Thursday, May 17, 2007

Don't Get Cute (Or, Context Counts)

Another note on customer communications: start with an honest assessment of what your customers really think about you.

The other day this appeared in my mailbox:

Some background: here in Houston, Comcast is taking over the local Time Warner cable franchise. We've seen some news items about it, but nothing has really changed yet - but apparently, a month from now, it becomes official, we all become Comcast customers, etc.

Sending out a booklet explaining what will happen is a very good idea. But as I flipped through this piece, it was actually a bit offputting.

What do most customers think about the cable company? I don't think I've ever heard of anyone loving it. My take, from comments from people I know, is that Time Warner has earned a "well, they're OK" from locals. The service basically works, though not having a broadband outage twice a month might be nice. The TV service generally works, though the DVR they give you is an impenetrable beast that makes you long for a Tivo, especially when it randomly decides to simply not record something (that happens regularly). The rates seem to go up fairly often, and new charges like a rental fee for the cable modem you got for "free" when you signed up appear on your bill.

Probably the most enthusiastic thing you'll hear from a customer is "They don't suck" or "Well, their internet service is better than using AT&T." And that's not entirely their fault; a cable company is one of those businesses that almost nobody will ever love, because you're stuck with them. They're always going to be a couples circles of hell out from the IRS and the DMV.

So when you find something in your mail promising to help you "cope with more awesomeness," it's hard not to roll your eyes. Were we getting "awesomeness" now?

It doesn't help that the booklet is filled with overly cute cartoons that are, I think, supposed to be humor. Like this:

And this:

That last is, I think, supposed to be funny because we are in Texas. (My reaction was, "Somebody in New Jersey who doesn't know Houston from Hinckley came up with that one.")

Here's the important question that I think didn't get asked before this was created: How do these customers we're about the acquire feel about their cable company right now?

And so while there's useful information in the piece, the general take-away from it is, "Wow, I bet this turns out to be a lot more annoying than they claim."

The right tone, I think, would be slick, professional, and reassuring, perhaps with a chart of "what's changing/what's not," a specific call-out for people who pay their bills online or have them delivered by a bank-sponsored bill presentment service (that's me, and I still an unclear on what will happen next month), some information about how many customers they serve and any good stats on customer satisfaction they've found... in other words, things to tell us that it will be okay.

It also doesn't help that the piece looks like an ad from a company that's unknown to people here. If someone missed the news stories about the switch, it would be easy to throw away. A plain, boring cover with a Time Warner logo on it would have worked better.

Step one: know your audience, and don't kid yourself that they love you when they probably don't. Your communications will be more successful if they are rooted in the reader or viewer's perceptions of the world. It can be hard when those perceptions aren't what you'd like, but you'll never change their minds if you don't know what they think in the first place.

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