you work for is truly — or wants to be — global, then you need customer service and sales people that speak 192 different languages, running 24h a day, to give global support to all your potential clients. People that have to be trained, managed, and occasionally replaced.

Not only expensive, traditional voice support doesn’t even have a high customer satisfaction level. An eDigital Customer Service Benchmark survey found that live chat had the highest customer satisfaction levels at 73%, compared to 61% for email support, and only 44% for traditional phone support.

Artificial voice is cheaper — but not by much. 60 years after the first chatbot was invented, we still have only a coterie of “functional” voicebots, from the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft.

If you’ve had any experience with them, they’re ridiculously hard to get right: raise expectations too high, and you’re on the fast track to disappointment. To be global, you need voice recognition to work well (which is hard), on any language (harder), on any accent (epic levels of hard here).

By 2017, Alexa could still only speak one language. Siri speaks 21, but there have been complaints about how she can still be so poor at understanding what the user says in regular English. Complaints about Siri not getting regional accents, from Boston to Southern American to Scottish, have plagued Apple for years now.

So that’s where non-voice comes in: where it had always been. As I mentioned earlier, words are sharks.

Non-voice for customer service

Cheaper, quicker, easier to deploy, easier to understand, more versatile and inclusive: all hail the written word!

But which channels should you consider for your business? Nearly three quarters of US internet users agree that it’s very important for companies to offer a wide variety of customer service channels, according to research by Aspect. You’ve got your classic email ticketing system, the emergent live chat, popular self-service channels such as chatbots and FAQs, but also social media channels, forums, even smartphone apps — there’s always an app for that.

Generally speaking:

That said, there is no formula here. The channels you should provide are the channels your particular customers use the most:

First of all, analyse the interactions between you and your customers. Are those repetitive, simple queries, that could easily be turned into FAQs or scripts for chatbots? Do they require a more hands on approach?

Know your audience. For example, if your customers are mainly millennials, maybe you should consider self-service channels. They’re not that much into talking to other humans. And they hate talking to anybody on the phone. In fact, Help Desk claims 72% of millennials literally do not want to talk to your customer service team, which is probably why Gartner claims that by 2020, only 15% of customer interactions will be handled by humans.

Geography matters. According to a survey by LivePerson, for instance, European countries tend to be more receptive to chatbots. Americans, though, aren’t so hot on bots — 59% said they preferred talking to a human.

Finding your (non-)voice — the move to a written customer experience

The basic tenets of non-voice

As you deploy non-voice channels in your business, there are 5 things you should keep in mind:

#1 K.I.S.S. me

Most internet users understand basic commands: login, buy, download, upload. Keeping it simple (easy to use and easy to understand) is your first objective.

If what you’re making isn’t simple enough to be used without an instruction manual or if what you’re saying isn’t simple enough to understand without a FAQ section, chances are you might not be saying it right.

So, it might be hard, but you could conceivably craft your company’s website to be so easy and basic even a kindergartner could use it: it has been done before.

The easier it is, of course, the easier it will be to translate. Which means you can reach wider and wider audiences as you go along.

#2 Find your own (non-)voice

“Can you dial up the millennial?”

“Can you make it sound more premium?”

If you’re asking this sort of thing, you might want to rethink.

Get to know your audience. Get familiar with the competition. Get to know yourself and where you want your company to go. Somewhere in the middle you’ll find the sweet spot and speak in a way that will resonate with the people you want to reach.

Start speaking like the company you want to become. Is your brand conservative, or is it quirky and humorous?

Different contexts and people call for different uses of language registers, different tones of voice. When it comes to customer service, humor or not, you should always keep in mind the person you’re talking to, the channel you’re using, and the topic of the conversation.

Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. If you’re addressing a complex customer support issue, or dealing with angry customers, maybe it’s not the right time to crack jokes. Show empathy, reformulate the question to show that you have carefully read the message, and use a professional, polite, and warm tone.

#3 Stick to it

A friend asked me for feedback on their company’s new brand book the other day. On page 5, there was a list of “forbidden words” — words the company would never, ever use.

On page 6, one of those words is used as an example for a print ad’s copy.

Consistency is key. On your website, in your emails, across all your media. If you’re going to surprise, make sure it’s delightful, not because you’ve neglected your own brand.

#4 Automate, thoughtfully

In a study conducted by eMarketer, when asked about the most important aspect of a good digital customer experience, 38% of users said it was getting their issue solved in a single interaction, while 26% said it was receiving a speedy and timely response.

You can automate many common queries through the use of chabots. But, just like with managing a knowledge base or help centre, you’ll need to ensure that there’s an up-to-date library of content feeding the chatbots. The results can be brilliant, with 62% of consumers saying chatbots provide faster customer support.

Plus, AI is fast, cheap, and scalable. It doesn’t need to be hired, trained, or fired. It doesn’t need to sleep, and it certainly doesn’t a three-week vacation to get away from the slack notification madness (alas, the tragedy of the digital commons).

But it’s also not meant to replace the human at the frontline:

Remember, automation is great, if – and only if – it brings you closer to your customer.

Your customers are just looking to get their questions answered. If your chatbots don’t actually solve customer queries, they’ll end up duplicating support processes, frustrating customers and customer support agents alike.

It all comes down to making smart decisions and understanding where AI can help you achieve better results, increase customer satisfaction, cut down costs, scale operations, and have a better, more personalized customer experience.

#5 Talk the talk

Being multilingual is no longer a choice. Half the world is online, and translation is becoming increasingly central to digital businesses looking for a global reach. A European Commission report found that “42% of consumers said they never purchase products and services with sales and support in other languages.” (it’s right there in page 18).

But when it comes to speaking your customers’ languages, keeping a call center stocked with an international community of CSAs to rival the Eurovision Song Contest is not exactly an option.

Unbabel worries about that so you won’t have to, helping you serve customers in any language, with fast, fully integrated multilingual support where your customers need it most.

If there’s nothing else you’ll take from this — maybe you’ve found yourself here at the end after casually scrolling through the article, hoping for a conclusion that will sum it all up and wrap it nicely, preferably with a recurring anecdote from the beginning that creates a satisfying narrative loop — there’s two things I want you to leave here with.

The first is: the key to a successful customer experience, voice or not, is to focus on the customer, to provide channels that will provide the most meaningful interactions. Does that mean traditional phone support? Great. Does it mean self-service and chatbots? That’s great too.

The second thing is: written word is not going anywhere. And yes, you can quote me on that.

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